Berkeley mayor to push for civic center overlay, also hopes it will reduce support for downtown ‘green’ initiative

Bates wants the city council to adopt a zoning overlay to protect historic buildings in the civic center area, like Veterans' Memorial Hall. He admits he hopes the push will undermine support for a Downtown Green Initiative scheduled for November ballot. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Bates wants the City Council to adopt a zoning overlay to protect historic buildings in the civic center area, like Veterans’ Memorial Hall. He admits he hopes the push will undermine support for a downtown zoning initiative scheduled for November’s ballot. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Mayor Tom Bates has decided to push for a civic center overlay that will protect the Main Post Office, and admits he hopes his support will undermine the downtown zoning initiative scheduled for the November ballot.

Bates wants Berkeley to adopt the exact language of the initiative, which was put forward by City Councilman Jesse Arreguín, in part because of Arreguín’s frustration that council had not adopted the overlay previously. Arreguín first introduced the overlay idea in July 2013. Council sent the item to the city Planning Commission for review and, after discussing it at a September meeting, referred it back to city staff.

Bates now wants council to discuss the overlay at its June 24 meeting, and to consider an ordinance at its Sept. 9 meeting. Bates will suggest that timeline at an Agenda Committee meeting today (Item 21).

“There is general agreement on the council that we would like to save the Post Office, and this is a good way to do it,” said Bates.

Bates said he believes the downtown zoning initiative, formally known as the Green Downtown & Public Commons Initiative, will be defeated in November, so council should take separate action to enact the overlay.

“This way we will protect the post office by taking action in the first part of September,” he said.

Bates also admits that adopting the overlay might undermine one of the most appealing aspects of the initiative. Most of the measure is technical and complicated and addresses height, housing, open space and parking issues in the downtown core. The civic center overlay portion of the initiative, in contrast, can be easily described as “help save the post office.” Opponents are worried that people will vote for the overlay, not fully understanding that the initiative will affect the increased density Berkeley approved when it adopted Measure R in 2010.

Read more about the specifics of the downtown initiative.

Arreguín is pleased that council will push for stronger protection for the post office on Allston Way, which the U.S. Postal Service has put up for sale. But he said the November initiative will still be needed to lock in the protections. Different members of the City Council have expressed differing ideas on what the overlay should do, he said. Some have even advocated that businesses be allowed to establish restaurants there, or pursue other commercial activity.

“We can’t trust the council majority to pass strong zoning,”said Arreguín. “There is nothing stopping the council from rescinding the ordinance or modifying it. There is no guarantee we will have a strong overlay.”

Arreguín said it is clear Bates is pushing the overlay now — after dallying in the past — for political reasons.

“The timing is apparent,” he said. “They are doing this to try and undermine the initiative. But if the initiative is a catalyst to get the council to pass this policy, great.”

An initiative now circulating would apply an "historic overlay" in the Civic Center. Photo: Daniel Parks
Community members protest the proposed sale of the Berkeley Post Office in 2012;  Photo: Daniel Parks

The overlay in the downtown initiative, and the language Bates wants to use for a city ordinance, designates that the 13 historic structures around Old City Hall cannot be used for commercial purposes. The plan would require that the structures, which include the post office on Allston Way, the Veteran’s Memorial Building, Old City Hall, the Courthouse, Civic Center Park, the Civic Center building, the YMCA, portions of the Berkeley Community Theater and Little Theater, and Berkeley High School, be used for community activities, cultural activities, and educational and civic uses. It would also allow a public market and live theater. No residential or mixed-use development would be allowed.

Arreguín introduced the overlay to try to thwart the U.S. Postal Service’s attempts to sell the Main Post Office, which has been listed on the National Registrar of Historic Places. Arreguín and other officials want to keep postal services at that location. They don’t want a developer to transform that building into a restaurant or a hotel.

The hope is that the overlay will make it less likely that developers purchase the structure.

Bates also said he decided to push for an overlay now because he had grown increasingly frustrated with his dealing with the U.S. Postal Service. As one element of its multi-part attempt to stop the sale of the post office, Berkeley has been trying to become the “holder of the covenant” of the building. Since the post office is landmarked, the U.S. Postal Service has to enter into an agreement with a third party to ensure that the public has access to the landmarked items. In Berkeley’s case, that would mean that the public could get inside to see the murals and historic architecture.

The language the U.S. Postal Service gave to the city is “totally unacceptable,” said Bates. But if the city cannot come to terms with the government and walks away from negotiations, the U.S. Postal Service can find another third party who may only open the building once a year to the public, he said. This possible impasse made Bates feel it was urgent to adopt a civic center overlay sooner rather than later, he said.

Bates said he has heard that at least three groups — at least one non-profit and one commercial — have expressed interest in buying the post office. There may be more.

The U.S. Postal Service is not publicly discussing potential buyers.

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For details and images of many of the new building projects underway in Berkeley, check out Berkeleyside’s recent real estate articles.

Frances Dinkelspiel is co-founder and executive editor of Cityside. Email: