BERKELEY -- Condos at the downtown post office? Burgers at the Veteran's Building Mall? A five-star hotel at Old City Hall?

Not likely if the City Council agrees with Wednesday night's unanimous Planning Commission recommendation to adopt a law that would preserve nine historic sites in civic center and guarantee that they serve the public.

The council is expected to consider the recommendation Sept. 9.

Among sites included in the ordinance, known as the Civic Center District Overlay, are Old City Hall along with the adjacent courthouse and Public Safety Building; the Veterans' Memorial Building; the State Farm Insurance Building, 1947 Center St.; Civic Center Park; the Civic Center Building on Milvia Street; the Downtown Berkeley YMCA; the Berkeley Community Theatre and adjacent Florence Schwimley Little Theater; Berkeley High School; and the downtown post office.

It requires that these buildings and the park serve the community with educational, cultural or civic functions. Current uses, such as office rental at the city-owned State Farm building and the fitness center at the YMCA, are "grandfathered" into the law.

The specific uses allowed include libraries, courts, museums, parks, public safety, government, education, live theater, a public market, as well as nonprofit organizations serving the arts, culture, environment, community service and history.

The ordinance limits buildings in the district to a height of 50 feet.

The language of this ordinance is also incorporated into Measure R on the November ballot. Measure R addresses a broad range of downtown development issues, including the overlay district.


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While some 50 people attended the Planning Commission meeting to support the overlay district, a legal firm representing the United States Postal Service, which hopes to sell the downtown post office, sent a letter to the commission opposing the district.

Legal firm Cox, Castle & Nicholson argued in the letter that the overlay district requires a higher level of environmental review than the Negative Declaration that the commission unanimously approved before recommending the overlay ordinance. A "Neg Dec" is a formal finding that a development will not have a significant adverse effect on a project area. Under California law, a full environmental impact report must be undertaken if a project is deemed to have a significant adverse impact.

The letter contended that an EIR is required "because substantial evidence exists that the Overlay District may result in urban decay." It continued by claiming that the overlay district would "foreclose private uses that could fund the restoration and preservation of the historic buildings within the Overlay District."

Cox, Castle & Nicholson further warned the city that "the proposed overlay may amount to an unconstitutional attempt to regulate the functions of a federal entity (the postal service) and, among other things, regulate in an area that may have been pre-empted by Congress."

Addressing the commission before its vote, Mike Lonergan, with Citizens to Save the Berkeley Post Office, complimented the commission for listening to the public, and blasted USPS for only paying attention to the public with their opposition to the overlay district.

Holding the USPS attorneys' letter, he drew laughs when he quipped: "I think we could have another window open at the downtown post office for a year from what this letter costs."

Steve Finacom, former president of the Berkeley Historical Society, also argued for the district.

"Downtown Berkeley is not going to expire if developers don't get their hands on the post office as a development site. We're not going to starve if we can't buy gourmet cheese there," he told the commission.

"Future generations are going to bitterly resent us if we don't act to protect a tiny bit of downtown that's still public and community space while there's still time," he said.