Debate on future of two city libraries sparks concerns

Architect's rendering of the proposed new West Branch Library. Architects: Harley Ellis Devereaux

A special joint meeting of Berkeley’s Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) and the Landmark Preservation Commission tonight will consider the final environmental impact reports (EIR) on the South and West branch libraries and their planned demolition. The plans approved by the Board of Library Trustees for new branch library buildings are the subject of a lawsuit between the city and Concerned Library Users (CLU), which has called for renovation of the existing buildings.

The staff reports to the ZAB recommend both the demolitions and the plans for new buildings. The West Branch project would expand the library from its current 6,230 sq. ft. to 9,400 sq. ft. The South Branch project would increase the size from the current 5,400 sq. ft. to 8,656 sq. ft.

The joint meeting, which will be held at 6 p.m. in the City Council Chambers, is the latest in a long sequence of meetings where the branch library plans have been considered. The initial study on the environmental impacts for the South branch at 1901 Russell Street was released last June. The initial study for the West branch at 1125 University Avenue was released last September. In September, the city decided to do a joint EIR for the two branches.

Councilmember Darryl Moore is planning a rally outside the City Council Chambers in two weeks, on April 26, in support of the plans for new buildings at the South and West branches. According to Moore, there has been no progress on a settlement of the lawsuit with CLU.

“They are unwilling to budge,” Moore said. “There are a lot of people who aren’t aware of the lawsuit. It may prevent us from building some of our branch libraries.” He said the rally, in advance of the next meeting of the City Council, is designed to “show our disdain and disappointment” with the small group of people involved with the lawsuit.

Sketch of the alternative, renovated West Branch Library. Architects: Todd Jersey Architecture

CLU and the city settled part of the lawsuit in December, following the city’s decision to complete the full EIR being considered tonight. CLU and the city have not settled on CLU’s contention that the city cannot use funds from the $26 million Measure FF bond to demolish the branches, rather than renovate the existing buildings. In January, CLU presented alternative plans for the branches, by Todd Jersey Architecture. The alternative plans are also supported by Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association.

According to the ZAB staff reports, the Todd Jersey Architecture alternatives are both over budget and would provide less space than the new plans. Both alternatives are also non-compliant with the Secretary of the Interior’s standards for rehabilitation, according to the staff reports.

Advocates for the new branch libraries are concerned that delays will mean the libraries won’t get built. Karen Hemphill, a Berkeley school board director, lives near the south branch.  “I have a library card and so do my sons,” she said. “We used to use the South Branch Library but we outgrew it.” Hemphill said the branch is “very cramped”.

“Just because the building is old doesn’t put it in the category of a community treasure,” Hemphill said.  “I really hope the proponents of this lawsuit think about what could be the end result of this. If their actions will mean that south and west Berkeley will not have a resource that can deal with 21st-century library needs they need to take a look to see if it’s worth the issue.”

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  • Anonymous

    TizzieDish, have you ever been to a Library Board meeting? It’s not as entrenched as Peace & Justice–and they are certainly not pushing any single ideology as so many members of the myriad of commissions in Berkeley are (again, P&J for example). What’s wrong with wanting to build seismically safe, ADA accessible, attractive and modern buildings that will have to last for the next century? Do you spend much time in South or West? Go spend a couple hours in South and report back to us exactly why you think that shack is worth preserving.

  • Bruce Love

    It seems to me that the City can probably save some money by carefully examining and reforming the planning department to try to better avoid making these kinds of expensive mistakes in the future.

  • Anonymous

    While I personally support the current plans and don’t agree with BAHA on this, I think you need to think of BAHA sort of like being a defense attorney… their role is the be an advocate for preserving heritage. Someone else needs to balance heritage vs. other concerns, e.g., function.

  • Anonymous

    I’m not fully informed here, but I don’t get this argument (that somehow the new buildings are a sign of economic inequity). From my standpoint: all regions of the city are getting new or upgraded libraries; the south and west branches are getting more money than north or claremont; and south and west are getting spaces that the library group views as the most functional. How does that represent ‘the rich get richer’?

  • Bruce Love

    The argument goes like this:

    Prior to measure FF, all of the branches needed some work. South and West were in the worst shape. I don’t know about West but I am struck by how often I’ve seen South packed to the gills. At South, there appears to be a large pent-up demand throttled by an inadequate facility.

    The architectural firm that did the master plan looked at North and saw an easy planning process. It saw a library that already had more books and more visitors and said, well, since that one is easy, and since it’s busy…. that’s the first priority. So, for starters, doesn’t that seem a bit backwards to you? That the most problematic two branches aren’t the high priority? Seems like scheduling dessert before dinner but I guess at least it gets the money flowing faster….

    And that gets into the second problem. I don’t know if you remember but it was only a few weeks back that all the bids on North came in over budget. Now apparently for the moment it’s back on budget but I don’t think any of us should bother to act surprised if North and Claremont wind up eating more of the FF funds than they were supposed to, and then gosh South and West plans have to be cut back or more money raised.

    Meanwhile, South and West aren’t taking longer because of the lawsuit — they are taking longer because (a) They are genuinely more complicated projects. (b) The planning process really screwed up (of which the lawsuit is a symptom, not a cause).

    I think of this as a misalignment of incentives. The architect’s had incentive to get a project win. The staff and elected pols had incentive get a project win. Actual service to existing and potential library patrons came in 3rd or 5th here.

    All along the line, since inception, the main incentives of the key actors seems to have been to get a project approved and spending money — not to make the most efficient and well prioritized improvements to the library system.

    I predict — and gee it doesn’t take much, I bet we’d all predict — that an improved and expanded South is going to boost library attendance hugely. It’s going to have that impact on a historically under-served community. It and West are, as the library’s architects said of North, “arguably the most important”. And yet all down the line they got the short end of the stick in the planning process leading to defect after defect, adding up the delays. And now people want to try to blame this on CLU who in addition to filing a meritorious suit have even chipped in to make better plans for West and South. It’s obscene, ugly Berkeley politics at its worst.

  • The Sharkey

    That’s a great idea for moving forward, Thomas. But writing airtight legislation is harder than an armchair lawyer might think, and that doesn’t change the fact that these lawsuits and the people who are bringing them to bear are wasting City funds.

  • Charles_Siegel

    “It is hard to reconcile this line of argument with CLU’s demand that we keep the truly mediocre “mid century modern” South Branch library.”

    I agree with you about that. I don’t think the South Branch is worth preserving. You got the right name for the style: “mediocre midcentury modern.”

  • The Sharkey

    Thanks for the links, Tom. I don’t trust Todd Jersey’s assessment of his own designs (possible bias?) but I’ll give these a look over this weekend.

    Unfortunately his downloadable plans for the West Berkeley library are mess. Looks like he stacked the different levels in his plans instead of giving each of them its own page, making it almost impossible to read.

  • The Sharkey

    So despite your pat conclusion that “the rich get richer” the real reason is because they started on the least complicated projects first.

    Sounds like some sensible action on the part of the planners. Surprising.

  • The Sharkey

    Nobody needs to advocate for the preservation of buildings like the Tool Lending Library.

    The service it provides is excellent, but the building itself is of absolutely zero historical or architectural value.

  • The Sharkey

    It doesn’t actually present an example of economic inequality at all. If you real Thomas Lord’s response to your question, you can see that the firm that did the master plan simply decided to tackle the easiest jobs first.

    Those who claim the decision to work on some projects before others because of the economic status of those areas are just trying to muddy the waters and win fans for their viewpoint by hinting at some sort of class warfare.

  • Szunderwood

    “…very fine example of Mid-Century Modern architecture”???????????????????

  • Charles_Siegel

    “We have fake historical buildings popping up all over Berkeley which is a mystery to me for such a supposedly progressive and forward thinking community.”

    You are confusing political progressivism and modernist esthetics. In fact, modernism is an obsolete style, and I would expect forward-thinking people to question and criticize it.

    The questioning began here in Berkeley, as much as anywhere else. One of the most important critics of modernism is Berkeley Prof. Emeritus Christopher Alexander.

  • Charles_Siegel

    So, does anyone know what they did?

    My guess is that the ZAB said the project could go ahead, and the plaintiffs said the lawsuit would go ahead – but that is just a guess.

  • Bruce Love

    Today’s “Berkeley Wire” carries a link to the Daily Cal:

  • cycl356

    well…there are progressives in Berkeley as anywhere else but i would not say that Berkeley is particularly progressive in terms of its politics or planning. No forward thinking going on in planning.

    You misunderstand my old friend Chris Alexander whom I studied under many years ago. His theories are wonderful and if you have seen his [very few] built works they are wonderfully modern. He was all about re-descoving human scale and understanding what was valuable in traditional building methods and materials. He never wanted us to blindly copy any style but really wanted us to understand the nature of materials and construction methods which good design came out of. He was often misunderstood as advocating historical “style”, but would never advocate the crap that is being built all over Berkeley today. [which is probably why he moved back to europe:)]

    I have issue with style in general and will always advocate for what is appropriate in aesthetics as well as in function. Libraries need natural light for reading spaces and less light in areas where books are kept. I would not say that the approved building is wonderful by any means [in fact i would do something completely different] – but it is at least 100 times better than the increadibly incompetent and insensitive work proposed by CLU. Todd Jersey has actually done a lot better so cant really understand this….[his dad was [is] a great film maker]..

  • soberkrez

    Bruce, I’ve appreciated your comments but I still am not convinced I can share your position, which seems to be that the existing proposal be rejected. I’m not quite sure where you’re coming from. Can you clarify whether you think that the South Branch building itself has historical/cultural value or that a better design would better serve the community? Or are you just so upset with the process that you think the proposal should be rejected as a way of censuring the actors involved?

  • Bruce Love

    Looking at the adult reading room at South, and imagining it without the blocked windows and without the horrible lighting and other additions… and looking at the outside… I think there is some serious value there and that it is a mistake to treat the building as disposable.

    Looking at the language of FF vs. the plan (renovation vs. replacement), I think that we can see shoddy planning and implementation re South and West and I think it is proper to try to force the City to implement things properly.

    Looking at the sloppy work done for South and West and the active use of the FF funds for North and Claremont — and how that jeopardizes the funding West and South can realistically expect — I see misplaced priorities in the planning process that have short-changed South and West.

    Looking at the CLU alternative plans, though I’m sure they are not above criticism, I think there is a pretty strong case that censuring the City here can lead to better branches than those the City is currently planning.

    And looking at the shameful ways that some of the elected and appointed officials are defaming CLU, I have another item to add to my list of why certain bums should be thrown out of office.

  • DC

    I’m involved in three commercial remodels right now. Remodels sound good on paper, but are very difficult. Remodels typically involve many aesthetic and functional compromises to accommodate existing conditions. And frequently they are more expensive than new work. To make that series of compromises out of necessity, or to save something like Penn Station I can see. To do it because a few people don’t like the project is misguided.

  • DC

    Exactly. In 1900 there were many skilled artisans who could do stone and tile work cheaply and well. Now such things are sadly rare, and yes – they cost a lot. A lot. You would not get that sketch. You would get its bones with cheap materials used instead to VE the look down to budget. Then everyone would complain that funds were not used well and wasted on multiple rounds of design.

    The current design seems fine to me. Just build the damn thing and give the people of west Berkeley a better, bigger library. One that doesn’t have to tart itself up in faux-19th century cladding.

  • guest

    Both boards voted 7 to 2 or 8 to 1 on all issues: approving the Final EIR for both south and west, taking no action by the LPC to protect either building from demolition, and approving the use permits for both which means demolition and rebuilding can go ahead

  • guest

    The people in the neighborhoods are the ones who asked for the new building.

  • guest

    and that’s what these two neighborhoods will no get

  • guest

    There is only one person’s name on the lawsuit as a plaintiff. When there are opportunities to testify, three or four people show up, one of them a guy from San Francisco who claims he runs an organization that cares about libraries for everyone. I think his name is Wharton or something like that. If CLU does have many members they certainly aren’t out there pushing their cause.

  • guest

    make that what they will NOW get

  • Linda in Berkeley

    The city has already spent $9K to pay CLU’s lawyer in order to settle part of CLU’s suit. I don’t think that’s a good use of taxpayer money, but the only way to get rid of part of the suit. Some would call it extortion.

  • Linda in Berkeley

    The city made concessions in the lawsuit, i.e., settled part of it, because that part involved demanding that an EIR be done, and the city was already doing it. It was not a concession of the lawsuit’s merit, it was that the portion addressed by the settlement was no longer relevant.

  • Linda in Berkeley

    The library foundation did not write the language. It was written by the city attorney. The library foundation simply raises money to help your public library succeed and serve.

  • Linda in Berkeley

    Yes, Sharkey.You are correct. As stated in the EIR the CLU proposals are overbudget and provide less space. The Todd Jersey plans are about 50% more expensive than the city’s plans, according to the EIR.

  • Linda in Berkeley

    The design review commission looked at those plans recently and rejected them 4 to 2.

  • Bruce Love

    Not quite, at least as East Bay Express reported it. The zoning ordinance change was repealed and the scope of the EIR being conducted for Claremont and North was expanded. The city conceded the merit of that part of the suit.

  • Bruce Love

    The City’s response to the TJA claim makes the over-budget claim. It’s pretty debatable how they arrived at that but I suppose ultimately that’s for the court or the negotiators to sort out. It also makes claims such as the TJA plan for West being “essentially the same” as the alternative the City considered when even a quick glance at the plan shows how very different the projects are.

    What I don’t see, and perhaps you can give a page number? Any claim that TJA has less space than the demolish and build plan.

  • Charles_Siegel

    Lucky you didn’t advise Thomas Jefferson when he was building Monticello. You would said: “Why build a renaissance looking building in the 1700s?”

  • Charles_Siegel

    “[which is probably why he moved back to europe:)”

    He moved back to Europe to work with Prince Charles’ foundation, which is famous for promoting TRADITIONAL architecturre.

  • Charles_Siegel

    “[which is probably why he moved back to europe:)”

    He moved back to Europe to work with Prince Charles’ foundation, which is famous for promoting TRADITIONAL architecturre.

  • Charles_Siegel

    “which means demolition and rebuilding can go ahead”

    I think it probably means that the lawsuit will go ahead.

    The court will decide whether Measure FF really meant that the money would be used for renovation when it said the money would be used for renovation. The answer seems obvious to me.

  • Charles_Siegel

    I am sure that they used that language because they knew it would be easier to get a bond passed for “renovating” libraries than for demolishing and rebuilding libraries.

  • The Sharkey

    Ha ha! Yeah, I wonder why Thomas Lord doesn’t challenge people making statements like those?

  • Ben Bartlett

    It is important to note that the rally to support the libraries originated in the affected community. These are people with a vested interest in resolving the structural educational inequities here. When they learned of Judith Epstein’s, attempt to subvert the will of the people through a racially tinged extortion scheme, they reacted with appropriate indignation. It is They who signed petitions, had meetings and have now organized the rally. It is a shame that people of color are being forced re-fight battles that we thought were long settled, but rest assured, we will win them again.

  • lauramenard


    I am in favor of demolishing my local south branch library, I also happen to know that many of the most vocal opponents happened to also be folks of color.

    Your assertion suggesting ” a racially tinged extortion scheme” is unfair, inaccurate and dishonors the democratic process.

  • Peter Schorer

    It seems to me that by voting to demolish the South and West Branch Libraries, the LPC and the ZAB have simply broken the law. Here is the wording of Measure FF, which the voters approved and which these two agencies are therefore supposed to implement.

    “Shall the City of Berkeley issue general obligation bonds not exceeding $26,000,000 to renovate, expand, and make seismic and access improvements at four neighborhood branch libraries, but not the Central Library, with annual reporting by the Library Board to the City Council?”

    No mention of demolition.

  • lknobel

    Peter: that’s precisely the matter that is in dispute in the lawsuit.

  • The Sharkey

    Expansion can include demolition.

    Sometimes you have to tear down in order to build up.

  • Dianabol

    the more libraries the better for local students.