Berkeley Planning Commission moves forward with zoning overlay to preserve historic buildings

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The Berkeley Planning Commission voted Wednesday in favor of a zoning overlay aimed at preserving historic buildings in Downtown Berkeley, including the post office, which is currently up for sale.

The overlay applies to the Civic Center Historic District, which includes Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park, Berkeley High School and other locations. It restricts the purpose of such places to 10 “community” uses, such as those of libraries, government agencies and parks. Now that commissioners have approved the current language of the overlay, the measure is set to go back to Berkeley City Council in September for further consideration.

“It would be so wonderful to take my future kids to show them the historic overlay zone … to show them the architectural masterpieces and marvels,” said Igor Tregub, a former rent board commissioner, during public comment at the meeting.

While about 10 Berkeley residents spoke in its favor, the overlay also faced criticism from the U.S. Postal Service. In a letter sent to the city, a lawyer speaking on behalf of the Postal Service said the commission should have taken more time to consider public feedback before making a decision.

The letter also cited an analysis conducted by Economic and Planning Systems Inc. on behalf of the Postal Service as evidence that implementing the overlay would create urban decay.

“EPS concluded that the Overlay District would result in a loss of existing revenue streams to the City … and would foreclose private uses that could fund the restoration and preservation of the historic buildings,” the letter said.

In light of these points, the letter requested that the commission conduct an environmental review for the overlay before taking further action.

Public officials and the Postal Service have long been in disagreement over the pending sale of the Downtown post office. While Berkeley officials and residents have expressed fears that such a sale would lead to the privatization of the office, the Postal Service has said it needs to sell for financial reasons and denies that doing so would hurt the historic integrity of the building.

Overlay supporters, though, emphasized at the commission meeting that the overlay is aimed at a greater effort than preserving the post office.

“What we passed last night is really not about the post office,” said Planning Commissioner Sean Barry, who is also running for the District 7 City Council seat. “It’s about making a broader statement about preserving the part of the Downtown for proper uses.”

Other versions of a civic center overlay have been considered by City Council in the past months — the overlay ordinance considered Wednesday, in fact, was drawn from an initiative spearheaded by Councilmember Jesse Arreguin that will be on November’s ballot.

But unlike ordinances, which can be amended by City Council, initiatives can only be amended through the ballot. For this reason, Barry said he would prefer for the overlay to pass as an ordinance rather than as part of the initiative, because he would like the council to have the flexibility to edit the specific language of the overlay.

Arreguin, though, said he hopes both his initiative and overlay ordinance pass.

“Only with an initiative can we lock these protections in for future generations,” Arreguin said.

Melissa Wen is the lead city news reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @melissalwen.