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Ugly, damaged B Building days numbered

By Ben Lumpkin Daily Planet Staff
Monday May 07, 2001

Long before fire ravaged its maze of dead-end hallways, Berkeley High School’s B Building was wildly unpopular with teachers and students alike.  

Of course, surveying public architecture of the early ’60s, one often gets the feeling that the Marquis de Sade had a hand in overseeing the building projects.  

Erected in 1964, the B building is a prime example. A concrete box that looks more like a plane hanger than a school building, it was a tomb-like place in the best of times.  

“There’s not one classroom in there that has a window,” said Berkeley High junior Zachary Cohen one day last week, as he walked past the building which has been boarded over and closed since the fire about a year ago. 

“There’s just nothing good to say about it,” quipped Bruce Wicinas, chair of the school’s Citizen Construction Advisory Committee 

And yet, given the financial constraints faced by school districts these days, even after the fire there was talk of restoring the building rather than building anew. Until just last week there were plans to connect the building with the brand new buildings going up along Milvia Street, a project that, for many, would be like tying a three-masted sailing yacht to an oil tanker.  

To audible sighs of relief, those plans were abandoned once and for all Wednesday, when the school board voted to raze the building over the summer to make way for landscaped green space. 

“It’s long overdue,” said Board of Education President Terry Doran, a long-time teacher at Berkeley High school. “I don’t think it ever worked well.” 

The decision came quickly. Contractors working on the Milvia buildings had reached the point where they needed to know if the B building was staying or going before they could move forward, said Katherine James, Berkeley school district associate superintendent for support services. 

James met with the High Schools Citizen Construction Advisory Committee and made a presentation at a well-attended Parent, Teacher, Student Association meeting last week to gather input before the board’s decision. Parents and staff were overwhelmingly supportive of seeing the building come down, James said. 

As Doran put it Wednesday: “It would have been better to have more public input, but I can’t believe that a longer period of review would come to any other conclusion.” 

Under an insurance settlement, the school district is owed whatever it would cost to restore the B Building. James estimates that that amount could end up being more than $5 million. Of that, James estimates that only $1.5 million would be needed to raze the building and landscape the space, leaving $4 million to go toward the planned renovation of the old gym on Milvia Street.  

The only thing the high school seems to lose in the decision to raze the building is time. 

While the administrative offices and library that used to be housed in the B Building will move into the new buildings on Milvia, the health center and classrooms housed there won’t find a new home until the old gym restoration is completed. And it will likely be a full two years before that project even begins. 

Restoring the B Building would have had to wait two years as well, Wicinas said, but it might have been completed in just a year, while the gym restoration will be a longer, more complicated project. 

The more important consideration for most, however, is getting some green space on campus as soon as possible.  

“Now there’s no where to go” on the cramped campus, said Berkeley High student Rashawn Jones. “The courtyard is like a match box,” she added, referring to the concrete courtyard in front of the community theater buildings that overflows with students between classes, just looking for a place to chat with friends. 

“Many of the issues we have at Berkeley High School are the result of a very small campus in an urban setting,” said Berkeley Unified School District Interim Superintendent Stephen Goldstone at the Wednesday board meeting, referring to safety issues highlighted by a recent rash of violence. “This seems to provide a great opportunity to open up some space and to give some breathing space to kids.” 

When you look at a master plan of the school, it makes all the sense in the world to have green space located in the central space occupied by the B building, with classroom buildings around the periphery, Wicinas said. In fact, that’s what the school’s original master plan called for, he said. The B Building was just a rather shortsighted, and now fortunately short-lived, deviation from the plan. 

James said the building could be replaced with green space by as early as this September. The board is considering a number of design options, including an outdoor pavilion suggested by Board President Terry Doran. The pavilion would be used for special events or for hanging out on rainy days.