Five years after closure, Berkeley Iceland is derelict and graffittied. Photo: Sports Basement

Mayor Tom Bates fell on his butt there. Susan Wengraf and Gordon Wozniak fondly recalled children’s parties there. There was a wave of nostalgia for Berkeley Iceland at last night’s City Council meeting, from both council members and residents providing public comment. But the passionate efforts of Save Berkeley Iceland, the campaign that hoped to resurrect a skating rink at the landmarked building, failed after a 7-0 vote to affirm the Zoning Adjustments Board’s decision to allow retailer Sports Basement to adapt the structure at 2727 Milvia for a new store.

“This is in some ways a very sad day, and in some ways something positive,” Bates said. “It would have been great to [bring back] the rink. It would have been fabulous. But there is not a viable way to make it work.”

The only dissenting voice on the council was Darryl Moore, who abstained in the vote. His motion to call for a public hearing on the project, which would have created another two months’ delay, failed for lack of a second.

David Rumberg, one of the partners who own Sports Basement, told Moore that it was important to reach a conclusion at the council meeting.

“I’m burning through cash,” Rumberg said. “I had a burn rate of 17 months and we’ve gone beyond that, because I believe in our product and I believe in our approach.”

The current state of Berkeley Iceland’s interior. Photo: Sports Basement
The current state of Berkeley Iceland’s interior. Photo: Sports Basement

The path to last night’s decision has not been straightforward since Berkeley Iceland closed operations on April 1, 2007. The Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the entire site a landmark four days later. The owners, East Bay Iceland (EBI), appealed the landmark status and started a lawsuit over the designation. The lawsuit was withdrawn last year. Save Berkeley Iceland (SBI) entered into an option agreement with EBI to buy the property in February, 2008. But, in December 2008, SBI notified EBI that they were not going forward with the purchase.

At numerous points since then, SBI and groups associated with it have said they had developers interested in operating an ice rink on the property. But, according to EBI, no formal proposals have ever been submitted. The cost of reinstating a rink on the property, according to several speakers at last night’s council meeting, could be as much as $15 million. When the building was put on the market, only Sports Basement accepted the terms of the letter of intent for purchase. In May 2010, EBI and Sports Basement agreed terms. In October 2010, the two parties completed the purchase and sale agreement.

“It was only after Iceland closed in 2007 and others had a chance to make something happen, and only then, that Sports Basement made an approach for the building,” Rumberg said last night. “Our goal is not to be the group that kills the dream, but to be the next best thing.”

The many SBI activists at last night’s meeting argued that the council should reject the ZAB recommendation and require a public hearing on the project.

“Losing Berkeley Iceland for the first Berkeley big box store is not a decision you should make,” said Tom Killilea, president of SBI. “What’s needed is a full public discussion.”

“There are so many places in Berkeley where a sports store could go,” said Elizabeth Grassetti. “There aren’t other places where an ice rink could go.”

Berkeley Iceland was designated a landmark in 2007

“Berkeley Iceland is more than a building,” said former mayor Shirley Dean. “It’s an institution. It’s something that needs to be preserved. There has never been a real chance for SBI to present a real alternative. The only way we can have that happen is to have a public hearing on this matter.”

Council Member Kriss Worthington cheered SBI supporters last night by saying EBI’s behavior in fighting the landmark designation and allowing the building to go derelict was “reprehensible and disgusting”. But he warned supporters that they wouldn’t applaud his decision.

“The proposal that’s before us does not demolish the landmark structure,” Worthington said. “The structure is still there. The changes being proposed by this business do not prevent it from being restored somewhere down the line into an ice rink facility. I think it’s an acceptable use of the building to have this business there.”

Council Member Max Anderson also supported the project.

“That building has been sitting there for five years,” he said. “It’s become a blight on the neighborhood. The glorious history of Iceland is on record. It’s laudable. We gave them a chance. We said, ‘Look. Raise the money. Do what you want to do.’ But there’s only one buyer stepping up that has a plan. This business stepped into the breach when no one else could or would.”

Council Member Jesse Arreguín focused on Rumberg’s statement at the meeting that “the vast majority” of the 70 jobs he expects Sports Basement to create will go to Berkeley residents. “I hope the applicant’s commitment to hire local residents will be something he can fulfill,” Arreguín said. “It’s great as well that he’s willing to offer space for different kinds of community uses.”

Rumberg said that Sports Basement had been misrepresented by some SBI activists “as some kind of faceless, large corporation”. “Once you understand what our DNA is, you’ll understand our commitment to local team and community groups.”

Rumberg said his company had spent $6 million purchasing the property and would spend about another $6 million renovating, including a seismic retrofit. The renovated building will have 71,862 sq ft of retail space. A little over 5,000 sq ft of the building will be specifically dedicated as a community space available for community meetings and events. The project includes a total of 44 off-street vehicle parking spaces, two off-street loading spaces, 64 off-street bike parking spaces and an additional 40 employee bicycle parking spaces within the store.

Live coverage of the Sept. 11, 2012 Berkeley City Council meeting [09.11.12]
Op/Ed: Berkeley Iceland is so much more than a building [09.11.12]
Op/Ed: Let’s maintain Berkeley Iceland whatever its fate [07.25.12]

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Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...