Benjamin Bartlett has helped BHS students organize against CLU lawsuit

Dozens of church leaders, community activists, students, and library supporters plan to stage a rally outside city hall on Tuesday to call attention to a lawsuit they believe could stop construction of new libraries in the southern and western parts of Berkeley.

The group, which is calling itself New Libraries Now, plans to hoist pickets right before the City Council meeting. They want to let the members of Concerned Library Users, a small group that is suing the city over plans to tear down and rebuild the south and west branches, know that many residents disagree with their tactics.

“I am concerned about the lawsuit because I think is might jeopardize the building of south and west libraries if we get tied up in court for a long period of time,” said Darryl Moore, a city councilman whose office has been working with the group. “The rally is to educate the community about the lawsuit and to voice our disapproval of the lawsuit.”

The Zoning Adjustments Board approved a final EIR for the branch library improvement program on April 14 and use permits to tear down and rebuild the two branches. The city council has set a May 17 public hearing date on the issue.

Ben Bartlett, who owns Bartlett’s Coffee on Kittredge near Milvia, is concerned that the lawsuit will delay construction and drive up costs, ultimately scuttling the two projects. He is worried that the libraries in the more affluent sections of town – the Elmwood District and north Berkeley – will get redone, leaving the poorer sections of town with substandard facilities.

“The more I learned, the more incensed I became that they would try to stop the two libraries that serve low-income people,” said Bartlett. “These people are preventing us from getting good libraries.”

Bartlett tutors at Berkeley High and many students visit his coffee shop for drinks and sandwiches each day at lunch. When he learned about the lawsuit and its possible effects, he encouraged students to take action. They circulated a petition against the lawsuit at the high school and collected more than 500 signatures in a few days, he said.

On Friday, Bartlett was getting ready to mail more than 100 postcards against the lawsuit signed by students. He planned to mail them to Judith Epstein, an Elmwood resident and the only publicly identified member of Concerned Library Users.

“I respect your right to express your concerns and file lawsuits,” reads the postcard. “But the South and West Berkeley communities have expressed their views, and they want these libraries to go forward.”

Postcard mailed to Judith Epstein of Concerned Library Users

Kiyatta Porter-Robinson, 16, a junior at Berkeley High, was so worried about the lawsuit she came into Bartlett’s on Friday afternoon to help with the postcards.

“Mr. Bartlett told me about the lawsuit,” said Porter-Robinson. “I thought it was ridiculous. I want people to learn. The library is supposed to help people learn.”

Concerned Library Users filed a lawsuit against the city in September 2010, contending that the wording of Measure FF, which authorized the sale of $26 million in bonds, did not allow the city to demolish any branches, only remodel them. Nowhere in the measure does it state the money can be used to tear down and rebuild structures, the group argues.

The wording on the ballot reads “Shall the City of Berkeley issue general obligation bonds not exceeding $26,000,000 to renovate, expand, and make seismic and access improvements at four neighborhood branch libraries, but not the Central Library, with annual reporting by the Library Board to the City Council?”

While the city believes it has the right to use Measure FF funds to demolish the two branches, City Attorney Zach Cowan has recommended that the city use general funds instead as a precautionary measure.

Other groups have expressed concern about the wording of Measure FF and do not believe it permits any demolition of library branches.

“This is a good government issue entirely separate from the merits of the currently proposed projects,” Daniella Thompson, the president of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association wrote in a letter to the city. “It is not acceptable public policy to take funds approved by the voters for a very specific purpose and redirect them to a purpose that was not mentioned.”

BAHA, however, did not join CLU in its lawsuit against the city.

In addition to the good government question, CLU is opposed to the demolition of west and south branches because of their historic merit. The group hired Todd Jersey, the architect who renovated the historic Richmond Plunge, to prepare plans that would preserve some of the historic features of the south and west branches. CLU submitted them as part of the EIR process.

CLU thinks that Jersey’s designs would not only preserve the distinct architectural features of the south and west branches, but would in some cases provide more space and actually cost less than the designs put forth by the city.

“By saving some of the old structures… the designs submitted by CLU… are more environmentally responsible,” Epstein wrote in the March issue of the Claremont-Elmwood Neighborhood Association newsletter.

Todd Jersey Architects rendering of renovated West Branch

Library officials disagree. They said they asked their architects to examine remodeling rather than rebuilding the west and south branches, but the condition and design of the buildings made that approach unfeasible. Either it was too expensive or did not provide sufficient space for programming. The buildings were also in such bad shape that they could not be repaired — a fundamental concept of historic preservation.  Instead, new materials would have to be used.

City officials hired an independent cost estimator to examine Jersey’s plans and provide an analysis. The firm determined that Jersey had low-balled the cost of remodeling the two branches. Jersey’s design for the west branch, for example, adds 3,131 square feet to the project. While Jersey said it would cost $4.8 million to implement his design, the independent architectural firm estimated it would actually cost $6.4 million.

In addition, while Jersey’s designs “preserve the appearance” of the buildings, they don’t actually meet the standards for historic preservation under environmental laws because they would take out so much original material.

Berkeleyside sent a list of questions about the lawsuit and Jersey’s designs to CLU’s lawyer, but no one from the group responded.

Talks between CLU and the city to settle this part of the lawsuit (another part was already settled) have not been fruitful, according to Councilman Moore. The city and CLU have a court hearing scheduled for late May.

There is a chance the CLU will file another lawsuit if the City Council approves and adopts the final EIR.

“The way the people in the current case are processed, they might file a lawsuit against the city if the projects are approved,” said City Attorney Cowan. If that happens, the cases will probably be combined and wouldn’t be heard until the end of 2011.

In the meantime, many community members are angry at what they perceive of as a last-minute intervention by CLU. Where were these people during the extensive community hearings the library held during the past few years, said Shirley Brower, who helped organized community focus groups on the south side of town.

“Once again, a small group of people with shortsightedness are not seeing the needs of the entire community,” said Brower. “We will lose time and once again south will not get a new library. That’s my fear. A lot of resources will be put into the lawsuit. In this recession, I am worried the library will remain the same.

Update, 5:18pm: The New Libraries Now! rally takes place at 6:00pm on Tuesday April 25 outside Berkeley’s Old City Hall.

Note: Judith Epstein expressed concern about some of the comments made about her in previous Berkeleyside stories. She said some of the comments made by readers were potentially libelous because they ascribed motivations to her. Epstein had her lawyer contact Berkeleyside about her concerns. Please focus remarks about this story, the rally, the plans and the lawsuit to the group, Concerned Library Users, rather than Epstein directly.

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...