This 10-unit apartment building with a partial soft story underneath is typical of the historic structures now protected by landmark designation in District 4. Buildings of this type have not been constructed for nearly 50 years. Photo: Paul Kamen

Editor’s Note: Yes, this was an April Fools’ Day story, for those who happen to come upon it later.

Original story: In an overtime session completed long after the entrance to 1947 Center St. had closed, the Berkeley Landmarks Preservation Commission recently designated all of District 4, which includes the downtown area, as a historic landmark.

The commission also recommended an innovative new form of commercial rent control, aimed at reducing vacancies in older commercial properties.

“We are especially interested in protecting the multi-unit residential structures built in the ’50s and ’60s,” explained newly appointed Commission Chair Andrea Doria.

“Construction of cost-effective residential apartments such as this 10-unit building on Addison St. [pictured, top] came to a sudden halt with the passage of the Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance in 1973,” said Doria. “These structures are now over 45 years old and represent an important element of Berkeley’s architectural heritage. They have outside stairs, thin walls and economical appliances.”

Roxanne Scholes, a resident in one of the boxy apartment buildings now included in the Historic Landmark designation, added that many of her neighbors, especially those who understand the late ’50s aesthetic, have found antique tree lamps for their living rooms.

“Developers have a right to know in advance what they can build and what they cannot build. The simple answer will be ‘nothing.'” — Russell Papers

Commissioner Milhouse Creak explained that the “soft story” common to these traditional designs, featuring ground-level parking under all or part of the building, “is a particularly rare functional element that needs to be preserved in Berkeley’s mix of historically significant architectural expressions.”

“Instead of identifying structures of significance on a case-by-case basis,” said Commission Secretary Russell Papers, “the city is taking this blanket approach to the district. It will save countless hours of meeting time. Developers have a right to know in advance what they can build and what they cannot build. The simple answer will be ‘nothing.’ “

“This will greatly streamline our future work,” added Commissioner Leda Horticulture. “Rather than quibble over individual projects, by designating the entire downtown a Historic Landmark we can cut right to the chase: No new construction, period,” she said. “It’s well known that this was always the original intent of the Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance. We are a vital backstop to the Planning Commission and the Zoning Adjustments Board — when they fail to make the proper decisions regarding density and aesthetics, we are here to take over as Berkeley’s de facto planning authority and set things right.”

During the public comment period, hardware store owner Lionel Twain commented in support of the plan, indicating his preference for a lower-density downtown that would allow him to restore parking for his store. Molly Boldt, who works at the same store, followed with a similar complaint about the loss of free downtown parking.

Another public comment, by Dusty Street, who said she lives in a recreational vehicle parked in West Berkeley, criticized the city’s new ordinance limiting overnight RV parking.

“Can’t you fix this?” Street asked the LPC. “We know you have more power than the City Council.”

Although the topic was off the agenda, commissioners suggested that genuine Airstream trailers would be fine in Berkeley’s residential neighborhoods, but Winnebagos and most other post-1959 vehicles or trailers are clearly inappropriate.

“That is completely unacceptable,” shouted another member of the public from the audience. “We need to match the styling of the RV with the architecture of the house it parks in front of. We can’t have an Airstream in front of a late ’90s condo. And a Winnebago parked near a mid-century modern would look terrible. VW Microbus conversions belong on Telegraph… but only if they are done up in Peter Max graphics. Let’s show a little respect for our heritage here.”

After a long debate, the commission recommended applying for a $200,000 grant from the California Department of Historical Automotive Trivia to fund a planning project that would categorize the architectural compatibility of various RV, trailer, van and bus models with Berkeley’s diverse mix of housing styles.

“We’ll need at least $25,000 in matching funds,” added budget director Helena Handbasket, “but I think we can make this work from existing funding streams.”

Developer representative Bjorn Toulouse interrupted the discussion with harsh criticism of the commission’s action. Toulouse accused Chair Andrea Doria of suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, after being “held hostage” by the limited range of opinions allowed on the LPC.

“You can’t simply deny all demolitions for new construction,” he argued. “There are some structures in District 4 that really need to go.” He cited a report authored by urban planning professor Miles B. Hind, advocating urban infill.

“Five- and six-story residential structures built after 2012 should be torn down and replaced by single-family houses.” — Andrea Doria

“You are correct,” responded Doria. “Five- and six-story residential structures built after 2012 should be torn down and replaced by single-family houses. This will be a very positive change in our core downtown neighborhoods. Reduced congestion will improve air quality and reduce pedestrian traffic deaths.”

But Dr. Jay Walker, a traffic safety expert, took issue with that analysis, claiming that congestion is “the most natural and effective of all traffic calming strategies” and that reduced density results in faster speeds and more hazardous street crossings. The commission made no comment in response, moving to commercial vacancy control, the next item on a crowded agenda.

“There is an important aesthetic expressed in commercial blocks that we are at risk of losing forever,” explained Doria. Urban streetscapes lined with old, closely spaced low-rise storefronts with no off-street parking represent a vibrant retail/commercial modality that is quickly disappearing. Vacancy rates on these properties is an ongoing problem.”

The commission recommended a city ordinance that will require the owner of any vacant, low-rise commercial property to reduce rent by 10% per month until a new tenant is found. Commercial rent control will cap rent at that level for five years, after which rent could only be increased by 75% of the annual increase in the cost of living index. However, the commercial use must be of the same nature as the original use permit. For example, if a store sold and serviced typewriters when it first opened for business, then typewriter sales and service would be the only permitted use under the new ordinance.

Classic low-rise commercial blocks with no off-street parking are rapidly disappearing and need to be preserved. Photo: Paul Kamen

“Critics are telling us that we can’t freeze time, that change is inevitable,” said Doria. “But this is not true. We CAN freeze time, and the Historic Landmark statutes give us precisely the tools we need to accomplish just that. Keep in mind that some of the world’s most valuable urban cityscapes are frozen in time. Pompeii, for example… “

The only member of the public remaining in the room when the vote was taken was Burndt Bridges, representing the BANANA coalition.

“Our organization is dedicated to Building Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything,” said Bridges. “This has always been the primary purpose of historic preservation, and we are gratified to see that this is finally reflected in tonight’s historic landmark designation.