Lawsuit yields money for historic preservation in Berkeley

Concerned Library Users did not want Berkeley to tear down the old South Branch because they and others considered it historically significant.

Concerned Library Users did not want Berkeley to tear down the old South Branch because they and others considered it historically significant. It was demolished and rebuilt. The settlement funds from a suit filed by the group will go towards other historic buildings.

Berkeley residents may soon see the fruits of a legal settlement between the city and a group that sued over plans to tear down and rebuild two branch libraries.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation announced Wednesday that it will award $87,000 in grant money to historic places in South and West Berkeley. The money can be used for maintenance, physical improvements, and preservation of historic properties.

The Trust is encouraging “properties with a clear public benefit that are open to the public on at least a part-time basis,” to apply online by May 15 for grants ranging from $10,000 to $25,000.

The South Branch of the Berkeley Public Library opened in May 2013. Photo: Richard Friedman

The new South Branch of the Berkeley Public Library opened in May 2013. Photo: Richard Friedman

Berkeley agreed in Sept. 2011 to pay $100,000 into a fund as part of a settlement with Concerned Library Users, a group concerned with historic preservation. In exchange, CLU agreed to dismiss its lawsuit. CLU had contended that Berkeley could not use bond monies raised from Measure FF to tear down the South or West library branches and rebuild them. CLU said that the language of the $26 million bond measure did not mention anything about demolition, but only about remodeling.

Berkeley officials settled the lawsuit, in part, to avoid delays in the renovation of its four branch libraries, City Attorney Zach Cowan said at the time. Berkeley had earlier agreed to repeal an ordinance that only required the libraries to get a use permit, rather than a variance, when remodeling the branches.

The city also paid $24,000 in legal fees to well-known preservation attorney Susan Brandt-Hawley.

The makeup of Concerned Library Users has always been somewhat mysterious. The only named plaintiff in the lawsuit was Judith Epstein, an Elmwood resident who also opposed the library’s use of electronic RFID devices on books. Epstein has participated in other lawsuits to stop projects in the past, most notably one against the city and the commercial realtor, John Gordon. She has also filed claims against City Councilman Darryl Moore and others who spoke out against the CLU lawsuit.

Brandt-Hawley told Berkeleyside in December 2010 that CLU was a vibrant group but had to keep a low profile because there was so much hostility against its members. At one point she said CLU had about 35 members.

“It is a group. It is not just Judith Epstein. It is a group of people who care a lot about the libraries. It is inappropriate to assume it is just one person.”

The Berkeley Public Library recently completed an overhaul of its four branch libraries. The North and Claremont branches were extensively upgraded. The South and West branches were torn down because they were too small and could not easily or economically be remodeled, according to library officials. Both of them were rebuilt.

Those applying for the grants must have non-profit status.

“The National Trust will accept the applications and evaluate viable applicants, focusing on historic significance of the property and the potential of the project to be a catalyst for further positive action to benefit other historic properties and the local Berkeley community,” said the press release announcing the grant program.

According to the release, “South Berkeley is defined as the area of Berkeley south of the centerline of Dwight Way between the centerlines of Telegraph Avenue and Martin Luther King, Jr. Way. West Berkeley is defined as the area of Berkeley west of the centerline of Martin Luther King, Jr. Way south of the centerline of Cedar Street, and west of the centerline of Sacramento Street north of the centerline of Cedar Street.”

Go to this website for more information on eligibility and criteria. Applications are due May 15 and the review process generally takes about eight weeks, according to the website.

Related:
New $7.5 million Berkeley West Branch Library to open Saturday (12.12.13)
Berkeley Public Library South Branch: The opening (05.13.13)
Berkeley settles contentious library lawsuit (09.06.11)
$1 million for branch libraries; lawsuit pending (12.1.10)
Berkeley reaches partial settlement with library critics (12.15.10)
Debate on future of two city libraries sparks concerns (4.14.11)
Rally planned to bring attention to library lawsuit (4.25.11)
Berkelyans rally to move forward on library renovations (4.27.11)
Library architect apologizes to Berkeley (6.22.11)

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  • G

    This group or one person are calling for public oneness blight and usinng fony claims of historical signifagance to get it done. We love the new west branch library and so glad to see the ugly no caracter 1960 architecture disaster gone. Now what do we do about Kenny Cottage?

  • andrew johnson

    Who says one person can’t make a difference?

  • Shutter

    How about making Epsteins private residence a Historical Landmark to oddball political gadflies and see how she likes not being able to modify, upgrade, change, sell or otherwise improve her own living space. Not so much, I think.

  • Rio Tardo

    because we all love a 1960’s cinderblock facade …

  • Not so

    Whether or not one agrees with Ms. Epstein’s tactics, City of Berkeley landmarks are modified, upgraded, changed, sold, and otherwise improved all the time. Some owners even offset the cost of such modifications by receiving significant property tax savings through the Mills Act. While altering a landmark in Berkeley does require additional staff or Landmarks Preservation Commission review, the notion that landmarked buildings can not be improved, altered, or maintained is utterly false.

  • Rio Tardo

    “does require additional staff or Landmarks Preservation Commission
    review, the notion that landmarked buildings can not be improved,
    altered, or maintained is utterly false.”

    And if the LPC decides you can’t, or attaches requirements that can only be satisfied at great expense ???

    My read on the Mills Act is that under the best circumstances you might net 0.4% – 0.6% of assessed value in tax abatement. That’s $5K on a $1M property, which won’t even offset the cost of responding to the additional process. Even a small change is going to cost you more in architect and engineering fees, and that doesn’t include the cost of actually doing it.

    IMHO the whole process is an encroachment on property rights. If the public wants a piece of something, let them buy it. If they want it bad enough and it’s not for sale, use eminent domain if they think they can make the case. Otherwise, leggo my eggo.

  • Devin

    Can we put that $87,000 towards re-opening Willard Pool. It wouldn’t cover all of the costs, but I view that hole in the ground as more historically significant than either of those crumbling libraries ever were and I’d love to stick it to the CLU for wasting the City’s time and taxpayer money with this lawsuit.

  • frivolouslawsuitlady

    the city should not negotiate with terrorists.

  • guest

    Thanks, Berkeleyside for including the photo of that ugly and dangerous old South Branch Library building, an unreinforced cinderblock structure with a flat roof not attached to the walls–a potential deathtrap that thankfully is now replaced by a beautiful new, larger library designed to serve generations of Berkeleyans. I bet Judith Epstein hasn’t even visited it.

  • guest

    So does this mean that an $87K grant is partially offsetting the $124K the city had to pay out because of the frivolous lawsuit? In other words, reducing the pain of that extortionate suit by the value of the grant?

  • John Freeman

    Let’s face it. With comments like these and those in the Kayla Moore thread, Berkeleyside is basically Berkeley’s slam book.

  • guest

    Yep, a lot of angry people making hate-filled comments on this thread. Haters are gonna hate.

  • agreed

    It always has been and always will be. Thanks Steve, for you analysis.

  • http://www.caviarcommunism.com/ West Bezerkeley

    Agreed – the new WB branch is far superior to the worn out building we had before

  • southberkeleyres

    Do you deny that the city should have mentioned demolition rather than “remodeling” in the proposal? If you agreed to have your home remodeled and instead found that your contractor demolished it, that would be more than a minor issue wouldn’t it?
    I for one, do not trust those who write or push bond measures to have carte blanche with our bond money. Same goes for tax measures.

  • its_my_ball

    Can’t handle the message, so you discredit the messenger and the forum. Now that’s mature …

  • Tony Walnuts

    Maybe you’d prefer Walnut Creek? I do,which is why I moved there. But I still work in Berkeley and maintain a room here so I can vote in a city that devotes its time to issues that it can’t really influence but that make me feel less bourgeois. As a bonus, I don’t have to pay for the policies I champion.

  • guest

    I was thinking of the comments that don’t have any message and are just pure hatred, such as:

    I bet Judith Epstein hasn’t even visited it.

    How about making Epsteins private residence a Historical Landmark to oddball political gadflies

    Congratulations Ms. Epstein. You are our hero.

    This group or one person are calling for public oneness blight and usinng fony claims of historical signifagance to get it done

    I’ll say it again: a lot of angry people making hate-filled comments on this thread.

  • OMG, SMH

    Yeah, gosh, why would anyone ever be mad about rich people living in the hills filing nuisance lawsuits against the city trying to block the construction of new and improved libraries in the poorer parts of town?

  • Guest

    Nah. Haters are the people who file nuisance lawsuits against the city trying to block the construction of new and improved libraries in parts of town they don’t live in.

  • guest

    Do you also agree that the old WB branch was “ugly no caracter 1960 architecture disaster,” even though the fact is that it was built in 1923 and remodeled in the 1970s?

  • WestBerkeleyNeighbor

    I hope someone who oversees the old Finnish Hall down on 10th & Delaware apply for a grant. It’s such a beautiful old building with so much potential which has fallen into disrepair.

  • I’ll take 5k a year!

    In December 2011, the Berkeley City Council approved Mills Act contracts for the following properties (look it up if you want specifics):

    Arch Street— $221,401

    Benvenue Avenue— $74,472

    Roble Road—$257,934

    San Antonio Avenue— $48,689

    Totaling $602,452

    The dollar amounts listed are the expected tax savings per property over the life of the initial ten year contract. Where I’m from, $257,934 buys a lot of eggos and a paltry $48,689 gets you plenty of maple syrup to put on top, even after you pay the architect.

  • Devin

    Yes, I guess they should have, but it was a proposal that optimistically (and wisely) tried to save existing structures. It turned out it was going to cost more to remodel them than a demo and rebuild. I would love to get a brand new up-to-date house if a contractor told me it would cost less than fixing up my old one and the “home” you’re referring to is a public library, so the best bang for your buck would be the most communitarian, no? (…and one would think a more popular decision with the CLU?!)

    I think most Berkeleyans would love transparency, and less time and money spent on minutiae which is why this scenario is so infuriating for me: the City made the financially wise decision to spend less money rebuilding two (imo ugly and objectively rundown / unsafe) libraries and because of this they are saddled with a lawsuit that wastes the City’s time and money. It does nothing to improve transparency, in fact, if anything the settlement on this served as positive reinforcement for the idea that the City can pay a grant later to do whatever they want with bond money now.

  • tardo

    22 Roble Rd is a 6000 sq ft house that sold for 2.3M in 2010 as a fixer. You have no idea what you are talking about.

    http://www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/uploadedFiles/Clerk/Level_3_-_City_Council/2011/12Dec/2011-12-06_Item_17_Mills_Act_Contracts.pdf

  • guest

    It could be that G was referring to the ugly, characterless 1970s renovations of the West Berkeley library, which were so repellant one would hardly know that there was a library there. The new WB library–like the South Berkeley library–is wonderful and filled with beautiful natural lighting. Thank goodness the naysayers retreated and we now have these community treasures.