Oops. The Daily Planet’s reporter caught me trying to suppress a giggle or two as I watched last week’s meeting of the Planning Commission’s subcommittee on the Landmark Preservation Ordinance revisions. It’s true, the spectacle of Planning Department staff grappling with arcane concepts like “integrity” from the specialized world of historic resource preservation can look pretty silly to anyone who knows anything about what they’re trying to talk about.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m no expert myself. But what I did learn in seven plus years on the Landmarks Preservation Commission is that the first thing you have to know is what you don’t know. I went to lots of conferences and training sessions sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the California Preservation Foundation and the California State Office of Historic Preservation. I read many books and papers on the subject. But in the last analysis, what I learned is that there’s always a lot more to learn about preserving history for future generations.
Berkeley is a Certified Local Government, which means that it follows the State Office of Historic Preservation’s rules for choosing historic resource commissioners—Landmarks Preservation Commissioners, in Berkeley terminology—who have some degree of expertise in the subject matter. When I was on the commission, my fellow commissioners were almost all considerably more expert than I was. And more important, they were considerably better educated in the subject than any of the many city staff members who served in the revolving door position of commission secretary in the whole seven-year period. They devoted four of those seven years to the tedious task of updating their enabling ordinance, the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance (LPO). The draft ordinance they produced represented a lot of study and a lot of compromises. I voted for it myself because I respected the process that produced it, not because I thought it was perfect.
A few provisions of the new ordinance, notably those that deal with alteration permits, require the addition of supporting language to Berkeley’s zoning ordinance. Like all zoning ordinance changes, these must be approved by the Planning Commission. But the Planning Commission, in what would be describe in less politically sensitive cities as “a naked power grab,” has decided to ask city staff to produce revisions for the whole LPO. Further, some members even suggested that the whole LPO be placed in the zoning ordinance so that it would be under Planning Commission jurisdiction. The City Council didn’t ask them to do any of this, and it’s not in their charter, but they’ve gone ahead anyway.
Planning Commission Chair Harry Pollack has his own reasons for being annoyed with the existing ordinance, of course. He was Temple Beth El’s point man in their successful effort to get city approval for a controversial building project, which came before the LPC because it’s on a historic site. His organization eventually got everything they wanted from the city, though it took a while. It was a lengthy and tedious process, also stirring up the creek advocacy contingent, and it’s not surprising that someone who went through it might think the rules should be completely changed. But that’s not the current charge that the City Council has given to the commissions, not to the LPC and certainly not to the Planning Commission.
The meeting I attended last week was graced by the presence of City Attorney Zach Cowan, Planning Department chief Dan Marks, Current Planning Director Mark Rhoades and LPC secretary Giselle Sorensen. Discussion got off into deeply uncharted waters on frivolous topics like landmarking Mario Savio’s student apartment, and yes, Virginia, they all looked somewhat silly, and I couldn’t help laughing a bit.
Sometimes it’s better to laugh than to cry. But when I added up in my head the expenditure of burdened salaries required for the presence of so many high-level staff members, it came to well over a thousand dollars just for the two-hour meeting. As Berkeley is contemplating severe cutbacks in badly needed city services, that’s a fair chunk of change to expend in a couple of hours on something that the city council does not think is a priority. Multiplied by several subcommittee meetings and even more off-line staff time, this is turning out to be a very expensive wild goose chase for the Planning Commission to be engaged upon.
Chair Pollack is appointed by City Councilmember Gordon Wozniak, who is making something of a reputation for himself by questioning unnecessary expenditures in the budget. This might be a good opportunity for the two of them to discuss whether or not it’s the right time for the Planning Commission to be taking off on creating yet another LPO draft, which could easily cost $100,000 in staff time before it’s done.