Neighbors battling the American Baptist Seminary of the West’s plans to demolish two buildings and expand its campus were given a last chance to voice their concerns at Thursday’s Zoning Adjustment Board meeting, and they spoke in one cohesive voice — asking the board to stop the church.
On the dividing line of Dwight and Benvenue avenues — where the UC Berkeley campus meets a typical Berkeley residential neighborhood — are two cottages that neighbors want to preserve and that the Landmark Preservation Commission has deemed worthy as “structures of merit.” But church officials say the buildings are being used as an excuse to stop them from expanding their campus.
In addition, the seminary argued that the city could not landmark its grounds without its consent, but also that the two houses were not worthy of protected status.
Last night the Zoning Adjustment Board cleared the way for the seminary to demolish the cottages and move closer to its expansion plans.
Recently City Attorney Manuela Alberquerque also quesitoned the authority of the city to landmark the cottages without the owners’ consent.
“The city has no right to landmark the buildings,” said David Levy, the seminary’s lawyer. “The code says that a non-commercial property owned by a religiously affiliated association or nonprofit organization cannot be landmarked if the owner objects.”
Seminary President Ken Russell said his organization has tried to be sensitive to the residents’ concerns and also to properties they consider worthy of landmark status.
“When we had part of our campus landmarked two years ago [by the city], it was done with the understanding that the corner of the property where these cottages are located wouldn’t be landmarked,” he said.
“We don’t believe that these have enough historical significance and we need space for expansion on our own campus.”
This previous agreement, said Levy, is another reason the city does not have the right to interfere.
“The point of the agreement was to exclude the property now at issue to allow the Seminary to use the property. You know what property is like in Berkeley. They have to make use of what they have,” he added in a previous interview.
But the neighbors have vowed to continue to fight the expansion of the campus because the buioding is simply not right for the neighborhood.
Some have even stated that the difficulty they’ve faced in thisd process is indicative of how pro-development the city planning staff and attorney’s office are.
“[Berkeley city planning staff] decide who needs an environmental impact report or who can get around it with a negative declaration waiver. There are ways to push things through and the city planners make those ways available to developer,” said Sharon Hudson, a vocal oponent of seminary expansion plans. “And some of the legal decisions of the city attorney have led many in the community to call her incompetent. People say that all the time, that she’s incompetent.”
Hudson said that the city attorney has on several occasions provided bad advice to the various commissions and boards, which have influenced “these civilains into voting on the side of a developer and against the neighbors.”
City planner Mark Rhoads did not return phone calls for a comment.
But officials at the seminary have alleged that community resistance is less about the buildings than it is about race.
Seminary President Russell underscored this complaint and added that the seminary has consistently tried to be good neighbors.
“We’ve been here since the early 1900s providing a safe, stable space for theneighborhood,” he said.
Stopping short of calling the neighbors racist, Russell said he is absolutely perplexed by the amount of animosity. Pointing to the school’s racial and cultural diversity, small size and landscaped grounds, he said the seminary should be a neighborhood asset everyone can agree on.
“I’m just wondering out loud why there’s such resistance to a small, primarily black institution that is an anchor for the neighborhood,” he aaded.
The Zoning Adjustment Board’s decision to allow the demolition of two cottages in question was not well received by the neighbors. But they have vowed to continue to fight the project.