08 July 2005

Letter to the City Council re: proposed revisions to the LPO

Friday, 8 July 2005
To: Mayor and City Council
From: Daniella Thompson
Subject: Proposed revisions to the LPO

Honorable Mayor and City Council:

On 12 July I will be away from Berkeley and won’t be able to attend your public hearing on revisions to the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance (LPO).

Let me state at the outset that I’m a modern-architecture enthusiast. I have been a big city dweller all my life (Berkeley is the smallest city in which I’ve lived) and find nothing objectionable about tall buildings and a mix of modern and traditional architecture in the downtown area. Both San Francisco’s and Oakland’s downtowns benefit from variations in height and style.

What I do find objectionable are repeated attempts in connection with many construction projects to subvert the letter and the spirit of the City’s stated policies, the General Plan, the Downtown Plan, and the Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance. Too many of these attempts have been successful, resulting in inappropriate structures with questionable lasting value and little esthetic contribution to Berkeley’s built environment. Perhaps that is the reason why Berkeley’s downtown and major arteries look so shoddy.

Shoddy buildings and shoddy streets drive away paying customers. Why spend time and money in a tacky environment when one has the option of shopping or living in pleasant surroundings? Time and again it has been proven that preserving a city’s built heritage pays off. Our own Fourth Street and the adjacent Ocean View Historic District serve as ample proof.

Ocean View
Ocean View Historic District (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

At times, it appears that our Landmarks Preservation Ordinance is the final bulwark standing in the way of wholesale bulldozing of the city’s past. It is no wonder that residents who are affected by inappropriate development sometimes seize on the LPO as their last resort. Had our planning mechanisms worked as they should, there would be no need for this kind of desperate action. But Berkeley’s planning mechanisms don’t work as they should.

Clearly, designating this or that building a Landmark is not an effective way to protect historic neighborhoods. What Berkeley’s neighborhoods require are Neighborhood Conservation District zoning overlays that add a level of protection to selected neighborhoods. Many American cities have adopted Neighborhood Conservation District ordinances or similar zoning tools that help protect the historic fabric without the need to initiate individual structures within the selected neighborhoods.

Our LPO is not broken, and the Planning Commission’s proposed revisions will not improve it. These revisions will certainly not solve the problems outlined above but only exacerbate them. Requests for Determination will generate an unsustainable workload for the LPC and Planning staff, who would be required to devote a great deal of time to vetting them instead of doing what they’re there to do. Furthermore, the proposed RFD will curtail public participation in a process that is required by law to be open and inclusive.

Reducing protections for Structures of Merit is a negative way to deal with the problem of neighbors vs. developers. As the creator of the Berkeley Landmarks website, I have made it my business to know every Structure of Merit in town. Since the inception of the LPO, only 36 buildings have been designated Structures of Merit. Of these, three were later redesignated as Landmarks and four were demolished, leaving us with 29 standing Structures of Merit. You can see them all here and judge for yourselves how they contribute to the built environment.

I always cite the Structure of Merit across the street from my house. It is Weltevreden, now known as Tellefsen Hall—the Cal Band’s house. Once the most celebrated residence in Berkeley, it is cited in many architectural history books. Heavily altered in the 1950s, Weltevreden nevertheless remains a significant structure that deserves full CEQA protection. See it here.

Some pro-development advocates want to see the Structures of Merit category go away, so that neighbors would not “abuse” it. If Berkeley had Neighborhood Conservation Districts, no one would look upon Structures of Merit as the last resort, and we’d be able to protect our heritage without controversy.

We all want a healthy, beautiful, and vibrant city. A strong Landmarks Preservation Ordinance is an important tool that needs to be properly understood and shouldn’t be hastily revised, especially when the revisions signify major reductions in historic and environmental protections.

The Landmarks Preservation Commissioners appointed by you voted unanimously to recommend that a third-party expert be retained to examine the LPO. This is a prudent way to proceed. Would that you’ll see the wisdom in it and act accordingly.

Daniella Thompson
Berkeley, CA


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