A longstanding Berkeley-based commercial real estate firm is suing the city over its use of landmark status to protect a Northside housing complex, alleging “a lack of supporting evidence” to justify the designation, which raises the bar for structural changes once applied.
The lawsuit, filed Wednesday on behalf of Rue-Ell Enterprises, Inc., focuses on 2508 Ridge Road, one block north of the UC Berkeley campus. According to the suit, property owner Rue-Ell was given minimal time to review and analyze the lengthy landmarking application and got insufficient time to make its own case before the city to fight the designation.
The lawsuit takes issue with the landmarking itself and says Rue-Ell was denied due process.
According to Rue-Ell, the landmarking was “not based on any facts or accepted architectural rules, but rather on matters not relevant nor germane to the architectural or historical features of the property and were neither reasonable in nature nor of solid value.”
The property at issue is a 15-unit complex called the Bennington Apartments, which was built in 1892 but has changed significantly since then. Rue-Ell bought the Ridge Road property in the 1960s, according to the landmark application. There is no application on file with the city to alter the building.
The city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission conferred landmark status on the building in February 2016 — based on a 73-page application by Daniella Thompson, a Berkeley resident and architectural historian who is the editor for the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association. The LPC initiated the process to consider the structure for landmarking, according to city records.
According to Thompson’s landmark application, “The 10,735-square-foot frame building consists of two stories above street grade and one story below. It is clad in unpainted wood shingles and surmounted by a series of gable- and cross-gable roofs clad in composition shingles. Two flared brick chimneys crown the roof ridge.”
The LPC found the building worthy of landmark status because of its “highly unusual hybrid style that is unique on the Northside,” according to city documents, and said it was the “only extant relic of 19th century Euclid Avenue.”
The Berkeley City Council upheld that designation in October, following an appeal by Rue-Ell, though it tweaked the language to make it more general. The appeal — filed by the same attorney who is handling the lawsuit — said the LPC decision was without evidence, and that the decision to landmark the structure was “arbitrary and capricious.”
The landmarking application described the building as “one of the three oldest known brown-shingle buildings in Berkeley,” but council struck out that language when it upheld the LPC decision.
The landmark application continues, “On this radically transformed block, the Bennington Apartments serve as a palpable reminder of Daley’s Scenic Park’s earliest days.” The Scenic Park tract was created in 1889. It ran from what’s now Hearst Avenue up to Cedar Street, and from Arch Street east to Highland Place.
According to the landmark application, “Of the six pre-1923 buildings still standing on the 2500 block of Ridge Road, three have been altered beyond recognition. North Gables, the significantly modified but still recognizable Victorian at 2531 Ridge Road, is the only other remnant from the 1890s. The first decade of the 20th century is represented by the very badly altered Blossom house (1904) on the corner of Le Roy Avenue, and by the intact four-story Treehaven Apartments, at 2523 Ridge Road.”
Under the city code, according to the lawsuit, architectural merit is conferred on properties that are the first, last, only or most significant type of their kind “in the region.” The lawsuit argues that the Northside neighborhood alone, specifically the “Daley’s Scenic Park” tract identified in the landmark application, is “hardly a region” and therefore fails to comply with the code requirements.
The lawsuit says there have been “substantial changes” to the Bennington Apartments, which were originally two buildings on Euclid that were later moved and joined together with stucco.
“Clad in unpainted gray stucco, most of the lower level was built as connective tissue in 1915, when the two houses were combined,” according to the landmark application. A fire in 1923 destroyed many brown-shingle homes on Euclid north of Ridge, leaving this the “only extant relic” of that time, the application concluded.
Significant façade changes followed the move, and defining features — including brown shingle cladding and a decorative balcony railing — were replaced, according to the lawsuit.
“Until 2007, the balcony above the left part of the porch featured an elegant wooden balustrade,” the landmark application reads. “Regrettably, this First Bay Region Tradition feature was replaced with a solid parapet…. Another lost feature is the previous wooden screen on the porch, replaced with off-the-shelf latticework.”
According to the landmark application, “The Bennington Apartments combine a rare 19th-century Shingle Style street façade with Arts & Crafts elements along the west elevation. The latter include notable architectural details such as a circular stucco wall, handsome glazed doors and arched windows, and robust tapered columns. This highly unusual hybrid style is unique on the Northside and possibly in all of Berkeley.”
But the lawsuit takes issues with those conclusions, arguing that the structure was “patched together” from two different buildings of different styles, moved from one spot to another, built at different times, designed by unknown architects, built by unknown builders, significantly modified on the exterior and substantially obscured from street view.
That’s not to say the building isn’t special. A recent rental listing for a unit at 2508 Ridge describes it as “Super Charming,” with “beautiful hardwood floors,” a fireplace, built-in bookcases and “Older Style Light Fixtures.” “The Ridge Road Apartments is one of North Berkeley’s Charming Brown Shingled Building,” the ad continues. “As you would expect from this 1910’s building it has really unique architectural features. In addition, its fantastic location can’t be beat.”
Some historical figures also had ties to the property, the landmrk application says. One of those was Frank Wilson, who owned one of the houses that later became the Bennington. Wilson was a “proprietor and chief promoter of the Daley’s Scenic Park tract, a civic and business leader, and a patron of charities, the arts, and the University.” He was close to U.C. President Benjamin Wheeler, U.C. Regent Phoebe Hearst, and campus architect John Galen Howard, “all of whom became his immediate neighbors.”
According to the landmark application, the Bennington was built by William and Mary Henry, “pioneers in the early commercial development of Euclid Avenue and the parents of Aurelia Henry Reinhardt, who herself was a resident of the Bennington Apartments from the time the building opened in 1915 until she was elected president of Mills College in 1916 and moved to Oakland.”
The lawsuit says the significance of those ties is tenuous — “Nothing about the structure embodies the history of these individuals” — and that council abused its discretion when it upheld the LPC’s landmark designation. The suit asks the court to make the city set aside the designation and pay for lawsuit costs, and for unlimited “further relief.”
“The City’s findings cited no facts to support the conclusion of historic value,” wrote attorney Steven Piser, who filed the lawsuit for Rue-Ell, adding, “‘Hybrid’ is not an architectural style.”
Rue-Ell is part of a commercial property leasing company in Berkeley that dates back to the 50s.
According to its website, “Our corporation was initially formed in 1958 as a car seat covering business by college student David Ruegg. He and longtime friend Robert Ellsworth became partners in 1960 and delved into several different investment interests before settling on commercial real estate. For over 50 years, these two Berkeley natives have operated their businesses on a handshake.”
The city of Berkeley does not comment on pending litigation.
Landmark designation can happen in Berkeley through the City Council, the Planning and Civic Arts commissions, or by property owners themselves. The only other way to request landmark status is through an application brought by at least 50 residents of Berkeley, according to the city code.
The filing fee to initiate the landmarking of a building is $100.
Since January 2015, according to the Planning Department, there have been nine landmark initiation applications filed.
Two of those were denied — at 2556 Telegraph Ave. (The Village) and 2777 Shattuck Ave. (Berkeley Honda) — and two were approved, at 3031-3051 Adeline St. and 2508 Ridge (above). Five others are pending.
[Update: Thompson reached out to Berkeleyside after publication to say "The list reproduced from the City of Berkeley is both incomplete and out of date. It doesn’t show the Yazdi Building, 2910–2912 Telegraph Avenue, designated on 7 July 2016, and it lists the Captain Slater House, 1335 Shattuck Avenue, as pending, when it was designated on 2 February 2017. Altogether, five landmarks were designated since the beginning of 2015, including the Channing Apartments, 2409 College Avenue, which were initiated on 4 December 2014 and designated on 5 February 2015.” Landmarks designated by year can be seen on the BAHA webpage.]
The landmarking process is generally not undertaken by the property owner.
Since January 2015, at least four of the nine applications were initiated by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, while two were submitted by local historian Steve Finacom. Thompson’s name was listed as the applicant on two, though one of those — at 1335 Shattuck, north of Rose Street — indicated in notes that it too came through the LPC.
Thompson said after publication, however, that the city records are not correct.
“I was the applicant on all five successful applications since the beginning of 2015 (one of them, the Yazdi Building, in partnership with Steven Finacom),” she said, by email. “In all but one of those cases, I asked the LPC to initiate the properties in question, and the commission voted to do so. The only one initiated by petition was the Hull Undertaking Co. & Little Chapel of the Flowers, 3049–3051 Adeline Street, designated on 3 September 2015.”
(Note: This story was updated Feb. 28 to include clarifying information from Daniella Thompson regarding Berkeley landmark applications in recent years. Although the city website describes the application as having been initiated by the LPC, Thompson said she was the applicant, and that the materials in her application should be credited to her, rather than the LPC. The story has been updated to reflect this. Thompson said the filing fee is actually $100, not $50 as listed on the city website. The story has been corrected.)