Historic Branch Libraries could be saved

Gale Garcia

West Berkeley Branch Library renovation design proposed by Todd Jersey Architecture (click here to see the plans.)

Measure FF was approved by Berkeley voters in 2008, providing $26 million in bond funding to “renovate, expand, and make seismic and access improvements” at Berkeley’s four branch libraries.

While the letter and intent of Measure FF are being honored with respect to the Claremont and the North Branch Libraries, Berkeley’s Board of Library Trustees (BOLT) has decided to demolish the South and West Berkeley Libraries and replace them with brand new buildings.

A group called Concerned Library Users (CLU), who were concerned not only about the needless loss of historic resources but also about the injustice of using bond funding for a purpose that was in neither the language of Measure FF nor the campaign literature for the Measure, filed a suit against the City.

The first part of the lawsuit, about a hasty zoning amendment affecting libraries without review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), was settled rapidly. The City agreed about the need for review. The second part of the lawsuit about the misuse of Measure FF funding remains to be heard in Superior Court, at a date yet to be determined.

The South Berkeley Branch Library (John Hans Ostwald, 1960)

Todd Jersey’s proposed renovation design for the South Berkeley Branch Library

CLU hired Todd Jersey, the architect whose talent and ingenuity led to the preservation of the Richmond Plunge, to draw plans for both the South and West Branch Libraries. Everyone interested in the branch libraries should take a look at the plans to see the many advantages they offer.

For each library, Mr. Jersey’s design would preserve the historic portion and accommodate all the same programs as the BOLT plan—in a larger building than provided by the BOLT plan.

For the South Branch, this could be done at significantly lower cost—a larger library for less money. And the stunning reading room seen in the historic photo below could be restored.

Adult Reading Room, South Berkeley Branch Library

For the West Branch Library, Mr. Jersey’s plan would restore the 1923 reading room and Classical Revival fašade, most of which remains intact under its blocky 1970s additions. For the children’s room, Mr. Jersey has designed a truly magical space, a circular room looking out at the redwood trees behind the library. Under his plan, the redwoods would be saved, while the BOLT plan calls for some of these trees to be destroyed.

First-floor plan for the West Berkeley Branch Library. The circular kids’ room is shown at the top.

The Todd Jersey plans for the South and West Branch Libraries are the environmentally superior preservation alternative—and they meet the mandate of Measure FF. Since CEQA allows for consideration of alternatives, these designs were submitted as part of the environmental review process. The City Council could choose these plans rather than the demolition-dependent plans, but sadly, preservation is not the focus of the current Council.

There will be a special joint meeting of the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) and the Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB)áat 6:00 pm on Thursday, 14 April 2011. The LPC will consider the demolitions of the South and West Branch Libraries, and the ZAB will consider Use Permits for theádemolition-dependent projects for the South and West Branch Libraries.

Letters to the LPC can be sent to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, c/o Jay Claiborne, Acting LPC Secretary, Land Use Planning Division, 2120 Milvia Street, Berkeley, CA 94704, or to JClaiborne@CityofBerkeley.info. Letters to ZAB can be sent to theáZoning Adjustments Board, c/o Steven Buckley, Secretary, Land Use Planning Division, 2120 Milvia Street, 2nd Floor, Berkeley, CAá 94704, oráto SBuckley@CityofBerkeley.info.

The City Council returns from springárecess on 26 April and will probably consider the alternative designs, the EIR, and the Use Permits at this meeting. Letters to the City Council can be sent to the City Clerk, 2180 Milvia Street, Berkeley, CA 94704, or to clerk@cityofberkeley.info. In order for LPC, ZAB, or Councilmembers to receive letters before the meetings, they should arrive eight days ahead of the scheduled date. However, letters submitted up to and including the meeting time will become part of the record. You may also voice your opinion at each of these meetings. For more information, as it becomes available, please see this website or call the BAHA office. Your participation can make a difference.

Copyright © 2011 Gale Garcia. All rights reserved.