Greenwood Common, a cluster of eight 1950s homes built around a shared open space with bay views, is a city historical landmark. Photo: Nancy Coulter/The Cultural Landscape Foundation

A proposal to build a second story on a home in Berkeley’s historic Greenwood Common is meeting strong objection from neighbors who believe the design would damage the architectural integrity of the unique area.

The common, a cluster of eight mid-century-modern homes built around a shared open space in the North Berkeley hills off of upper Rose Street, is a city historical landmark.

A handful of architectural preservationists and historians familiar with the common have joined the neighbors in protesting the project.

Last week, at a packed meeting, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission sided with those against the addition, voting to deny a structural alteration permit, a required step in the building permit process because of the site’s landmark status. The majority of speakers opposed the project.

But, according to Debra Sanderson, a former Berkeley city planner who now runs a private planning firm and represents the No. 8 Greenwood Common homeowners, they will continue to seek permits to build.

“We, of course, respect the Commission’s decision and empathize with the neighbors’ concerns, but we wish the commission had spend more time considering the project’s many benefits for Greenwood Common,” Sanderson said in an email.

“The owners expect to continue in the process.”

Street view of #8 Greenwood Common with story poles marking proposed addition. Photo: Kate Rauch

Those against the plan were relieved by the commission’s decision, which went against the city planning staff’s recommendation to approve it. They say they’ll keep fighting as the project moves forward. All but one of the current homeowners on the common signed a letter against the project.

“I’m glad the landmarks commission respected the original vision of the common, and reaffirmed it,” said Nancy Ukai Russell, who lives on the common. “This [the proposal] was a challenge to these norms. It makes people reassess what is the meaning; what is the value of the common. Why should we not build.”

Greenwood Common, often called a designed landscape, was conceived by renowned architect William Wurster, dean of the UC Berkeley School of Environmental Design. Prominent landscape architect Lawrence Halprin designed the outdoor spaces. The landscaped grassy common opens to panoramic Bay views to the west.

The homes, each designed by a well-known mid-century-modern architect, are predominantly wood and glass, mostly compact and flat-roofed, and blend in with the natural surroundings both in terms of textures and colors.

The rustic yet sleek style is known as the Second Bay Tradition in the evolution of Bay Area-rooted modern architecture, and is found throughout the state.

Looking down Greenwood Common southern path to the west, with #8 on the left. Photo: Kate Rauch

Landmarked in 1990, after the city’s rejection of a second story proposal for a different house on the common, the site is frequently a sightseeing stop of visiting architects and city planners from around the globe.

The proposed addition to No. 8, a partial second story, is also unique in that it uses plans drawn in 1962 by the original architect of the home, Howard Moises, a colleague of Wurster. The owners at that time approached Moises with the idea, but the addition was never built.

The current application also asks for permits to enclose a carport, replace a fence, and a few other fairly minor improvements. The project description calls for using materials and design elements true to the original home and Greenwood Common.

“This isn’t an effort to destroy Greenwood Common. This is an effort to make a small change to keep the building alive. Many of these houses have had changes; most of these houses have second stories,” said the applicant’s architect, Lyn Alhorn.

Over the years, especially before landmarking, some houses on the common have had updates.

In recommending the project for approval by the landmarks commission, city staff said in part:

“The property’s historic low-density residential character and architectural design in the Second Bay Tradition would be retained and preserved with the proposed alterations. The proposed, partial second-story addition would not significantly alter the features and spatial relationships that characterize this property because: (1) the design of the addition mirrors a similar, but never executed, addition designed in 1962 by the original architect, Howard Moises; and (2) the building’s overall massing would retain primarily horizontal in orientation.”

Architectural drawing of proposed addition to #8 Greenwood Common, looking West.

But this wasn’t enough for a majority of commissioners, who voted 6 to 1 to deny the application, while telling the owners they’re welcome to try again with a new design.

Most of the concern was around the second story, which many said goes against the original Wurster concept of single-story homes along the south side of the common to maintain spaciousness and light.

Steve Finacom, commission chair, said at the meeting, “I didn’t hear any people who are experts in Greenwood Common and mid-century-modern history saying that this was appropriate. That was all pretty compelling to me.”

Waverly Lowell, curator of Cal’s Environmental Design archives, wrote a book about Greenwood Common called Living Modern and spoke against the project at the meeting.

Finacom also said the fact the owners knowingly purchased a landmarked property  factored into his decision.

In her lone support for the application, commissioner Kathleen Crandall said, “I was intrigued that you used the original architects’s design. This is a difficult one. The main point I got out of the evening was how important this common is to the community.”

In the city’s building process, a landmarked site must get approval from two bodies at public hearings: the Landmarks Commission and the Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB).

The recommendations are independent of each other, and both can be appealed to the City Council for a final decision.

Some opponents of the projects questioned the motivation of the property owners, Cindy and Rory Reid, who bought the home in early 2016. Rory Reid, a former candidate for Governor of Nevada, is the son of Nevada Senator Harry Reid.

A few wonder if they’d hoped to flip the property to make money. Others suggested heavy-handed politics is at play in the city’s permitting process.

But not all neighbors share these views. Some said they welcomed the new owners to the common while urging them to rethink their proposal.

Echoing others, neighbor Ukai Russell pointed out that if their project is approved it would set a risky precedent. “It opens the door. That’s the slippery slope. When you buy in here you have to understand the conditions of living here.”

Kate Darby Rauch

Catherine "Kate" Rauch has been contributing to Berkeleyside for several years, and also happens to live in Berkeley, near downtown. Her work as a journalist has encompassed everything from 10 years as...

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48 Comments

  1. I see that you have strong opinions about this, but they’re really misinformed. Landmark status has extended beyond individual buildings for decades. There have been protected zones, established for aesthetic or historical reasons, since the 1960s, all around the world. Some of these are natural, others built, still others some combination of both. Scenic views, some with buildings, have been protected going back to the late 19th century. Additionally, Greenwood is understood as an ensemble. The merits of any one house are beside the point. And there are a number of extremely noteworthy houses on the site. I don’t have a position on this particular case, but it’s certainly not an abuse of landmark status.

  2. Stop trying to make these a temple. It’s not Philip Johnson’s glass house or something revolutionary. They are pretty weak buildings architecturally and what is important about Greenwood is the layout of the building and the siting. And since the original design specified a potential second story this should go through. Or are you one of those clowns who thought the addition on Guggenheim Museum was a bad idea too.

  3. I don’t have any sympathy for the owners as they knew what they were getting into. If they wanted a bigger house they should have bought a bigger house-somewhere else.

  4. Umm no. While there might be some small amount of development outside the downtown and major aerties, it’s not nearly enough.

    Apartments cannot legally be built in much of even the flatlands.

  5. Umm no. While there might be some small amount of development outside the downtown and major aerties, it’s not nearly enough.

    Apartments cannot legally be built in much of even the flatlands.

  6. In the leading comment, (your most recent) you stated that, “Lisa Esherick, daughter of the architect, spoke against the proposed change.” The architect of the property was not Esherick, but Howard Moises who designed the second floor. Then you moved on to personal attacks on the applicant. Do you realize that the applicant is not the issue in this application? Your xenophobia is showing. Then you said the applicant was ‘carpetbagging’. The term refers to people who move into an area where there are economically depressed conditions to take advantage of the local population. So you think Greenwood Commons is an economically depressed area? Just for good measure, you Trump-eted another of your frequent attacks on Berkeleyside’s impartiality. BTW, you don’t need a law degree to tell people what the law is.

  7. I beg to differ, but aesthetics are in the eye of the beholder. I would say by today’s standards, Eichler’s are pretty ugly unless they are fully updated and possibly altered from original footprint. A Nice JHT is superior to any Eichler imo. If these Greenwood boxes were in West Virginia they’d be worth less than $60 grand. This isn’t the Sistine Chapel folks, this is Greenwood. I don’t think the owners of this proposed project are the type of people that are interested in flipping the house, throwing in a Grohe faucet and quartz, and then making some money. I suspect that they plan on living in the house for many years to come. C’mon folks, let’s let the building evolve!! The resistance from toxic Berkeley people is getting old.

  8. I read the article again and also sauntered around Greenwood. After doing this my conclusion is that this addition is not going to hurt any neighbor. I actually went into a home that was for sale several years ago on Greenwood Terrace and I remember it being quite gloomy inside; totally stodgy; put another way, quite depressive quarters (I’ll assume that the Commons are equally uninspired inside). The West Elevation drawings show that the addition is totally in harmony with the rest of the house from an architectural standpoint. The materials list (clear Redwood etc.) is TME (in other words this won’t look like the ugly fish house on Matthews Street). I’m glad I don’t live on Greenwood area as the home owner has to deal with pretty toxic NIMBYs. The City of Berkeley, in general, is fearful of the unknown even when the end product could be pretty great. If the architect/builder are sensitive to the structure, which from the looks of the elevation they are, what could possibly be a reason to deny this project from being built?

  9. You offer only obsfucating mistakes. Apartaments have been built all over Berkeley. Many focus on one or two downtown projects that will permanently and materially alter the downtown cityscape but up and down Sacramento, San Pablo, University, Shattuck and, to a lesser extent, Telegraph new housing has gone up steadily for years.. Tis true the hill folks seem to be spared apartment buildings and this is wrong. And it seems true to me that the City does not much care about quality of life where the City is eager to permit apartment buildings. . . but the hills seem untouchable when it comes to apartment buildings. Wrong. Unfortunate. Classist.

  10. yes, U.S. Senator Harry Reid. . . his carpetbagging son actually lives in Las Vegas and his house in Greenwood Commons is a pied a terre.

  11. Are you aware that until very recently Zach Cowan was Berkeley’s city attorney for many years. Few people would have more expertise on the law in this matter than Mr. Cowan. Do you, btw, have a law degree that allows you to tell people what the law is?

  12. This story, similar to the one about the Campanile View, seems grossly incomplete. I am wondering if bside actually sent anyone to the LPC hearing on this matter of Greenwood Commons. This article does not report that there was a large number of public commenters at the hearing on Greenwood Commons at the LPC. Most public commenters had significant and specific-to-Greenwood-Commons expertise. The only comments offered in support of the proposal were folks hired by U.S. Senator Harry Reid’s son to support his proposal.

    Waverly Lowell, a professor at UC Berkeley spoke against the proposed alteration of the historical architecture. Lisa Esherick, daughter of the architect, spoke against the proposed change. Someone, perhaps one of the two women I have just listed (the names blur for me but I am not a journalist) informed the LPC in public comment that the house in question is a pied a terre for the owners and the owners actually live in Las Vegas — said owners also happen to be, the guy anyway, the son of U.S. Senator Harry Reid. Must Berkeley destroy some of its heritage for a wealthy homeowner who doesn’t actually live here?

    The public comments were many and all opposed altering this house except folks paid by the owner seeking to alter our architectual heritage while he lives in Vegas.

    It seems wrong, somehow, to fail to report what took place at the meeting, to have failed to note the illustrious public commenters — so many at the Greenwood Commons hearing had inspiring expertise to declare their opposition to the proposed alterations but they get no ink from Berkeleyside. Huh?

  13. Berkeleyside should show the residence of commenters. Anyone can comment, but readers should know if people have any connection to Berkeley–if they live, work, own a business, or go to school here. From the rampant ignorance about Berkeley that’s displayed, many of them don’t.

  14. With respect, Mookie, that’s a pretty bad comparison. Eichler’s are actually iconic, historically significant (and aesthetically pleasing) buildings. If you’d ever been in one, you’d see what I mean. The “Commons” structures, on the other hand, appear featureless and about as aesthetically pleasing as a quonset hut. It’s mostly, I suppose, about the multi-million dollar views.

    That said, I certainly understand their fear of the “slippery slope”. Come on down to the North Oakland flats, folks, where 900 square foot bungalows are being jacked up, extended and raised to a third story- sometimes several at a time, within the same block. I can sympathize with anyone who wants to avoid living in construction hell. If I had the money, I’d probably avoid it, too.

  15. Then it’s not about the “landmark status” it’s about the neighbor’s and their view AND property rights. It’s an abuse of landmark status.

  16. Good reason for them all to be wood-framed. Two-story wood-framed buildings do fine in earthquakes provided they’re up to code.

  17. Unfortunately, that is an outdated understanding of the law. The California Courts have significantly raised the threshold for impartiality by decision makers in Quasi-Judicial proceedings. In 2003, the Courts ruled that “Even without a financial interest, disqualifying bias may exist if the decision maker is personally embroiled in the subject matter of the proceeding…” As President of BAHA, Mr. Finacom is most definitely embroiled in the subject matter.

    Furthermore, at past meetings, Finacom has ‘recused’ himself from the Commissioner’s role, then stepped to the other side of the room to present an application for preservation, then went back to resume his role as a board member for the next matter. He therefore acted in two contrary roles in the same meeting. Can a Judge recuse himself to act as a prosecutor on a case, then return to the bench to act as judge on the next similar case? Recusal should mean leaving the room, not just temporarily casting aside the cloak of impartiality.

    The proceedings used by the Commission are unlike any other similar board. In Berkeley, the applicants, most of whom are members of BAHA, come before the board, where Finacom and other members of BAHA are seated, and present applications on properties in which they have neither a fiduciary interest or the permission of the owner. By making the application, they become advocates. They then take on the role of impartial expert by presenting to their cronies, a lengthy historic provenance and the reasons for preservation required under by law. Unfortunately, the task of preparing the historic provenance falls to the staff who have no resources to actually obtain an independent evaluation as due process requires.

    The property owner is given a chance to defend their interests, so they hire advocates too. The property owners are then subjected to various accusations and interrogatories, (as described in the article). The Board’s procedures result in hearings that are clearly adversarial in nature, just like those found in the criminal and civil court systems. However, use of adversarial hearings by the Landmarks Commission is specifically prohibited by Berkeley Resolution 62.571. NO ADVERSARIAL HEARINGS. The city is not even attempting to follow its own rules.

    People who wish to know more about the subject are directed to a monograph produced by Amy
    Greyson, Esq. for the California League of Cities, entitled, “Constructing Due Process Walls After Morongo and Sabey”.

    https://www.cacities.org/uploadedfiles/leagueinternet/70/70205b60-bb68-4768-8b1c-8a2f876541bb.pdf

    Berkeley resolution 62.571

    https://www.cityofberkeley.info/uploadedFiles/Clerk/Level_3_-_City_Council/62571.pdf

  18. Landmarks strikes again – I think their singular agenda is to stop any change in Berkeley. If they could roll it all back to the 1920’s, they would be happy. Sort of Trumpian in their own way…

  19. That the addition was actually drawn up by the original architect of the house makes me feel that this project should be built. Does the partial addition block sunlight or cast large shadows or take away a bridge view? If the answer to these questions is no, then build the addition. The elevation drawings look like the addition blends extremely well with the existing structure and isn’t out of character for the neighborhood. Buildings are not static, they evolve. I’m sure if you asked the original architect/designers of Greenwood, they would probably be really happy about the addition. Once the addition is built, #8 will be the nicest of all the Greenwood properties. It’s true that this is an interesting enclave, but this addition isn’t going to ruin the Common in any way. It’s the residents that cling to their original home that are the problem as they likely have nothing better to do with their time. I’m not sure why the commissioners want a different design. The original design of single story homes on the south side was for spaciousness and light. I highly doubt this project is going to effect any of it’s other seven neighbors in a negative way. Moises would probably be pretty angry that his addition plans are being blocked by Greenwood residents. How ironic.

  20. Interesting that the applicant hired a former city staffer to represent him. The revolving door, even in little old Berkeley.

  21. There is no question that this is a legitimate architectural landmark – but it’s got to be one of the snootiest neighborhoods in Berkeley – so it’s hard to have too much sympathy. I did a construction project in the area quite a few years ago and got shoo’d out of the commons a couple of times. Only open during the day and no dogs allowed – if you don’t look too blue collar. It would be interesting to see if the BPD would respond if you went there after hours with a dog, since they don’t seem to respond to camping out in my neighborhood. I’m thinking they would.

  22. Reasonable people can differ about whether it is fair, but if neither Commissioner Finacom nor BAHA has taken a position n this project, it is not a violation of due process.

  23. The Commission is mandated to be a quasi-judicial body under CA law. Putting an advocate, like Finacom, the President of BAHA , on the board, is a violation of the constitutional right to a fair and impartial hearing.

  24. Oh the city cares deeply about your neighborhood’s quality of life.

    That’s why it’s illegal to build apartments in the vast majority of Berkeley.

    You just have to understand that quality of life means “I’ve got mine and here’s some scraps for everyone else.”

  25. Maybe if strawman hyperbole hyperbole, unfounded trolling conclusion?

    Because everyone knows that nothing has been built in Berkeley since 1975.

  26. Someone should get the West Berkeley homeless encampments declared a historical landmark and make these NIMBYs eat their own abuse of the historical landmark system.

  27. I don’t get it. They are upset about the proposal, which was designed by the original architect over 50 years ago but never built, because they don’t want to change the vision of the original architects. Yet they said the homeowners should come back with a different design. Did the commissioners even think about what they said, or is this just typical NIMBY B.S. masquerading as historical preservation?

    In any event, rich people problems. How about we move the homeless encampment that’s situated next to my apartment complex in the flats into this nice open space in the hills?

  28. I’ll have to tell you — my neighborhood is low density residential as well (west of Sacramento) – but I don’t see the same level of concern expressed by the City for our quality of life. So it’s homeless camps for us in the flats and protected open space for the folks in the hills. How many residents of Greenwood Commons and the surrounding environs are in support of facilitating the expansion of homeless camps in Berkeley? Are all homeowners treated with the same concern and respect or do we still have two Berkeleys – just like the old days? (I know it’s private property)

  29. Just because it has a name, like Greenwood Commons, does not mean it’s the Mews in Greenwich Village. It’s about as historical as an Eichler. It’s OK, nothing great, and not great to live in.

  30. Why is this stuff landmarked? The siting is the only nice thing…the buildings are pretty mundane and nothing special. The public space in the middle is unique…to the hills. Making a fuss about 1950’s buildings that are not up to code is just an abuse of the historical landmark system. People act like these shacks are Roman temples…

  31. Berkeley is “progressive.”

    We don’t just have low density, car centric, suburban developments. We also apply historical landmarking to make sure it stays that way.

    *Saving some small fraction of our low density housing as historical is fine. Near universal single family zoning is not.

  32. Carpetbagging son of Harry Reid knowingly buys a landmarked historic home in the Berkeley Hills and wants to do something completely against Wurster’s desire to maintain the spaciousness and natural light of the commons? Ordinarily, I’m pretty indifferent to the plight of rich folks duking it out over their yards, but not when it comes down to Berkeley landmarks. No thanks, Rory. P**s off. Why don’t you propose turning it into a casino while you’re at it? Go back to Vegas with that nonsense.

  33. Maybe if people in Berkeley didn’t go knee-jerk and protest everything, something would get built once in a while.

  34. And meanwhile the rest of Berkeley is trying to figure out how they’ll possibly every move to a bigger apartment if they want more space seeing as their rent would triple even if they moved to a smaller apartment what with market rate increases these last 10years. #richHillDwellerProblems