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Press Release: Berkeley Planning Commission Approves Zoning Overlay to Save Historic Buildings

From Mike Lonergan, Save the Post Office
Friday August 29, 2014 - 05:42:00 PM

In two unanimous votes the Berkeley Planning Commission approved the Civic Center Historic District Zoning Overlay Wednesday night. The District Zoning Overlay protects Berkeley's historic public buildings from commercial development.

The first vote accepted a finding from the Berkeley Planning Department that the District Zoning Overlay will have no environmental effect. The second vote approved the overlay ordinance as written in the citizen's initiative, Measure R. The District Zoning Overlay will go to Berkeley City Council for discussion and approval at their September 9 meeting. 

In November, 2013, the Planning Commissioners approved by majority vote a similar overlay ordinance. When that overlay ordinance stalled at the City Council level, Berkeley voters collected signatures for a ballot initiative to enact the District Zoning Overlay and promote sustainable development in the downtown area that benefits the entire community.

By April, Berkeley voters obtained sufficient signatures to qualify the Overlay and Sustainable Development Initiative for the November ballot, now designated as Measure R. On June 24, 2014, the Mayor and Council moved by consent calendar a request to “the City Manager to draft an ordinance establishing a Civic Center District Overlay Zone and to bring it to the Council for a first reading at the Sept. 9, 2014 meeting. The ordinance should be consistent with the Civic Center District Overlay section of the proposed initiative ordinance.”

When presenting the District Zoning Overlay to the Commission, staff stated that there would be no effect on any of the existing uses of property in the Civic Center Historic District even if those uses are non-conforming.

Berkeley Planning Department staff said the effect of its declaration of no environmental impact is that the overlay only gives direction to development but does not authorize any project. Any future project will have to go through its own environmental review.

Attorneys for the United States Postal Service, Clark Morrison of Cox, Castle, Nicholson, submitted a lengthy written protest of the District Zoning Overlay. While the US Postal Service has notoriously ignored public comment, last night their attorneys cried foul alleging that the schedule for the “public comment period forecloses meaningful public participation.”

And while USPS has revised federal regulations to provide itself with an exemption to environmental review on closing facilities, last night the USPS asserted the need for environmental review to assess the potential of urban decay from the District Zoning Overlay.

Furthermore, the cash-strapped postal service was able to hire an additional consultant who wrote that preserving Berkeley’s Main Post Office requires a “new multi-story development within the existing building envelope.” The consultant’s report held that: “It is not likely that reuse of all or part of the approximately 57,000 gross square foot Post Office building space ‘as-is’ would generate value sufficient to assure the necessary preservation and restoration of the historic features of the building.”

Berkeley Planning Department staff advised the Commissioners that in their opinion the USPS legal protests are without merit. 

Speakers from the community asked the Commission to work to keep postal services where they are and to recognize the importance of public spaces. One referred to the buildings of Berkeley’s Civic Center as architectural masterpieces that were passed on to us as part of the public commons and must be maintained for future generations.

Harvey Smith, President of the National New Deal Preservation Association, spoke to the one hundred year history of Berkeley’s Civic Center and noted that under the New Deal, development was exclusively for public purposes, but in the last few decades use decisions have been developer-driven.

Steve Finacom of the Berkeley Historical Society, referred to the legacy of Werner Hegemann, Berkeley’s first city planner, whose goal in planning was the proper coordination of all the needs of the public and bringing the civic, business and campus functions of the city into harmony. Mr. Finacom said “Our predecessors worked very hard to build the civic commons we have today. Our downtown will not decay if developers cannot get their hands on the post office. It is not necessary to convert the public space we have inherited to public profit.”

In voting to pass the Civic Center Historic District Zoning Overlay, Commissioner Dan Lindheim said his support for the Overlay was independent of post office issues and was based on the benefits of the Civic Center District Overlay to all of Berkeley's Civic Center. Commission Chairman Jim Novosel added in agreement that his vote was also determined by the benefits to the entire Civic Center from the District Zoning Overlay.

Minutes of the Planning Commission meeting may be found at