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Berkeley arts groups push for dream center

By Jon Mays Daily Planet Staff
Thursday July 26, 2001

By approving a design scheme for a proposed mixed-use retail, housing, and art space to take the place of a parking lot on Oxford Street, the City Council provided a wish list for the community.  

Now, it seems the challenge is to make it happen. 

“That’s the big question. What can be done?” said Mayor Shirley Dean. “[City Manager Weldon Rucker] really has his work cut out for him as far as the feasibility.” 

The City Council approved the concept of a five-story building on top of two levels of underground parking – with 150-200 spaces. The building’s top three floors would include at least 90 units of affordable and market rate housing. The first and second floor would house a community theater and gallery space as well as the David Brower Center, which is named for the environmentalist who died last November.  

At Tuesday’s meeting, arts groups pushed for more space while councilmembers provided their own wish list for the project. 

They included solar panels, a public plaza with a fountain, a café that sells natural food, housing for people who work for nonprofit organizations and an expanded arts center. 

Rucker will now have to sort out the ideas and shop around a project to various developers to see if there is an interest. So far, two affordable housing developers – Affordable Housing Associates and Resources for Community Development – have expressed interest, said Councilmember Linda Maio. 

The Council will look at the proposal again by the end of this year, according to Maio. 

Maio said she has been instrumental in getting the project to this point and emphasized that it is not a pie in the sky idea. She explained that the Brower component will have its own financing, the affordable housing will be financed through grants and loans made available by nonprofit developers and the city will provide the parking. The only component currently without funding, she said, is the community arts component.  

Still, she said the project is a good example of complementary uses working together. 

“It’s just been excellent. It’s a wonderful marriage between the arts, the environment and affordable housing,” she said, adding that Brower used photographs to illustrate the beauty of the environment. “He really understood how art is instrumental in raising environmental awareness.” 

Gary Graves, co-director of Central Works, a small theater group, said there is a definite need for 10,000-square-feet of theater space rather than the proposed 5,000-square-feet currently proposed.  

Graves is part of a consortium of six small theater groups that could use the space to put on their productions. The city of Berkeley, he said, has been supportive of upper end theater groups Aurora (to be opened this Fall) and the Berkeley Repertory Theater. By providing theater space for grass-roots groups, Graves said the city could have a more diverse representation of the arts downtown. 

“We’re trying to complete the entire spectrum in what’s called the downtown arts district,” he said.  

Providing that space may bump the project to seven floors – two above the current proposal. That, Arts Commission Chair Sherry Smith said, may be too much.  

Although Smith likes the idea of having a large collection of public arts facilities under one roof, she said she isn’t sure if it can actually happen. 

“If we pencil it out, it will be expensive and some of these Christmas tree ornaments will have to fall away,” she said.