The city of Berkeley has reached an agreement with Concerned Library Users over a lawsuit the group filed to stop the demolition and rebuilding of the South and West branches of the Berkeley Public Library.

In a closed session on Tuesday evening, the city council voted to settle the lawsuit by creating a $100,000 fund to provide grants to preserve historic buildings in the city’s south and west neighborhoods, according to Zach Cowan, the City attorney. The city also agreed to pay $15,000 in legal fees to CLU’s attorney, Susan Brandt-Hawley, bringing to $24,000 the fees it has paid her. In exchange, CLU will not try to stop the rebuilding of the two branches.

“Although there is an element of highway robbery to it, it eliminates any uncertainty,” said Cowan. “When you need to get on with something and it’s going to cost a lot not to — people are going to take advantage of that.”

“We are relieved that this is over,” Elisabeth Watson, president of the Berkeley Public Library Foundation said in a press release, “and thrilled that the new branches will go forward with little or no impact on the construction schedule. Instead of fighting lawsuits, the City and the Library can focus on what matters – equitable, state-of-the art library services for every neighborhood in Berkeley.”

The settlement comes three days before the two sides were scheduled to meet in Alameda County Superior Court, and ends the threat that the Claremont and North branches of the library would be extensively remodeled and the South and West branches would not. It also means reconstruction can stay on schedule with the goal of reopening the South and West branches in 2013.

In September 2010, Concerned Library Users filed a lawsuit against the city contending that it could not use bond monies raised from Measure FF to tear down the South or West branches and rebuild them. CLU said that the language of the $26 million bond measure did not mention anything about demolition, but only about remodeling.

Library supporters were concerned that the lawsuit would stretch out the timeline for the branch reconstruction, costs would rise, and there would not be enough money in the bond measure to pay for all the planned renovations.

CLU members urged the city to renovate the two libraries because they considered them historically important. The group hired Todd Jersey, the Berkeley architect who renovated the Richmond Plunge, to create plans that would preserve the structures. Jersey later apologized to the city for getting in the middle of the dispute. He said he thought his ideas could bring about reconciliation, but they did not.

In December 2010, the city and CLU reached a partial settlement of the lawsuit when the city agreed to repeal an ordinance that only required the libraries to get a use permit, rather than a variance, when remodeling the branches. CLU had contended the city needed to do an EIR to pass that new law. The city agreed to the settlement – and paid $9,000 to Brandt-Hawley – because it was already planning to do an EIR.

A local group calling itself New Libraries Now, which included city councilmembers Darryl Moore, Max Anderson and Linda Maio, held protests outside City Hall in April in support of renovating the South and West branches. Members pointed out that those buildings were in sections of town with large African-American populations and intimated there was some racial prejudice behind the lawsuit.

The composition of Concerned Library Users has been a mystery since its inception and has led to speculation on how many members it has and who is  funding its activities. The only person named on the lawsuit as part of the group is Judith Epstein, who lives in the Elmwood district. Epstein, who opposed the library’s use of electronic RFID devices on books, has participated in other lawsuits to stop projects in the past, most notably one against the city and the commercial realtor, John Gordon.

A group called the Elmwood Neighborhood Associations, of which Epstein was a member, filed a lawsuit against Gordon and Berkeley to stop a large restaurant from going into the old Wright’s Garage building on Ashby Avenue near College Avenue. The group contended that the city did not put the project through the proper environmental review before issuing a permit. The lawsuit was settled and Gordon let his restaurant use permit lapse.

Many library supporters questioned the size of Concerned Library Users and expressed concern that a handful of people could stop construction on needed library renovations. Library supporters pointed out that the lawsuit would adversely impact the least affluent sections of Berkeley.

Brandt-Hawley told Berkeleyside in December that CLU was a vibrant group but had to keep a low profile because there was so much hostility against its members.

“They have a right to privacy,” said Brandt-Hawley. “This is a controversial matter and they want their privacy protected. It is a group. It is not just Judith Epstein. It is a group of people who care a lot about the libraries. It is inappropriate to assume it is just one person.”

The $100,000 preservation fund will be administered by the National Historic Preservation Society. Daniella Thompson,former president of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, said the funds will not go very far in preserving buildings.

“It’s a very small grant,” said Thompson. “$100,000 is not going to take you very far. But, I suppose, it’s better than nothing.”

BAHA was not a plaintiff in the lawsuit against Berkeley, but supported its aims.

“The whole library boondoggle is a sad affair,” said Thompson. “It’s a sad affair because it’s been painted with racist terms at the cost of some good architecture that is going to be lost. I am disappointed. Both of those library are historical resources. It would be the city’s loss to demolish them.”

Related posts:
$1 million for branch libraries; lawsuit pending [12-1-10]
Berkeley reaches partial settlement with library critics [12-15-10]
Debate on future of two city libraries sparks concerns [4-14-11]
Rally planned to bring attention to library lawsuit [4-25-11]
Berkelyans rally to move forward on library renovations [4-27-11]
Library architect apologizes to Berkeley [6-22-11]

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...