Shame on Berkeley Public Library

Recent Proposals by the Library Risk Destroying Key Architectural and Cultural Civic History

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"Things are seldom what they seem,

Skim milk masquerades as cream"

-William S. Gilbert, from H.M.S. Pinafore

As UC Berkeley students, faculty and staff, arrive to animate another academic semester, one of the draws is Berkeley itself, a city with tree-lined streets and much excellent architecture - but lurking below the surface is an ugly move by the public library to demolish two of four library branches, both of which have considerable architectural merit. Plans also include quietly and dramatically dumbing down one of the country's most generously funded (on a per-capita basis) public libraries.

Corporatization, privatization and a lack of appreciation for local architectural history are all part of the mix. For journalism students, there's bad (and absent) coverage of a story that will affect Berkeleyans for a generation or more. For architecture students, there's excellent local architecture, unappreciated. For everyone, there's betrayal of the voters and library patrons, as bond monies intended for renovations and expansions are used to install a variety of programmatic changes without any discussion with the public.

Background: Voters approved Measure FF in November 2008, providing up to $26 million "to renovate, expand, and make seismic and access improvements at four neighborhood branch libraries…." The library's publicity boasted that West Branch had been designated by the city as a "structure of merit." The library's own consultants, Noll and Tam, reported that South Branch library appears to be eligible for listing as a landmark "for its association with architect John Hans Ostwald and potentially for its design characteristics."

However, after passage of Measure FF, the library administration changed its tune, and now intends to tear down both West Branch and South Branch and replace them with brand-new buildings.

Additionally, there is a range of changes that the voters were not told about, and about which the library administration has said little or nothing to the public.

Book Cuts and Book De-emphasis. Books and materials are to be severely cut at one branch, and proportionally de-emphasized at the three others. At Claremont Branch, the plans publicly presented in May called for a 22 percent cut in linear feet of shelving (lf); that is, 913 lf were to be cut from the current total of 4,027. At the same time, Claremont's floor space is to increase slightly, by 342 square feet. Unannounced to the public: public space will actually decrease slightly, according to a Planning Department memo to the Zoning Adjustments Board July 22. Other branches are to get floor space increases of 50 to 77 percent but shelving is to increase by about one-tenth that amount.

For example, South Branch is to get a 63 percent increase in floor space, but only 4 percent of that is for books. Believe it or not, the architect reported that the library's program (plan given to the architect) provided for one - yes, a single - linear foot increase in shelving, or about the span of a large person's hand.

Elimination of Reference Desks.

All reference desks at all branches are to be eliminated. The library's building plans say that the reference librarians will be encouraged to roam around, but we heard similar promises when the library installed privacy-threatening RFID for book checkout several years ago. We haven't seen it happen.

Privatization. Privatization of a once-proudly public institution is occurring as plans to raise money for furniture and fixtures include placement of donor names on dozens of places and things in the branches, including rooms, book shelves, areas for Adults, Children and Teens, staff areas, etc. Get ready for the possibility of the BP chandelier, or the Enron business book case.

Permanent zoning changes. The library recently got Berkeley's zoning law changed so that it could not just carry out changes under Measure FF, but make any changes to existing buildings, including the main (downtown) library, without ever having to get a Variance - including demolitions with replacement by a new building. That sets the planning bar much lower than before, and subjects the library to far less stringent standards than before. (A use permit would still be required.)

John Hans Ostwald, South Branch's architect, came to the Bay Area from Nazi-darkened Europe at the beginning of World War II, and designed hundreds of houses and renovations, many in Berkeley and in the East Bay. His designs "helped bring international recognition to the (newly developing) Bay Area style," according to John Hans Ostwald, Architect, by Donald Reay and UC graduate Peter Paret. His South Branch library won awards, including the American Institute of Architects/American Library Association Award of Merit in 1966. But Donna Corbeil, Berkeley's library head, was quoted in a local blog about the same building as follows:

It's a concrete block building," she said. "It was a cute design for its time, but it was really built on the cheap."

There have been some successes for civic activists. The Berkeley Daily Planet has so far published four Library Users Association Commentaries, starting May 25, 2010, plus several supportive letters and a commentary. Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association has stated strong opposition to the demolitions. And the library director said, at the last meeting of the library's governing body July 14,that the damage to Claremont's book capacity would be reduced. The plans would now cut 574 lf of shelving instead of the original 913 - still a massive reduction.

There is a great deal more in this story, and a great deal of useful work still to be done. For more information, contact us at [email protected]

Tags: MEASURE FF, BERKELEY PUBLIC LIBRARY


Peter Warfield is executive director of the Library Users Association. Reply at [email protected]



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