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UC Hotel Sites Get City Landmark Status

Friday June 11, 2004

The Landmarks Commission designated three new Berkeley landmarks Monday night, but admirers of only one of the buildings (the Ace Hardware store on University Avenue) will be able to rest comfortably with that fact. The remaining two landmark sites are on UC Berkeley-owned property earmarked for possible demolition for the proposed downtown university-owned hotel, conference center and museums complex. 

Meanwhile, at the beginning of Monday’s meeting, Commissioner Leslie Emmington rose as a member of the public to vent her frustration with city officials for failing to include the commission among the city panels canvassed for comment on the controversial UC Long Range Development Plan (LRDP). 

“The university will develop significantly within the townscape and have significant impacts,” she said, adding that “the last time the university presented a Long Range Development Plan, we were consulted.” 

Berkeley Planning Director Dan Marks agreed, saying that the plan hadn’t been sent to the commission because of “an oversight.” He then urged commissioners to send in their comments by the end of the week. 

But the major news at the Landmarks Commission meeting was the three new landmarked buildings. The biggest new addition to the landmark list is the University Press Building at the northwest corner of Center and Oxford streets—a 1939 New Deal Moderne creation where the original copies of the United Nations Charter were printed in 1945 for the signatures of delegates gathered in San Francisco for the U.N.’s founding. 

The other UC-owned property landmarked by the commission on Monday, incorporating storefronts stretched along 2154 to 2160 University Avenue, sits on a site the university has indicated may house a parking structure for the hotel complex. 

The five-store storefront complex was built in 1911 adjacent to the terminus of the local railroad and streetcar systems, and reflects the Berkeley of the years of the first mass transit age. The building has been commercially viable throughout its history, said commissioner Robert Johnson, who drafted the proposal for landmark designation. 

Tim Wang, proprietor of the highly popular Eudemonia game store at 2154 University Ave., endorsed the landmarking. “We as tenants really love this building, and our customers do too,” he said. “It’s one of the most commercially viable parts of Berkeley. It’s a shame that the university is trying to take this part of the city down.” 

Manesh Sharma, proprietor of the India Palace at 2160 University, said, “We’d love to stay, and we have good business there.” 

Interim Commission Chair Jill Korte tempered the enthusiasm by stating the obvious: “Because the university owns the building, they can choose to demolish it. But by designating it as a landmark, we are sending them a message.” 

“Because it’s landmarked, at least they have to comply with CEQA,” said commissioner Carrie Olson. The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires even the university to spell out its justification for destroying a landmarked structure. 

Commissioner Becky O’Malley said the panel should consider creating a downtown historic district, which would include all the buildings of merit in the city center. O’Malley is the executive editor of the Berkeley Daily Planet. 

The vote to landmark the structure was unanimous. 

The other University Avenue building landmarked Monday—the Berkeley Ace Hardware Store, designed by noted Berkeley architect James Plachek—is just across the street at 2145, originally the Sills Grocery and Hardware building. 

Since its construction in 1915, the building has housed only four tenants. After Sills came Appleton Grocery, which took over the property 10 years later, followed in 1940 by the first Montgomery Ward store on the West Coast. Ace took over in 1964. 

The building is the last remaining stand-alone store designed by the Czech-born Plachek, whose other creations include the Berkeley Public Library, the Berkeley Civic Center building, and Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco. The building was created for William J. Acheson, whose father built the city’s first hotel. 

Seven commissioners voted for the landmarking, with two members abstaining—new appointee Steven Winkel (replacing Burton Edwards) and Robert Stevenson, sitting in for the absent Adam Weiss. 

The most controversial proposal facing the commissioners called for radical changes to two properties included in the recently landmarked Oceanview Sisterna Historic District, created by the commission on March 1. 

Developer Gary Feiner proposed to turn the two single-family cottages at 2104 and 2108 Sixth Street into duplexes. While the structure of 2108 had been landmarked, the commission included only the grounds of 2104 because the dwelling had been already been significantly altered by previous owners. 

Feiner had appealed the decision on 2104, further complicating the process. Both neighbors and commissioners worried that the revisions were both too large and too similar to fit in with the unique character of a neighborhood where each Victorian displays a distinct individuality.  

Neighbors came out in force to protest the proposed mitigated negative declaration on the project issued by Debra Sanderson of the city Planning Department, which would have authorized Feiner to move ahead without any further scrutiny. Neighbors objected to the size of Feiner’s proposed remodels, their impacts on adjoining properties, and what several called the city’s failure to provide adequate notice of his plans. 

Feiner indicated a willingness to work with commissioners, who appointed a subcommittee to handle the project.  

While Planning Director Dan Marks told commissioners Monday night that there was no opportunity to reopen the EIR process, Senior Planner Gisele Sorensen notified commissioners by e-mail Tuesday afternoon that Marks had checked with Sanderson and learned the negative declaration hadn’t yet been filed with the county. 

Marks then ordered her not to sign and record the document, and directed his staff to give commissioners a chance to review the document before a final decision is made.  

The proposal will return to the commission next month, with a final hearing expected at the August meeting so that neighbors Neal and Elise Blumenfeld—now in New York where Elise is undergoing medical treatment—can be present.4