City reaches settlement agreement in library demolition lawsuit

Just over a year since a lawsuit was filed against the city for its proposal to demolish two branches of the Berkeley Public Library, the Berkeley City Council approved the terms of a settlement Tuesday night, giving the green light for construction.

The partial settlement agreement with the Concerned Library Users over the contentious demolition of the South and West branches — part of the overall rehabilitation project slated for the Berkeley Public Library — calls for the establishment of a $100,000 historic preservation fund and will not halt the demolition and rebuilding of the two branches.

The money will be used for the physical restoration and preservation of other city buildings and some private structures. In addition to the fund, the city will pay $15,000 — a portion of the group’s legal fees, according to a Berkeley Public Library Foundation press release.

Councilmember Jesse Arreguin said the city opted to resolve the lawsuit since it was not sure what the court ruling might be and because the ballot measure talked about preserving historic buildings.

“If the court did rule in favor of the plaintiff, we would need to find funding elsewhere and create a new plan,” he said.

In 2000, the library system began to review feasibility studies to update the libraries, according to Elisabeth Watson, president of the Berkeley Public Library Foundation. Eight years later, voters approved Measure FF, a $26 million bond to fund improvements at the city’s public libraries.

Since some of the subsequent proposals included options to demolish, remove and make adjustments to library branches, the Concerned Library Users sued Aug. 30, stating that funds from the measure could only be used to “renovate, expand and make seismic and access improvements.”

The group’s spokesperson Judith Epstein has previously stated that other issues, such as the energy-efficiency evaluation and the costs of the new construction, were also part of the basis for the lawsuit.

“We gathered a bunch of people together when the city started to break its word,” she said in an interview Wednesday.

The city rejected the group’s preservation plan, saying it was too expensive and would not meet the current needs of the community.

The approved plans will allow libraries to provide equitable services, Watson said. This would entail teen workspaces, quiet areas and locations for story-time for kids.

The settlement means the project will now move forward, and work on the West and South buildings will begin once the other two branches, the Claremont and North, are completed and reopened.

“It’s really about getting the best libraries for the money we have to spend,” Watson said. “Libraries serve a lot of purposes, and we need the libraries to meet those needs.”