Could there be a “Trump Tower” in downtown Berkeley? (Public Comment)

Steven Finacom
Sunday January 08, 2017 - 12:16:00 PM
A graphic representation of the proposed “Sky Deck” signage atop Downtown Berkeley’s highest building. Under current City staff interpretations, this could just as easily read “Trump Tower”
A graphic representation of the proposed “Sky Deck” signage atop Downtown Berkeley’s highest building. Under current City staff interpretations, this could just as easily read “Trump Tower”

Did that provocative headline get your attention? I hope it did.

The good news is that there is not—yet—any such proposal for a building emblazoned with signage saying “Trump Tower” looming over Berkeley.  

The bad news is that if such a naming proposal were to be made, City staff would allow it and issue it an over-the-counter permit. 

Many people will remember the controversial yellow, lighted, “Power Bar” lighted sign that defaced the top of 2150 Shattuck Avenue, the tall dark bronze building at Center and Shattuck, next to the BART station entrance. 

That was eventually taken down and replaced with a “Chase” Bank lighted logo atop the building. The Chase logo lighted signs were recently taken down. 

Now there’s a pending proposal to blazon “Sky Deck” in huge lighted letters twenty-eight feet long across the top of the building on the east (facing the hills and the UC campus) and on the south, facing down Shattuck Avenue. “Sky Deck” is the tenant of the top floor of the building, and they’ve acquired the “naming rights” from the building owners. 

When the proposal was submitted, City of Berkeley staff tweaked it a bit here and there, and issued an administrative permit. They saw no problems with the proposal. 

Hence my headline. If the Trump organization, or some similar controversial entity, got it into its mind to buy or lease the naming rights to that same building, or one of the 190+ foot high-rises planned to be built Downtown, they could similarly get an over the counter permit without any public notice other than a small administrative notice temporarily posted on the facade. 

I recently appealed the “Sky Deck” proposal. 

The matter is set for public hearing Thursday, January 19, at the City of Berkeley Design Review Committee. That’s where it should be stopped. 

Here’s why I’ve made the appeal. 

(1) City policy under the Downtown Plan prohibits the proposed signage. 

Here’s the relevant wording. “Signs on Taller Buildings: Architecture, not advertising, should define the upper elevations of buildings, especially those visible from beyond the Downtown. Commercial signage, advertising signage (including emblems or logos) or building name signage should be avoided on (or) adjacent to the roofs of buildings in Downtown. 

That seems clear enough, doesn’t it?

The lighted “Sky Deck” signs are proposed to be 28 feet long, along two sides of the building, above the roof level. They would be mounted on the metal screen that surrounds the mechanical equipment at the very top of the building—the screen enclosure is a “penthouse” in architectural parlance. 

I’m familiar with this because after the Chase logo signs were approved by staff, I proposed part of the signage wording quoted above to the Planning Commission and they were supportive and adopted it. 

But here’s how the City staff have now reinterpreted things to allow the “Sky Deck” sign. 

Sorry, they said, the Downtown Plan doesn’t apply here because the City’s signage ordinance wasn’t also amended to include this language. This should be a caution to anyone, including City Council members, who think that a “Plan” has legal force in the City. If something in the Plan isn’t convenient, it can be ignored by the people charged with implementing it if there’s some other more lenient City policy they can cite. 

(2) Even if the “Sky Deck” sign were to be allowed, the proposed sign is above the actual roof level of the building. A roof is a roof is a roof. But City staff appear to have re-interpreted the “roof” of the building to be the highest elevation, which would be the top of the penthouse. 

This is nonsensical, no more rational than saying that your chimney or satellite TV dish constitutes the “roof” of your home. The penthouse of 2150 Shattuck isn’t the roof. It’s standing on and above the roof, and it has no roof itself. It’s just an open air enclosure. 

No problem, the staff opine. It has a wall (even if that wall is just a screen) so it’s fair game as a place to put a lighted sign. And according to the staff it’s “in the spirit” of a wall sign, not a roof sign. 

This makes a total mockery of the Plan language. Under the staff interpretation lighted signage can go as high as possible on the building, as long as it’s not on a new scaffolding built above the structure. 

(3) The City staff are also allowing the “Sky Deck” proposal not as advertising, but as “building identification signage.” 

This was the same fiction used to justify the “Chase” bank logos. The building owners, in that case, said fine, we’re happy to have our building called the “Chase Building”. 

Except, once the signs were approved, I could not find anything showing that the building name actually changed. It was still marketed and identified as “2150 Shattuck”. If you looked for an office rental under the name “Chase Building” in Berkeley, nada. If you searched for “2150 Shattuck”, you found listings. Similarly, the low facade and lobby of the building next to the BART plaza never lost their “2150 Shattuck” identification signs.  

My expectation is that the same thing will happen with the “Sky Deck Building”. The signs will go up but you’ll never hear about the “Sky Deck Building”. You’ll just see the sign. It will be, in fact, advertising for a tenant, not “building identification”. 

Why does this issue matter? 

The resolution of the “Sky Deck” proposal has major ramifications for the future of Downtown and the skyline tens of thousands of Berkeleyeans and visitors see every day from City streets, campus buildings, and homes.  

Several “tall” buildings, some of them as high or higher than 2150 Shattuck, are permitted under the Downtown Plan. Two have already been approved. The skyline of Downtown could be festooned with lighted advertising signs that will be as prominent on the Berkeley skyline as the Campanile. 

Next week or next month a proposal could come in for similar lighted advertising signage atop the already permitted “Harold Way” building or Downtown Hotel, and the City staff would presumably approve it under the same rationale they’re using for “Sky Deck”. 

Do you agree that in Berkeley, as the Downtown Plan says, “Architecture, not advertising, should define the upper elevations of buildings, especially those visible from beyond the Downtown”? 

If so, please join in supporting my appeal. 

You can write to the Design Review Committee. Please email your comments next week—Tuesday, January 10, would be a safe deadline—to get them into the official packet for the DRC on January 19.  

Send written comments by email to the Design Review Committee, care of Anne Burns, Design Review Planner. ABurns@cityofberkeley.info 

You can attend the DRC meeting on January 19 and speak in person during the public hearing. The meeting should be at 7:00 at the North Berkeley Senior Center in one of the upstairs meeting rooms.  

Watch here for the agenda, which should appear by January 13 or 14. http://www.cityofberkeley.info/DesignReview/ 

You can read staff reports and my appeal here in the December 2015 agenda packet: