By Frances Dinkelspiel
Mayor Tom Bates has decided to push for a civic center overlay that will protect the Main Post Office, and admits that he hopes his support will undermine the downtown green initiative scheduled for the November ballot.
Bates wants Berkeley to adopt the exact language of the initiative, which was put forward by City Councilman Jesse Arreguín, in part because of his frustration that the council had not adopted the overlay. Arreguín first introduced the overlay idea in July 2013. The council sent the item to the Planning Commission for review, and after discussing it at a September meeting, referred it back to city staff.
Bates now wants the city council to discuss the overlay at the June 24 city council meeting and to consider an ordinance at its Sept. 9 meeting. Bates will suggest that timeline at an Agenda Committee meeting today. (Item 21)
“There is general agreement on the council that we would like to save the Post Office, and this is a good way to do it,” Bates said.
Bates believes that the downtown green initiative, formally known as the Green Downtown & Public Commons Initiative, will be defeated in November so council should take separate action to enact the overlay.
“This way we will protect the post office by taking action in the first part of September,” he said.
Bates also admits that adopting the overlay might undermine one of the most appealing aspects of the initiative. Most of the measure is technical and complicated and addresses height, housing, open space, and parking issues in the downtown core. The civic center overlay portion of the initiative, in contrast, can be easily described as “help save the post office.” Opponents are worried that people will vote for the overlay, not fully understanding that the initiative will affect the increased density Berkeley approved when it adopted Measure R in 2010.
Arreguín is pleased that the council will push for stronger protection for the post office on Allston Way, which the U.S. Postal Service has put up for sale. But he said the November initiative will still be needed to lock in the protections. Different members of the city council have expressed differing ideas on what the overlay should do, he said. Some have even advocated that businesses be allowed to establish restaurants there, or pursue other commercial activity.
“We can’t trust the council majority to pass strong zoning,” Arreguín said. “There is nothing stopping the council from rescinding the ordinance or modifying it. There is no guarantee we will have a strong overlay.”
Arreguín said it is clear Bates is pushing the overlay now — after dallying in the past — for political reasons.
“The timing is apparent,” Arreguín said. “They are doing this to try and undermine the initiative. But if the initiative is a catalyst to get the council to pass this policy, great.”
The overlay in the downtown green initiative, and the language that Bates wants to use for a city ordinance, designates that the 13 historic structures around Old City Hall cannot be used for commercial purposes. The plan would require that the structures, which include the post office on Allston Way, the Veteran’s Memorial Building, Old City Hall, the Courthouse, Civic Center Park, the Civic Center building, the YMCA, portions of the Berkeley Community Theater and Little Theater, and Berkeley High School, be use for community activities, cultural activities and educational and civic uses. It would also allow a public market and live theater. No residential or mixed-use development would be allowed.
Arreguín introduced the overlay to try and thwart the U.S. Postal Service’s attempts to sell the Main Post Office, which has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Arreguín and other officials want to keep postal services at that location. They don’t want a developer to transform that building into a restaurant or a hotel.
The hope is that the overlay will make it less likely that developers purchase the structure.
Bates also said that he decided to push for an overlay now because he had grown increasingly frustrated with his dealing with the U.S. Postal Service. As one part of its multi-part attempt to stop the sale of the post office, Berkeley has been trying to become the “holder of the covenant,” of the building. Since the post office is landmarked, the U.S. Postal Service has to enter into an agreement with a third party to ensure that the public has access to the landmarked items. In Berkeley’s case, that would mean that the public could get inside to see the murals and historic architecture.
But the language the U.S. Postal Service gave to the city is “totally unacceptable,” said Bates. But if the city cannot come to terms with the government and walks away from negotiations, the U.S. Postal Service can find another third party who may only open the building once a year to the public, he said. This possible impasse made Bates feel it was urgent to adopt a civic center overlay sooner rather than later, he said.
Bates said he has heard that at least three groups — one nonprofit, one commercial, have expressed interest in buying the post office. There may be more.
The U.S. Postal Service is not publicly discussing potential buyers.
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