Renovation plans may be delayed more

Photo: The South branch (above) and the West branch of the Berkeley Public Library were planned to be demolished, but a recent lawsuit challenges the legality of these plans.
Ashley Chen/Photo
The South branch (above) and the West branch of the Berkeley Public Library were planned to be demolished, but a recent lawsuit challenges the legality of these plans.

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After several months of delays due to a lawsuit and landmark proposals, plans to demolish the South and West branches of the Berkeley Public Library were approved at the Zoning Adjustments Board meeting Thursday night, though concerns about the legality of the demolitions could prolong the process further.

The decision came after the zoning board approved the Environmental Impact Reports for both buildings and the Landmarks Preservation Commission decided not to take any action on designating the South branch as a Berkeley landmark. All of the library's branches - the other two being the Claremont and North branches - are set to undergo renovations to make seismic retrofits and improve ADA accessibility.

The renovations are set to be funded by Measure FF - a $26 million bond approved by Berkeley voters in 2008 that finances library improvements through increasing property taxes over 30 years - though a lawsuit filed by the Concerned Library Users group in August has questioned the legality of using the measure funds to demolish the South and West branches.

The text of the measure said the funds would be used "to renovate, expand and make seismic and access improvements" at the four libraries, but does not mention demolition. The group claims that since voters were unaware that the project would include demolitions, the Measure FF funds cannot be used.

In the lawsuit, the group challenged both the city's plans to use Measure FF funds as well as city ordinance that allows the demolition with a use permit rather than a variance. The latter was settled when the city agreed to conduct EIRs on the use permits for the South and West branches, though the rest of the lawsuit is still pending.

"The City and CLU agreed to wait until the City Council approves the South and West library projects," Susan Brandt-Hawley, the attorney representing the Concerned Library Users, said in an email. "If the demolition of the libraries is not approved there would be no violation of Measure FF and the lawsuit would resolve."

Berkeley Public Library Foundation President Elisabeth Watson said an enormous amount of resources have been devoted to responding to legality issues raised in the lawsuit and concerns about the landmark status of the South branch, adding that she fears delaying the renovations will only complicate the process further.

"Some community members are concerned that the project with the other two branches will get built and ... the South and West branches will be left behind," Watson said. "The group with the lawsuit is saying that this won't delay things, but the truth is that the longer we wait, the more things can change with construction costs. They tend to get more expensive."

Meanwhile, construction is scheduled to begin this week on the Claremont Branch, which closed April 4, while the North branch will close April 25. According to Watson, the Claremont branch renovations should take about 10 to 12 months and the North branch renovations are expected to be completed within 12 to 16 months. Construction on the West and South branches will not begin until the other two branches are reopened.

The City Council is expected to certify the zoning board and commission's decisions at its next meeting April 26 and hold a public hearing on the matter some time in May.


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