Demolition of library branches OK’d

Jeffrey Joh/Staff

The Berkeley City Council approved unanimously last Tuesday the demolition of the West and South branches of the city’s libraries, allowing the council to move forward with plans for the project despite possible funding uncertainties due to a lawsuit filed by a group of Berkeley residents.

All of the library’s branches are to undergo renovations to make seismic retrofits and improve ADA accessibility. Despite some comments at the council meeting from those who are against the project and pending litigation, the council certified the Environmental Impact Report and approved a demolition as well as a construction permit for the renovation of the two branches.

The Claremont and North branches of the Berkeley Public Library closed last month for construction, with the council having accepted the lowest proposed construction bid of $2.97 million for the Claremont branch from San Francisco-based firm Fine Line Construction in March.

The council finalized a contract for the renovation and expansion of the North branch with BHM Construction at its April 26 meeting.

According to Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, the council will now be able to issue a bid to find a contractor to demolish the West and South branches, and contracts will be made within the next six months.

Though funding has been approved by the council, the lawsuit filed by Concerned Library Users in September 2010 could leave plans tentative until the court case — which is scheduled for sometime in the fall — is decided.

“If the judge sides with the plaintiffs, then we will have to either find a different source of funding for the projects or have to redesign the projects for preservation,” Arreguin said.

The lawsuit questions the legality of the utilization of funds from Measure FF — a bond approved by Berkeley voters in November 2008 that increases property taxes over 30 years and provides $26 million for library improvements. While the measure said the funds can be used “to renovate, expand and make seismic and access improvements,” it does not specifically mention demolition.

“Measure FF passed by just 750 votes of 55,834 cast, and had it specified that libraries were to be demolished, it wouldn’t have passed at all,” Judith Epstein, a spokesperson for the group, said in an email.

Epstein added that there are numerous flaws in the report’s analysis of the proposed projects — such as its evaluation of the energy-efficiency costs of a new building over preservation of the old building — as well as in its analysis of alternative proposals submitted by Todd Jersey, a local architect hired by the library users group.

A case management conference scheduled for May 31 will determine the schedule for the lawsuit, according to Epstein.
Berkeley Public Library Foundation President Elisabeth Watson said she is “thrilled” the council approved the permits because this will mean better library services for the public in the future and said a delay caused by a lawsuit will impact access to “state of the art libraries” for community members.

Ultimately, however, both Watson and council members said it is the council’s intent to only improve the accessibility and effectiveness of the library as soon as possible for the community.

“The entire city council wants better libraries, and we recognize that it’s absolutely critical that we provide more resources,” Arreguin said. “I think our unanimous decision supports better resources.”

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Berkeley City Council has yet to finalize a construction contract for the North branch of the Berkeley Public Library. In fact, the council approved a construction contract with BHM Construction at its April 26 meeting.