The Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) will decide on Feb. 26 whether to demolish the 1891 Ellen Blood House at 2526 Durant Ave., a City Structure of Merit, to make way for a new project.
The property owner, Ruegg & Ellsworth, did not work with the community or advance any good-faith plans that maintain the historic house, claiming that it was impossible to make a profit on the site with the house on it. However, alternative proposals by local architect Mark Gillem contradict that assertion. And under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), the house should be preserved if a viable alternative exists to save it. But even if such an alternative did not exist, ZAB would still have to find an “overriding” reason to destroy the house—in this case, that the city so desperately needs the project’s 44 units of housing that it should throw a historic resource under the bulldozers.
ZAB is not empowered to substitute its own judgment for that of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, an expert body; only the city council can do that. And under CEQA, there is no distinction between landmarks and structures of merit, because CEQA allows each community to preserve its history in its own desired way. Some resources might be valued for their extraordinary beauty, some as vernacular examples, yet others because they provide a supportive context for community values. All are equal under CEQA. The judgment of historic value is not within the purview or expertise of ZAB.
Not counting this project, housing for about 1,500 new residents is under way or completed in Berkeley’s Southside. Like this project, most of these are cookie-cutter student units. Not so the Blood House, a unique, 3,000-square-foot, homey old building of the kind most Berkeleyans love. But are there happy students living there now? Oh no! The Blood House is now illegally being used for offices, feeding institutional creep and reducing the housing supply. For 17 years, Ruegg/Ellsworth has avoided using the Blood House for its only legal purpose: rent-controlled housing.
Nothing unusual here: David Ruegg and Robert Ellsworth and their business successors (through several companies including Ruegg & Ellsworth and Rue-Ell Enterprises, all simplified here as Ruegg/Ellsworth), have dominated Southside development for four decades, and not to the good.
In 1968 they bought the neo-classical 1923 Masonic Clubhouse at 2590 Bancroft Way, demolished it, and gave us the blank-faced baby-box retail complex that now houses Urban Outfitters and a parking garage. In 1969 they bought 2518 Durant Ave., demolished a unique 1924 Gothic-style church and replaced it with the Tower Records bunker mall. In 1966 Rue-Ell bought the stately 1921 Albra Apartments at 2532 Durant Ave. Immediately they asked permission to add an “office addition” to the front. Since an office seemed quiet and non-damaging to the building residents, the city granted permission. Within months, the office had been converted into a fast-food restaurant (Top Dog), a vibrant red goiter strangling the formerly elegant Albra entrance. Good food; bad building.
And what happened to the inside of the Albra? Eight spacious, multi-room units with basement and garage space were gradually converted to office use. Students moving into the characterless rabbit warrens being built today have lost many an opportunity to live in the spacious, hardwood-floored, high-ceilinged units that have disappeared under the watch of Ruegg/Ellsworth.
Ruegg/Ellsworth also owns other properties around Southside, including the formica feedlot at 2521 Durant Ave., formerly inhabited by an elegant 1901 mansion that housed first a senator and later 30 students. This and other no-longer-historic Southside Ruegg/Ellsworth properties are underutilized by today’s standards and are good alternative sites for new large, multi-story, mixed-use developments that can accommodate the housing we need on Southside.
Under the Southside Plan (SSP), the 2500 block of Durant Avenue should become a showcase for mixed-use, high-density, car-free living. Both current zoning and the SSP encourage car-free development in this location, and Durant Avenue will remain the most pedestrian-oriented stretch of Southside. We owe ourselves and thousands of future residents and visitors a unique, pleasant, and interesting street.
What makes such a street? Architecture displaying an interesting variety of size, shape, and style spanning a century, which still exists on Durant Avenue, is a very good place to start. In recognition of this, the SSP calls specifically for preserving historic buildings on Southside.
Thanks to the hard work of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA) and the Landmarks Preservation Commission, Southside historical assets have been “creatively re-used” in three recent projects: Westminster House on at 2700 Bancroft Way, where a cozy Cambridge-styled courtyard complex was formed; the First Presbyterian Church project, where an early brown-shingle school will be relocated in an original new site plan; and the Edwards House project at 2530 Dwight Way, where an 1886 house was gracefully incorporated into a project that looks like home but houses more people than the apartments next door.
These efforts demonstrate what is possible when a developer works with the community to maximize Berkeley’s potential. In contrast, the current Blood House proposal shows a disgraceful lack of will and poverty of imagination.
Durant now has an opportunity for truly exciting development. Ruegg/Ellsworth owns the Blood House site and both adjoining properties, making three sites in a row with historic assets. As part of a comprehensive plan, the Blood House would remain where it protects the landmark next door, the Beau Sky. Top Dog could be relocated to reveal the Albra Apartments. The ugly and underutilized parking areas behind all three buildings could be joined to create interesting living spaces. If Ruegg/Ellsworth is not up to the task, it is better to leave the lot alone and wait for a developer with vision than to lose our history and our potential.
The Ruegg/Ellsworth plan destroys the Blood House and packs the site with a huge block of rabbit warrens. The location, small size, and no-frills design of the units is aimed only at students, and yet the applicant insists that the building is for long-term residents who will need 18 parking spaces. Nobody believes this. The parking spaces currently on the site have been illegally rented to the Beau Sky Hotel for many years, which is ironic since under Rue-Ell ownership, a perfectly good rooming house was converted to the hotel on the claim that the hotel would require no parking. Why, we could house 45 people simply by converting it back again! In any case, one might assume that illegal use of the proposed parking by others would continue apace.
Another architect, Mark Gillem, has submitted alternative plans for the site that achieve 38 to 40 units of housing, provide equivalent profitability, and save the Blood House. Slightly smaller than the Ruegg & Ellsworth plan, they also reduce the mass and shadow impacts on the street and surrounding buildings. How is this apparent miracle achieved? By removing the parking spaces that are unnecessary for the users of the new building, are not required under current zoning, and contradict the goals of the Southside Plan. So ZAB will have to decide whether (1) to uphold local planning goals and preserve an irreplaceable part of Berkeley’s culture, or (2) to give a questionable parking lot to a property owner that has already laid waste to so many historic buildings, undermined our housing stock, and used the site illegally for decades. I hope they can figure out what to do.