30 May 2005

A strong sense of time and place

Hillside School (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

At BAHA’s annual membership meeting, State Historic Preservation Officer Milford Wayne Donaldson addressed a capacity audience on the subject of historic districts. Quoting Aristotle, he reminded us that “men come together in cities; they remain together in order to live the good life.”

Donaldson traced the beginnings of the preservation movement to the 19th century, citing the 1853 preservation of Mount Vernon by Ann Pamela Cunningham and a group of dedicated women as the first step that launched the movement. He told us that from an initial focus on period rooms and single house museums, the preservation movement has grown to encompass complexes of buildings, ranging from the outdoor museums of Colonial Williamsburg to historic districts in cities and towns across the land.

The concept of preservation was broadened to encompass neighborhoods in 1931, when the city council of Charleston, SC, zoned a neighborhood known as the Battery as an “old and historic district,” said the SHPO. This action changed the path of historic preservation, taking it into the realm of professional planning, while considering buildings of less than national significance as worthy of attention.

The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 included the word “district” among the types of resources the Secretary of the Interior was to list in the National Register of Historic Places. So from the beginning, districts have been an integral part of the National Register program.

A district is defined by the National Register as possessing a significant concentration, linkage, or continuity of sites, buildings, structures, or objects united historically or aesthetically by plan or physical development. A district is a visually cohesive and contiguous grouping of resources that have a common architectural identity and a shared history. Collectively, the grouping conveys a strong sense of past time and place.

“It is the sense of time and place that Berkeley needs to recognize. You are not Orange County,” said Donaldson, drawing applause.

He added that California, like most of the western states, tends to have problems with the creation of historic districts. Quoting James Marston Fitch’s statement “In historic districts [...] the stylistic parameters are visually evident for all to see. Thus, conformity is easier to judge and enforce,” Donaldson noted: “Not so in Berkeley. In the case of our architecturally eclectic streetscapes, judgements as to what is ‘beautiful’ or ‘appropriate’ are subjective opinions.”

Since Berkeley is a Certified Local Government with its Landmarks Preservation Commission and an advocacy group such as BAHA, controversy as to the appropriate design and preservation of the visual integrity becomes heightened. It is easier when dealing with Charleston, New Orleans, or Society Hill in Philadelphia, where the design is more or less in the same idiom, and architectural style is evident.

But the fact seems to be that historic designation review and, more importantly, embracing the local advocacy group, has worked well. In city after city—in Boston’s Quincy Market area; New York’s SOHO; San Francisco’s Waterfront; San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter; San Antonio’s River Walk district—designation works. If anything, these places may suffer from too much success from a Berkeley perspective, since cultural tourism can overwhelm the neighborhoods.

In the last analysis, the major benefits of design control in a historic district are urbanistic rather than architectural. As long as the City of Berkeley views such controls through the special perspective of architect or developer, as with most redevelopment projects, historic district designation and design review may appear to impose onerous restrictions on their freedom of action. But if the city looks at the issue from the broader point of view of the citizens of Berkeley, who may live and work in these newly designated districts, the whole matter takes on another light. In fact, the high rents, minuscule vacancy ratios, and soaring property values to be found in these controlled areas suggest that historic districs preserve the quality of life and a sense of place. It is not so much a question of preferring “Georgian” at Annapolis, Creole at New Orleans, Spanish Colonial at Monterey; it is rather the sense of blessed relief that such controlled environments give the citizen a chance to be uniquely identified and escape from the visual and sonic chaos of the typical, uncontrolled American streetscape. You throw in the social drama of Berkeley, and you have a very special place.

Surprisingly, there has been very little district nomination activity in Berkeley. The Berkeley Civic Center was listed in the National Register in 1998. Panoramic Hill was approved by the State Historic Resources Commission in February and is currently being reviewed by the National Park Service. The historic core of the University of California’s Berkeley campus is listed as California Landmark No. 946. But there must be many neighborhoods in Berkeley that would qualify for the listing. The Greenwood Common area is an excellent example of mid-20th century modernism and would certainly qualify in the area of architecture, as would any of the neighborhoods with good concentrations of Arts & Crafts and Period Revival. Districts would not necessarily need to have been designed by signature architects, nor would they need to represent one style of architecture. Collections of older commercial buildings might qualify in the area of commercial development.

Another trend is toward the creation of Neighborhood Conservation Districts. These offer community-based solutions aimed at protecting an area’s distinctive character and may receive funding from the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Critical Issues Fund. Although these neighborhoods may not merit designation as a historic district, they warrant special land-use attention owing to their distinctive character and importance as viable contributing areas to the community at large. Thirty U.S. cities have Neighborhood Conservation Districts.

The California Main Street program relies on the creation of historic districts as partners to help solve the inner-city problems of crime, drug sales, prostitution, poverty, physical deterioration, property abandonment, and demolition. Phase development and implementation of neighborhood development, affordable housing, and the creation of historic districts and preservation programs are the key to revitalization. It is absolutely pramount that the planning process include not only the traditional partners but the interest, generosity, and flexibility of a local group like BAHA.

Another trend toward the creation of historic districts to prevent loss of place is well illustrated by Pasadena and the construction of the Long Beach Freeway. Since 1973 and the planning of this right-of-way, five historic districts with 1,500 homes and 7,000 mature trees have been created. The Low Build alternative with intercity street corridors is now under way.

Berkeley is one of a few communities that promote the positive need for variety in urban life. It was perhaps the understanding of this vitalizing challenge that caused interurban residents in the 1960s to be more interested in the renewal of Berkeley than in the fresh building of modern garden communities.

Like other similar communities, Berkeley faces two principal challenges in the future: increasing population size and the attendant increase in land values. There is an optimum numerical size beyond which each further increment of inhabitants creates difficulties out of all proportion to the benefits. The creation of historic districts can help direct planning efforts and control growth to a certain degree. Past incremental growth areas are good candidates for districts: the block-by-block development, the shopping neighborhood, or the corridor avenue of the past created regions of congestion. Enter the earlier trolleys, Ashby Station, BART. As we look back, these areas now look small, pastoral, and ripe for historic districts, frozen in a time that none of us can really remember.

Limitations in size, density, and expansion area are absolutely necessary to effective social intercourse. They are therefore the most important instruments of rational economic and civil planning. The unwillingness to establish such limits in Berkeley has been due mainly to two facts. The first was the assumption that all upward changes in magnitude are signs of progress and automatically “good for business.” The second was the belief that such limitations are essentially arbitrary, reduce the opportunity to profit from congestion, and halt the inevitable course of change. In Berkeley, where there is a public demand for maintaining quality of life and a sense of place, these objections are groundless.

The increase in property values will eventually promote urban growth and paralyze those social functions you cherish. Without the creation of historic districts, unless strict planning and design guidelines are in place, higher property values will lead to demolition, inappropriate and out-of-scale additions, or large in-fill structures. Without the creation of historic districts and design guidelines to follow, BAHA will face battle after battle for each new development within your community. Don’t let Berkeley become another Laguna Beach, La Jolla, Pleasanton, Tracy, or Santa Cruz.

In summary, Berkeley is a related collection of primary groups and purposive associations unique in California. The first, like family and neighborhood, are common to all communities, while the second are especially characteristic of Berkeley’s city life. These areas form the nexus of a historic district to tell the continuing story of social culture and the group drama. For Berkeley, it’s important not to dwell too long on the physical attributes of individual structures but rather on the social activities within the context of these structures. You are not the forced Spanish Revival of Santa Barbara, the modern movement of Palm Springs, or the Mission Revival neighborhoods of Riverside.

Berkeley is the social creation of different opportunities, specialized interests, intensively trained aptitudes, discriminations and selections, all leading to the significant collection of Berkeley drama, told through its people. If you keep the scale, keep the communities and your spirit of culture, Berkeley will be Berkeley.

23 May 2005

SHPO Wayne Donaldson speaks at Hillside School

Hillside School Auditorium (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

BAHA’s annual Members’ Meeting and Preservation Awards Ceremony will take place on Thursday, 26 May, in the auditorium of the Hillside School (Walter H. Ratcliff, Jr., 1925; #82000961, National Register of Historic Places), 1581 Le Roy Avenue at Buena Vista Way.

The keynote speaker will be California’s State Historic Preservation Officer Milford Wayne Donaldson, FAIA. Inducted into the national AIA College of Fellows in 1992, Mr. Donaldson was decorated as the Preservationist of the Year by the California Preservation Foundation in 1995 and received more than twenty awards for the House of Hospitality reconstruction in San Diego’s Balboa Park. He is one of the leading figures in preservation architecture in California and the Western U.S., most notably for the restoration of San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter, now a National Historic Landmark District.

Mr. Donaldson is affiliated with several historical and preservation organizations and is a past president of the California Preservation Foundation (CPF) and past chair of the State Historical Building Safety Board, the State Historical Resources Commission, and the Historic State Capitol Commission.

The doors will open at 6:00 pm, with dinner (catered by Poulet, with dessert by Gregoire) at 6:30, the business meeting at 7:30, and the program and awards ceremony at 8:00. All members are invited to the business meeting and the program.

Dinner is by reservation only and costs $30 per person. For dinner reservations, please send a check made out to BAHA to:
BAHA Dinner
P.O. Box 1137
Berkeley, CA 94701

Reservations will be held at the door.

You may also pay online.

20 May 2005

ABC 7 Listens community feedback meeting

ABC 7 Listens is an ongoing community outreach project started by KGO-TV/ABC 7 News. Community meetings are held every month at different locations around the Bay Area.

The next ABC 7 Listens community feedback meeting will be held in Berkeley on Wednesday, 25 May, from 7:30 to 9:00 pm at Dwinelle Hall, Room 160, on the U.C. campus.

Local residents and people involved in Berkeley groups and organizations are invited to participate. Story ideas and feedback on KGO’s news coverage are sought.

Reporter Heather Ishimaru and several news managers will be present. A news camera will record parts of the meeting.

Space is limited. RSVP via e-mail to abc7listens@kgo-tv.com or call the Public Affairs Department at (415) 954-7702.

12 May 2005

Demolitions, integrity, and
Structures of Merit

The Squires Block (left) at Shattuck Avenue and Vine Street (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2005)

I’m relieved that enough Planning Commissioners last night manifested the common sense to rein in the zeal of others who were intent on stripping the Landmarks Preservation Commission of all its meaningful powers, and especially the power to deny demolitions.

Yet some grave perils to our Landmarks Preservation Ordinance are still ahead. When Planning Commissioners Burke and Wengraf recommended “strict adherence to the standards of integrity set out by the Secretary of Interior standards, as recommended by the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO),” they subverted the spirit of the SHPO’s own language, which was quite inclusive and allows a building to be designated on the strength of its historic, cultural, or social merits quite apart from any architectural merit or integrity it may or may not possess.

On the issue of Structures of Merit, Burke and Wengraf’s recommendation was to abolish the designation for now and to “create a new designation with lesser protections, distinct from a landmark designation, as suggested by SHPO.” Again, the SHPO never suggested such a thing. It merely asked the LPC to think about the issue of having two separate categories with equal protections.

I’ll say it again: the SHPO asked the LPC—not the Planning Commission or any other body unqualified to deal with architectural and historic resources. The LPC was going to deliberate the Structure-of-Merit issue at a later date. Let the experts do their job without meddling.

Especially in light of the real-estate interests’ outcry for architectural integrity in landmarks, the Structure of Merit category makes eminent sense, for it allows buildings that have been altered but retain their historic, cultural, educational, or social significance to be designated and protected.

What Berkeleyan would want this city to lose the Durant Hotel, or the Weisbrod Building at 2001 San Pablo, or Weltevreden (the Cal Band house) on the Northside, or the Squires Block at Shattuck and Vine? These are all designated Structures of Merit. The appellation “Merit” was not given without reason.

See Berkeley’s Structures of Merit here.

The Landmarks Preservation Ordinance’s Section 3.24.110 Landmarks, historic districts and structures of merit—Designation—Criteria for consideration.

11 May 2005

Whither goes our Landmarks Ordinance?

Yesterday I received an e-mail from a depressed colleague in Nebraska. He wrote:
Here in Lincoln, the only Progressive on our city council was voted out of office May 3 with the help of tons of negative (and false, twisted) radio, TV and print advertising paid for by the Nebraska Republican Party.

I told him that on our city council, everybody is a Democrat, but you wouldn’t know it from the way they kiss up to developers and sell the city’s interests away.

He replied:
We have the same problem with developers in Lincoln. Several members of the Lancaster County Board are developers, and the rest support the developers’ agenda. The County Board has overruled its own planning commission many times to approve new developments that violate our comprehensive plan. And now the city council is developer-oriented, too.

Monday night at the Berkeley Landmarks Preservation Commission meeting, Commissioner Patti Dacey expressed herself eloquently on the subject. Later she expanded her discourse in writing:
Berkeley neighborhoods are under real-estate speculation pressures unknown since the 1960s. The hideous apartment buildings and out-of-scale developments that still scar our flatland neighborhoods stand as testimony to the conditions that gave rise to our Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance and our Landmarks Preservation Ordinance in the first place. These conditions seems to be making a real comeback. Now, the Planning Commission is finishing up a very ill-conceived rewrite of our LPO that basically strips huge amounts of protection from the flatland neighborhoods while greasing the way for real-estate speculators.

These changes are essentially an attack on the flatland neighborhoods. What is ironic (or perhaps par for the course) is one of the leaders of this attack is Helen Burke, Linda Maio’s appointee to the Planning Commission and the Chair of the Creeks taskforce. Ms. Burke evidently believes that creeks deserve more protection than our flatland neighborhoods and our homes. Our vibrant, diverse, and unique flatland neighbornoods are being set up as economic opportunity zones that deserve even less protection than the small amount granted now. The proposed amendments also contradict the letter and the spirit of the General Plan, without any analysis why that document should be trashed.

People who love their neighborhoods need to really understand what is being lost in this process. Neighbors need to understand exactly who is plotting the gutting of the LPO. I can even give you examples of the ignorance of preservationist law displayed by the people who are rewriting the Landmark Preservation Ordinance to aid developers.

I fear the fix is in, and we are being sold down the river by an elitist and class-based agenda to sacrifice the flats to big developers. If you do not believe that the flatlands should be sacrificed to real-estate speculators, let your council people know. If we don’t take care of our neighborhoods, I assure you that the Planning staff will not. Just witness the mischief and the inappropriate actions taken by staff around the “Flying Cottage.”

Read also:
Canary in the Coal Mine: Berkeley’s Landmarks Ordinance by Zelda Bronstein for the Berkeley Daily Planet

Revising landmark law by John English

Letters by attorney Susan Brandt-Hawley on behalf of BAHA to the Planning Commission regarding the latter’s proposed amendments to the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance:
27 April 2005
11 May 2005

04 May 2005

Reception for Burl Willes’ postcard books

Mrs. Dalloway’s bookstore at 2904 College Avenue will host a reception for Burl Willes and contributors to Picturing Berkeley: A Postcard History, just released in paperback, and Burl’s new hardcover book of vintage postcards, The Monterey Peninsula: A Postcard Journey.

The reception will take place on Wednesday, 11 May, at 6 pm. Telephone: (510) 704-8222.

03 May 2005

Panoramic Hill tour photos

Tour goers inspect Walter T. Steilberg’s 1930 Fabricrete cottage
on Mosswood Lane. (photo: Daniella Thompson, May 2005)

Our 30th annual Spring House Tour, held on Sunday, 1 May, was one of the most successful in BAHA’s tour history. Approximately 1,500 tour goers climbed up and down the leafy paths and stairs of Panoramic Hill with the obligatory guidebook in hand. Their exertions were rewarded by perfect weather, stupendous vistas, lovely gardens in full bloom, and vintage homes in a great variety of architectural styles.

A glimpse of the participants and what they saw on the tour is available in four special Photo Gallery pages.