Is Berkeley Going the Way of Los Angeles?

by Randy Shaw on July 17, 2007

The Mayor and Berkeley City Council will vote tonight on whether the 1939 Berkeley Iceland is an historic structure. Since the art deco building is obviously a landmark, the real issue is whether a city known for its progressive principles will allow one of its most fabled institutions to be converted to condominiums. Those unfamiliar with the changes in Berkeley under Mayor Tom Bates may be surprised to learn that the mayor and council majority may back the demolition of Berkeley’s only ice skating rink – a place that Olympic skaters Brian Boitano and Kristi Yamaguchi used to frequent. Bay Area residents have long distinguished our commitment to historic preservation from cities like Los Angeles, which demolished such iconic structures as the Hollywood Brown Derby and Ship’s coffee shop. But the possible demolition of Berkeley Iceland shows nothing is safe from powerful development interests, and that a popular uprising at the ballot box may be necessary to save the city’s heritage.

As word spreads through the city over the possible demolition of the historic Berkeley Iceland, disbelief soon gives way to outrage. People who typically pay little attention to Berkeley politics cannot believe that the city’s political leadership would allow the demolition of an iconic gathering place in order to build a condominium project that could be built in dozens of other locations.

Berkeley Iceland may be the last place that brings Berkeley’s entire diverse population together. But if former nonprofit housing activist-turned real estate developer Ali Kashani gets his way, Berkeley Iceland will be replaced by market-rate condominiums, a sad testament to a city on the verge of losing its soul.

Why would Berkeley, a city known for its communal spirit, and commitment to principles over profit maximization, even consider tearing down what has become its foremost public commons?

It seems that Berkeley political leaders are desperate to boost the city’s economy. The loss of longtime retail businesses like Cody’s Books on Telegraph, and the continuous closure of stores and restaurants in the downtown, has created the sense that any and all development opportunities must be seized, regardless of the impact on the city’s livability.

For example, Mayor Tom Bates expressed jubilation when he learned of the planned opening of a Walgreens on Telegraph. No matter that Walgreens’ arrival coincided with the closure of a longtime independent drug store next door, or that one can not travel far in Berkeley without running into a Walgreens outlet.

In the case of Iceland, the developer, Ali Kashani, formerly headed Affordable Housing Associates, one of Berkeley’s most effective nonprofit housing developers. Kashani waged a heroic and ultimately successful multi-year battle to build affordable senior housing at the former Outback store on Sacramento and Dwight.

After years of battling opponents of affordable housing, Kashani moved to the for-profit sector. Socially conscious market-rate housing developers can be great community assets, and it is my understanding that Kashani has done some very positive projects in his new position.

But demolishing the historic Berkeley Iceland is not something Kashani needs on his resume. Judging from the reaction on the street to the demolition plans, the political fallout from this proposed demolition will be huge, and far-reaching.

Unlike the localized land-use disputes over the Outback, the Trader Joes/condo project at Martin Luther King and University, the Wright’s Garage restaurant in the Elmwood, and fights over various housing projects on University Avenue, Berkeley Iceland is of broad, citywide concern. This issue unifies progressives concerned about retaining public common space, with conservatives who oppose changes from the “good old days.”

And while Kashani was on the side of the angels in his affordable housing fight, he’ll be playing a different, less righteous role in his campaign to demolish Iceland.

If there is a constituency in Berkeley eager to replace Iceland with condos, it is not very visible or very broad. In contrast, there are few parents who have raised kids in Berkeley who have not attended a birthday party at Iceland, and everyone I have spoken with has fond memories of the experience.

Despite his tenure as Mayor, Tom Bates remains best known as the creator of the Eastshore State Park. Every time people use the Park, or drive by it, they are reminded of Bates’ contribution to Berkeley.

Why would Bates now want to replace this positive legacy by becoming the Mayor who demolished Iceland?

San Francisco Mayors have become as much identified with what they destroyed as what was built during their tenure. George Christopher, the city’s last Republican Mayor, presided over the demolition of the historic Fox Theater and much of historic Market Street. Mayor Alioto promoted the demolition of thousands of historic buildings in the Fillmore and South of Market, while Mayor Feinstein backed the replacement of the legendary City of Paris building in Union Square with an ugly Neiman Marcus.

There are some places that are so integral to a city’s identity that their removal cannot be forgotten or forgiven—and Bates should know as well as anyone that Berkeley Iceland is such a place. The Bay Area keeps talking about how it needs to be more “family friendly,” but in San Francisco nearly all bowling alley’s have been demolished and now Berkeley is considering eliminating its only ice-skating rink.

Opponents of saving Iceland argue that the economics of an ice skating rink do not work in Berkeley. But this ignores the fact that its longtime owners refused to spend money for upkeep and marketing.

Iceland is akin to a long-neglected apartment building whose substandard condition is used to justify demolition; instead, the building needs a capital upgrade, and an ownership that actually cares about generating more revenue.

Berkeley’s Cheeseboard Collective recently held a fundraiser for Save Iceland, and if anyone knows how to run a successful business, it’s these folks. Their expertise, along with that of other successful entrepreneurs living in Berkeley, can be tapped to ensure that a renovated Iceland is an economic success.

Unfortunately, tonight’s City Council meeting occurs with school out of session, and many Berkeleyans with children gone on summer vacation. It is kids who primarily use Iceland and they should have an opportunity to tell their elected officials what the rink means to them.

What a great opportunity for a civics lesson is being missed by the Council holding its debate on Iceland outside the school year. Berkeley’s young people are being deprived of possibly their only opportunity to publicly support Iceland’s landmark status, a result that could easily be avoided by the Council delaying action until September.

Of course, young people can be expected to play important roles in the initiative process that might be necessary to save Iceland on the February 2008 ballot. Berkeley could have a scene reminiscent of the youngsters rallying behind Jimmy Stewart’s character in Frank Capra’s 1939 classic, Mr Smith Goes To Washington, in which youthful idealism overcame adult cynicism.

For those of us who have been spectators to Berkeley politics, Iceland has provided a wake-up call. We learned about Cody’s departure too late to save it, but there is still time to save Iceland for our children and future generations.

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron. He can be reached at

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