Daily Planet Won’t Run Letter Opposed to Editor’s Cause, Reader Says

“[T]he best remedy for speech you don’t like is more speech.” Berkeley Daily Planet editor Becky O’Malley wrote that after the dustup over her decision to run a commentary from an anti-Zionist back in August that some Jewish readers considered anti-Semitic. But Adam Block, a West Berkeley businessman, complains that the Planet wouldn’t run his LONG letter opposing Measure J, the landmarks initiative championed by O’Malley.

“Whether or not Becky intended to minimize free speech, that’s the practical effect” of not running his letter, Block says. Block also grouses that in the Planet’s fat pre-election weekend edition, the paper found room to run two commentaries in favor of Measure J.

O’Malley tells us that Block sent in his 1,400-word (!) letter-twice the Planet’s recommended length-late in the game after they’d already filled the Opinion section for Friday’s paper. She adds that the Planet has printed all other anti-Measure J letters received including one from Jerry Landis today (which is in the print edition, but not online as far as we can tell). A final aside: Block also complained to O’Malley for not immediately running a letter he wrote about the anti-Zionist commentary. “The guy,” O’Malley observed in an email to us, “has a prodigious sense of entitlement.”

The full text of Block’s letter:

    Proponents of Measure J, while loudly denouncing criticism of the measure, themselves seriously distort the proposed initiative’s content and the general state of historic preservation in Berkeley.

    Measure J backers imply that the initiative was placed on the 2006 ballot to fight off an effort by the mayor and Councilmember Capitelli to weaken the existing Landmarks Preservation Ordinance (LPO). In fact, in response to concerns about misuse of the LPO, over six years ago the City Council directed the Landmarks Preservation Commission to undertake a 60-day review process that would streamline permitting and approvals while maintaining strong protection of historic resources. About 2,200 days later, in May 2006, after years of dialogue and drafting efforts by both the LPC and City planning staff, the Landmarks Preservation Commission petitioned to abandoned the revision process – including their own draft recommendation – and start again from scratch. The City Council refused, making clear that Ordinance reforms were long overdue.

    Council then directed City staff to write a new draft Ordinance that would respond to the concerns of preservationists while reducing homeowner uncertainty and meeting the deadline obligations of the state Permit
    Streamlining Act. Most of the commissioners supported the resulting compromise Ordinance, including Carrie Olsen, an ardent preservationist not known for defending developers.

    Unwilling to back the result of a long, inclusive process that won the support of citizens and business interests alike, a small cadre of anti-growth activists drafted Measure J, quickly generating the signatures necessary to put it on the ballot by scaring Berkeley voters. They warned darkly that the Council’s adoption of the planning staff’s revisions would immediately result in the wholesale demolition of unique Berkeley neighborhoods by voracious out-of-town development interests.

    Once such tactics helped get the Measure onto the Berkeley ballot, Measure J’s drafters have continued their relentless campaign of fear-mongering and misdirection. Initiative backers have distorted the truth on three major topics:

    Need for Reform. While the “By the Numbers” page of the Measure J Web site (www.lpo2006.org/numbers ) implies otherwise by comparing the count of individual landmarks in Berkeley to the number of homes in historical district elsewhere, Berkeley’s 289 individually protected properties – about 2.6 landmarks per 1,000 citizens – is a very high number by state standards. Pasadena – often lauded as protective of its historic resources – has fewer than 0.9 protected properties per 1,000 citizens; San Francisco has 0.3 properties per thousand, about the same as Oakland.

    Berkeleyans are proud of this defense of our historical legacy, but many agree with the majority of the City Council members that revisions are necessary to address past cases of malfeasance by activist Commissioners. In a number of well-documented instances, the LPC has protected properties that clearly had no historical merit. These “protections” were designed to slow or stop the development process in cases when the City’s existing land-use processes did not – or were not anticipated to – generate the outcome desired by a small but noisy group of anti-growth extremists or hostile neighbors. Most citizens would agree that the crumbling retaining wall on Le Conte, the natural gas pipelines stretching across Fourth Street south of Gilman, and the Spenger’s parking lot do not merit City protection, but these were all deemed historic; in each case a property owner’s rights were abridged in the interests of an agenda outside the LPC’s mandate.

    Indeed, some Commissioners have felt no need to be discrete about their desire to play the role of a “Backup Zoning Adjustments Board.” I was present at the Commission meeting where former Commissioner Patti Dacey publicly stated her opinion that the LPO was adopted specifically as a roadblock to growth, rather than to protect our architectural heritage. Commissioners implicitly defend this view when they ask applicants during the permit process what they intend to build in place of a property up for historic review. The role of the Commission is preservation, not evaluation of future projects – we have ZAB and the Planning Commission for that.

    A number of recent letters to the Daily Planet have suggested that property owners are crying foul unnecessarily by highlighting poor LPC decisions that were later overturned by the City Council, such as Celia’s. That implies
    that the landmark review process has no cost, which is ludicrous. A review by the notoriously slow and underresourced LPC can take nine months. Follow that up with a City Council appeal – the Council does not automatically review landmark designations, as a recent letter writer suggested – the common second round of LPC review, and a final Council decision, and the review of a property that turns out not to be a landmark can take well over a year. Project opponents, whether anti-growth activists or antagonistic neighbors, know that a year delay may make a commercial development financially infeasible or drive a homeowner to abandon the project in frustration and so count LPC initiation – often deliberately kicked off when the regular planning review cycle is drawing to a close – among their most useful tools.

    Integrity Requirements. According to an October 28 article in the Daily Planet, Measure J author Laurie Bright says that the claim that his initiative does not require landmarks to meet state standards for historical integrity is a “blatant lie.” In fact, the prevarication is his. The compromise LPO includes the following line: “Commission must find that the proposed landmark.has integrity as defined in Title 14 of the California Code of Regulations, Section 4852.” The state regulations define a set of standards widely accepted by architectural historians for determining whether a property is worth preserving. Measure J backers don’t want to be constrained by professional standards, so they’ve omitted any reference to Section 4852 (you can look it up: download the initiative at www.lpo2006.org/docs/lpo2006.pdf
    and search it for the word “integrity”). Without clear guidelines, an activist commissioner or an antagonistic neighbor can find historical validity in just about any wall, dirt patch, or derelict structure. When an entire neighborhood can be initiated for lockdown with the signatures of just 25 homeowners, the potential for wholesale abuse is high.

    Effects of the Assessment of Historical Significance. Backers of Measure J have vigorously attacked the compromise ordinance over its incorporation of a process called the Assessment of Historical Significance (AHS). Under the AHS rules, a property owner can ask the Commission for a determination of whether or not their property is historic, even before they submit a zoning application. This makes sense: why should a homeowner waste thousands of dollars on architect’s drawings and permit fees if the changes they wish to make to their home will be later denied by the LPC? Measure J backers claim that “developers” will sneak AHS requests past neighbors, who without a pending project will be insufficiently motivated to research the history of the property in question. This argument is entirely specious. AHS submissions have the same neighbor-notification requirements as a regular zoning application: property owners must post a notice onsite and send postal mail to all neighbors. Furthermore, every AHS requires a full-blown public hearing. The Assessment of Historical Significance is an economically advisable process that saves time and owner and taxpayer dollars.

    No one wants a return to the bad old days of the 1960’s, when lovely antique homes were mowed down to make way for revolting stucco apartment blocks. But cities, like economies and species, need to evolve to thrive. Such evolution demands an effort to balance preservation of what was wonderful about the past with an eye towards those buildings and public spaces that will continue to make Berkeley exciting for decades to come. In an economic environment in which City sales tax revenues have dropped 18.2% since 2000 and the idea of a Berkeley “starter home” is a pipe dream, the future of Berkeley demands a public discussion of preservation priorities such as that embodied in the planning staff’s compromise Landmarks Ordinance. Measure J backers want to throw out the hard-won product of literally years of dialogue between homeowners, business people, City staff, and elected politicians, and replace inclusive legislation with a draft of their own, a draft that promotes their narrow set of priorities. I hope that Berkeley voters will reject this abuse of democracy by voting no on Measure J.

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