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.”