Side view of the Payson House
A side view of the Payson House from Bonita Avenue, built in 1889 by architects Carlos Reuben Lord and Ira Alton Boynton. Photo: Supriya Yelimeli

A brown-shingle home tucked away at 1915 Berryman St. (at Bonita Avenue) in North Berkeley was the topic of frenzied cross-fire at Thursday night’s Landmarks Preservation Commission meeting, with housing advocates calling it  “unworthy” and a “horror,” and others describing the mystery, charm and historical value of the structure.

Construction firm Lord & Boynton built the single-family home in 1889 for First Unitarian Church of Berkeley co-founder William Payson, but it has since been converted into multiple units. The Petrash and Miller families owned it until last fall when they sold it to a Sunnyvale developer. Now, Gunkel Architecture has initial plans to build six townhouses containing 10 units at the address, named Bonita Row.

The project was submitted in late May. Soon after, in the first week of June, Daniella Thompson, an architectural historian who has taken the lead in preserving many Berkeley buildings, filed an application to landmark the property. Many of the speakers who attended the virtual meeting questioned Thompson’s motives, suggesting she was trying to block housing by giving the address a special status.

Architect Brad Gunkel emphasized the Bay Area housing crisis in his initial remarks, and Mark Hulbert, the preservation architect hired by the firm, described the house several times as “disappointing,” “unremarkable” and altogether having little, if any, historical significance. Thompson shot back with strong words for Hulbert, saying his assessment intentionally – or due to laziness – left out important facts about both the importance of the architecture and Payson’s influence in Berkeley.

After a four-hour meeting, the commission decided in a 7-2 vote to uphold the staff report’s finding that there wasn’t enough evidence to point to the historical value of the home, whether it be architectural value or an indication that Payson conducted important work at the residence. Commissioners Steven Finacom and Phil Allen voted “no.”

The front of the Payson House is blocked by several live oak trees, the subject of some passionate remarks at the landmark commission’s Thursday meeting. Photo: Supriya Yelimeli

Public comment was a dizzying back-and-forth between neighbors who wanted to protect the aesthetic of their street, those who felt Payson’s legacy was historically significant to the neighborhood, and another set of neighbors and Berkeley locals who decried attempts to block housing. They asked that the landmarks commission consider the context of the region, its housing crisis and those who are struggling with unemployment and homelessness during a global pandemic. One speaker, in favor of landmarking the building, appeared to be in tears as she asked the commission to save the home, and others spoke about the grace of the live oak trees on the property, and their fond memories playing “olden days” in its large yard.

Read our live-tweets from the Landmarks Preservation Commission meeting.

Darrell Owens, a housing activist with East Bay for Everyone, which campaigns for more building in the region, asked why the house couldn’t simply be moved like others of its kind if it was found to have historical value. Owens, a 23-year-old Berkeley resident of 14 years who lives in a newer multi-unit building across the street, told Berkeleyside that some of the comments about aesthetics the pro-landmarking speakers made, such as about the beauty of Victorians and restored “country-style” homes like the Payson House, reflected the historic racism of the neighborhood where redlining kept Black and Chinese people out.

“Those ‘ticky-tacky’ apartments, I know, are where some of the only Black people in this neighborhood live,” he said, noting the demographics of the area as 74% white, 13% Asian, 6% Hispanic and less than 1% Black, according to real estate site Trulia. A petition against the landmarking sponsored by YIMBY Action also states these figures for the Live Oak neighborhood. 

More than 100 people were in attendance on the Zoom call, likely due to neighbor Jeffrey Baker pointing out on Twitter that Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, Cal professor and prominent resident of the neighborhood, had submitted a letter to the landmarks commission in support of protecting the building. Several accused him of hypocrisy for promoting progressive values but blocking a high-density project — one that could have accelerated the demise of exclusionary housing in his own neighborhood.

Reich couldn’t be reached for comment, and didn’t make an appearance at the meeting, but said on his show, on which he talked to another local, W. Kamau Bell, that he supported the landmarking because the developers are “pretending” to build low-income or inclusionary housing. So far, the proposal for the new building has a subsidy for including one low-income unit. The plan is incomplete and could change, but all development in Berkeley must include some affordable housing.

People from outside of Berkeley also joined in – including those who had once hoped to live in the region but were priced out – to the chagrin of Commission Chair Christopher Adams, who said finally that he would vote against the landmarking despite callers from “I don’t know where” as well as local ones “impugning the motives of this commission.”

The landmarking commission has dealt with similar conflicts over development in the past and Adams on Thursday tried to distance landmarking from the zoning and housing process, but several speakers said landmarking can’t happen in a vacuum.

Commissioners also used the contentious meeting as an opportunity to tell residents that if they took issue with the way landmarking typically unfolds, they should ask the city to conduct a historical survey for landmarking, instead of relying on applications that happen to come in when development is proposed at certain locations.

The commission’s decision about 1915 Berryman St. can be appealed, and the Bonita Way development is still in very initial stages of approval.

Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...