A developer hopes to build a 70-unit aromplex at 2539 Telegraph Ave., but a mural on the property may be landmarked, making the project unfeasible. Image: Panoramic Interests
A developer hopes to build a 70-unit aromplex at 2539 Telegraph Ave., but a mural on the property may be landmarked, making the project unfeasible. Image: Panoramic Interests

After deciding the former Center for Independent Living building at 2539 Telegraph Ave. should not be a landmark, Berkeley’s Landmarks Preservation Commission is pondering whether a faded and weathered mural in the property’s back parking lot deserves that recognition — a move developer Patrick Kennedy says could kill his plans to build an apartment complex on the site.

The landmark designation of the mural might also mean that the Center for Independent Living (CIL) would lose the $3 million it would get for the sale of its building, a loss that could impact programming and the organization’s future, according to Stuart S. James, its executive director.

“The mural in its current crumbling condition means little to us,” James wrote in a letter he sent to all the members of the Berkeley City Council. The “issue … could adversely affect the future of our organization.”

CIL wants, instead, to hire the original artist, Ed Monroe, to recreate the mural on canvas at its Ed Roberts campus on Adeline Street in South Berkeley.

But local historians and preservationists believe recreating the mural is not the same as saving it through landmarking. CIL was a path-breaking organization that fought for the rights of the disabled and helped pass the landmark Americans for Disabilities Act in 1990. That should be noted, they say.

“Some marker should remain because this is a very important movement, not just to Berkeley, but to the whole world,” said Daniella Thompson, a well-known local preservationist and web editor for the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA).

The Landmarks Preservation Commission is scheduled to take up the issue at its Dec. 4 meeting.

This mural at the fomer CIL building on Telegraph chronicles some of the early leaders in the fight for disability rights. Photo: Panoramic Interests
This mural at the fomer CIL building on Telegraph chronicles some of the early leaders in the fight for disability rights. Photo: Panoramic Interests

At issue is a mural that was painted during the early days of CIL’s activism. It depicts many of the founders of the disability movement, including Michael Williams, the “grandmaster” of Augmented Communications; Don Galloway, who was the head of CIL’s Research and Development department; Ann Hiserman, an early resident of the Cowell Residence Program, a precursor to UC Berkeley’s Physically Disabled Students Program; Brad Lomax, of CIL’s transportation department; Dale Dahl, who started CIL ‘s deaf services; and Nancy D’Angelo, an early attendant referral for CIL, according to a report on the history of the site. (See more images of the mural on Tom Dalzell’s “hidden murals” story, published on Berkeleyside.)

The mural, which is behind a fence that is locked at night, has been exposed to the elements, leaving portions no longer visible, according to the project’s draft Environmental Impact Report. However, it could be restored, according to the report.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission considered landmarking the entire building earlier this year, but decided not to do so. The structure at 2539 Telegraph Ave. was built in 1921 for a Safeway store. In 1964, it was converted into a British Motors car dealership. In 1975, CIL moved into the building and remained there until 2011. In 2010, it moved most of its operations across town to a large and sleek structure named after Ed Roberts, a disability rights pioneer and the first severely disabled student to attend UC Berkeley. He died in 1995.

Kennedy, of Panoramic Interests, wants to construct a “car-free” 5- to 6-story, 70-foot-tall, 70-unit mixed-use complex on the site with about 6,100 square feet of ground floor commercial space. About 152 people could live there. He said he hopes it will be “a bold new gesture for Telegraph Ave, and begin to revitalize the area.” (A small garage would include spots for eight vehicles: six spaces for retail employees and two spaces for carshare vehicles, according to the Environmental Impact Report.)

A rendering of an internal courtyard now planned for 2539 Telegraph Ave. Image: Panoramic Interests

The building design has undergone serious revision since the Zoning Adjustments Board gave it a critical review in July, said Kennedy. Members of the board were concerned that Kennedy planned to build “junior” apartments with bedrooms that did not have any windows, which is against Berkeley City Council policy. They also expressed some concern about the small size of the units and the fact that the Regent Street frontage was out of proportion with the residential feel of that block.

“We have made radical changes since then,” said Kennedy. “We have put in a large courtyard so that all the bedrooms have accessible and operable windows to the outside.”

These side-by-side shots show how the building has evolved in recent months. Photo: Panoramic Interests
These side-by-side shots show how the building has evolved in recent months. Photo: Panoramic Interests

The new design has added about $1.5 million to the cost of the project, now estimated to be about $35 million, said Kennedy. The architect widened the footprint of the building to accommodate the courtyard, which added one more unit per floor, he said. There will now be 70 apartments, up from 65. The architect also stepped back the fifth story 5 feet on the Regent Street side, he said. The color of one side of the building will now be a warm beige rather than blue. Kennedy also changed the name of the project from The Independent to The Nexus.

“I think it is an improved design,” said Kennedy.

But having to retain the mural, which is painted on a 20-foot-long, 6-foot-high retaining wall, will kill the project, he said. The mural sits on the property line, right where there are plans to put a foundation wall.

“It’s like having a five-ton relic right in the middle of your living room. You can’t get rid of it. It’s deteriorating. It’s being overgrown by ice plants. It’s an absurd gesture that is designed to stop development on Telegraph Avenue,” he said.

If Kennedy built around the wall — which he insists he can’t — the mural would be located inside the garage or a commercial space, locked away from public view anyway, he said.

Developers versus preservationists

Kennedy said the fight over the mural is reminiscent of other festering battles between Berkeley developers and preservationists.

“This is a rearguard action by the usual suspects to kill development,” said Kennedy, naming Daniella Thompson, Steve Finacom and John English, all of whom testified in favor of preserving the mural at the Nov. 6 meeting of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. “I have been fighting these people for 25 years. They have fought every project I have ever proposed.”

Thompson contested that version of events. She said she and other preservationists, many of whom are active in BAHA, had only fought a few of Kennedy’s projects, such as the Gaia Building on Allston Way, because, they said, it was too big and out-of-scale. They also tried to stop Kennedy from destroying the Doyle House at 2008 University Ave., which was the home of one of the original signers of the papers that incorporated Berkeley in 1878. She said someone was willing to move the old house but Kennedy didn’t want to wait and tore it down. (The zoning board had issued a demolition permit for the structure. BAHA went to court to overturn it, but lost.)

“That was just a slap in the face,” said Thompson. “He would not cooperate in any way. Everyone knows he goes for the maximum. He builds as large and bulky as he can get away with. That’s his M.O.”

Thompson said if Kennedy cannot accommodate the mural in his proposed complex, somebody else can — and should.

She said the building Kennedy is proposing is a “faceless, generic apartment building.” That is what the citizens of Berkeley were fighting against when they passed the Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance in 1973, she said.

Kennedy’s revised design has already been reviewed and approved by the Design Review Committee. If the LPC does not declare the mural a landmark, the project will go back to the zoning board early in 2015, Kennedy said. The Environmental Impact Report is almost finished, and includes ways to mitigate the removal of the mural.

Photos will be taken of the mural and its various elements will be documented. Panoramic has pledged $15,000 to repaint the mural at the Ed Roberts campus. Ed Monroe, the original artist — who spoke against landmarking the mural at the Nov. 6 commission meeting — is on board to repaint it.

“No historic preservation or education will take place if that thing is entombed inside a parking garage,” said Kennedy.

(Full disclosure: Panoramic Interests was a sponsor of Uncharted: The Berkeley Festival of Ideas, which is produced by Berkeleyside.)

Read more real estate stories, and coverage of Telegraph Avenue, on Berkeleyside. Project documents, including the full draft Environmental Impact Report, are posted on the city website.

How quirky is Berkeley? The city’s hidden murals (11.24.14)
Neighbors question parking, height of housing planned for Telegraph (07.16.14)
‘Explosive’ downtown Berkeley housing boom under way (01.14.14)

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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...