Proposed addition on Berkeley’s historic Greenwood Common fuels controversy

Greenwood Common, a cluster of eight 1950s homes built around a shared open space with bay views, is a city historical landmark. Photo: Nancy Coulter/The Cultural Landscape Foundation

A proposal to build a second story on a home in Berkeley’s historic Greenwood Common is meeting strong objection from neighbors who believe the design would damage the architectural integrity of the unique area.

The common, a cluster of eight mid-century-modern homes built around a shared open space in the North Berkeley hills off of upper Rose Street, is a city historical landmark.

A handful of architectural preservationists and historians familiar with the common have joined the neighbors in protesting the project.

Last week, at a packed meeting, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission sided with those against the addition, voting to deny a structural alteration permit, a required step in the building permit process because of the site’s landmark status. The majority of speakers opposed the project.


But, according to Debra Sanderson, a former Berkeley city planner who now runs a private planning firm and represents the No. 8 Greenwood Common homeowners, they will continue to seek permits to build.

“We, of course, respect the Commission’s decision and empathize with the neighbors’ concerns, but we wish the commission had spend more time considering the project’s many benefits for Greenwood Common,” Sanderson said in an email.

“The owners expect to continue in the process.”

Street view of #8 Greenwood Common with story poles marking proposed addition. Photo: Kate Rauch

Those against the plan were relieved by the commission’s decision, which went against the city planning staff’s recommendation to approve it. They say they’ll keep fighting as the project moves forward. All but one of the current homeowners on the common signed a letter against the project.

“I’m glad the landmarks commission respected the original vision of the common, and reaffirmed it,” said Nancy Ukai Russell, who lives on the common. “This [the proposal] was a challenge to these norms. It makes people reassess what is the meaning; what is the value of the common. Why should we not build.”

Greenwood Common, often called a designed landscape, was conceived by renowned architect William Wurster, dean of the UC Berkeley School of Environmental Design. Prominent landscape architect Lawrence Halprin designed the outdoor spaces. The landscaped grassy common opens to panoramic Bay views to the west.

The homes, each designed by a well-known mid-century-modern architect, are predominantly wood and glass, mostly compact and flat-roofed, and blend in with the natural surroundings both in terms of textures and colors.

The rustic yet sleek style is known as the Second Bay Tradition in the evolution of Bay Area-rooted modern architecture, and is found throughout the state.

Looking down Greenwood Common southern path to the west, with #8 on the left. Photo: Kate Rauch

Landmarked in 1990, after the city’s rejection of a second story proposal for a different house on the common, the site is frequently a sightseeing stop of visiting architects and city planners from around the globe.

The proposed addition to No. 8, a partial second story, is also unique in that it uses plans drawn in 1962 by the original architect of the home, Howard Moises, a colleague of Wurster. The owners at that time approached Moises with the idea, but the addition was never built.

The current application also asks for permits to enclose a carport, replace a fence, and a few other fairly minor improvements. The project description calls for using materials and design elements true to the original home and Greenwood Common.

“This isn’t an effort to destroy Greenwood Common. This is an effort to make a small change to keep the building alive. Many of these houses have had changes; most of these houses have second stories,” said the applicant’s architect, Lyn Alhorn.

Over the years, especially before landmarking, some houses on the common have had updates.

In recommending the project for approval by the landmarks commission, city staff said in part:

“The property’s historic low-density residential character and architectural design in the Second Bay Tradition would be retained and preserved with the proposed alterations. The proposed, partial second-story addition would not significantly alter the features and spatial relationships that characterize this property because: (1) the design of the addition mirrors a similar, but never executed, addition designed in 1962 by the original architect, Howard Moises; and (2) the building’s overall massing would retain primarily horizontal in orientation.”

Architectural drawing of proposed addition to #8 Greenwood Common, looking West.

But this wasn’t enough for a majority of commissioners, who voted 6 to 1 to deny the application, while telling the owners they’re welcome to try again with a new design.

Most of the concern was around the second story, which many said goes against the original Wurster concept of single-story homes along the south side of the common to maintain spaciousness and light.

Steve Finacom, commission chair, said at the meeting, “I didn’t hear any people who are experts in Greenwood Common and mid-century-modern history saying that this was appropriate. That was all pretty compelling to me.”

Waverly Lowell, curator of Cal’s Environmental Design archives, wrote a book about Greenwood Common called Living Modern and spoke against the project at the meeting.

Finacom also said the fact the owners knowingly purchased a landmarked property  factored into his decision.

In her lone support for the application, commissioner Kathleen Crandall said, “I was intrigued that you used the original architects’s design. This is a difficult one. The main point I got out of the evening was how important this common is to the community.”

In the city’s building process, a landmarked site must get approval from two bodies at public hearings: the Landmarks Commission and the Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB).

The recommendations are independent of each other, and both can be appealed to the City Council for a final decision.

Some opponents of the projects questioned the motivation of the property owners, Cindy and Rory Reid, who bought the home in early 2016. Rory Reid, a former candidate for Governor of Nevada, is the son of Nevada Senator Harry Reid.

A few wonder if they’d hoped to flip the property to make money. Others suggested heavy-handed politics is at play in the city’s permitting process.

But not all neighbors share these views. Some said they welcomed the new owners to the common while urging them to rethink their proposal.

Echoing others, neighbor Ukai Russell pointed out that if their project is approved it would set a risky precedent. “It opens the door. That’s the slippery slope. When you buy in here you have to understand the conditions of living here.”