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Renovation plans for Civic Center hit emotional snag

By Kurtis Alexander Daily Planet Staff
Tuesday June 25, 2002

On any given day, hundreds of people pass through Berkeley’s landmark Civic Center Park. 

Whether it’s city employees seeking respite from neighboring city buildings, students rollicking after class at nearby Berkeley High or homeless enjoying sunshine and a cup of coffee, the manicured lawn and century-old trees have provided a welcome escape from the busy pace of downtown. 

But beneath the park’s relatively carefree appearance, a sometimes contentious debate has been lingering. The debate concerns the future of Civic Center Park, and with more than $1 million poised for park improvements, several factions have been pushing special interests. 

The latest plea, in the form of a written challenge to the park’s environmental impact report, calls for preservation of an aging fountain. Two community groups have come together, waving a petition with more than two dozen signatures, criticizing city planners for not having considered a more authentic restoration plan for the parks’ defunct water element. 

While the fate of the fountain may seem like a small bone of contention, the issue pulls at the heart strings of not only preservationists but of a group of Native Americans who want a restored fountain to commemorate their ancestry. 

“This plan has been in place for 10 years,” said John Curl, a member of the city’s Indigenous Peoples’ Day Committee. “As soon as money appeared, people have been coming out of the wood work with new plans.” 

In 1992, on the city-designated “Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” then Berkeley Mayor Loni Hancock held a tribute ceremony proclaiming that a “Turtle Island Monument” be created at Civic Center Park. 

After almost a decade of soliciting funds and exchanging ideas, a plan emerged calling for the park’s historic fountain to include commemorative sculptures of four turtles. According to a Native American myth, the turtle is a symbol of the American continent and of the origins of indigenous culture. 

Members of the Art Deco Society of California and Friends of the Civic Center, though, have taken issue with the placement of the mythic turtles. 

“This is a historic fountain... There are other locations for the turtles other than the fountain,” said Michael Crowe, a member of the Art Deco Society. “This plan would detract from the original design.” 

The preservation groups are appealing the city’s park plan on grounds that planners did not consider alternative locations for the turtles, hence violated the California Environmental Quality Act. The placement of a proposed children’s play area and chess tables is also being challenged by the groups. 

Planners, however, in the park’s environmental impact report concluded that “benefits of rehabilitating the Park, as proposed, outweigh the significant historic resource impacts identified because the project will repair the fountain and make it operational.” 

The preservationists’ appeal is now in the hands of Berkeley’s City Council, and a ruling on the matter is expected at tonight’s council meeting. 

Native American groups have taken the appeal personally. 

“The whole thing is incredibly shameful,” said Mark Gorrell, a member of the Indigenous Peoples’ Day Committee. He likened opposition efforts to remove turtles from park plans to the removal of Native Americans from their native lands. 

Curl echoed the sentiment. 

“It seems they don’t want to give the Native American community the respect it deserves,” he said. “I think this is political. I just can’t believe that they’re doing this because they love old things so much.” 

Though members of the Friends of the Civic Center could not be reached for comment last night, the group has said before that it doesn’t oppose a Native American tribute, just its proposed location. 

On top of the preservationists’ appeal, the city has filed a separate appeal challenging some of the construction elements, like benches and paving areas, planned with the restoration. The challenge has so far not offended any groups and is not expected to delay the park’s planning process. 

“We’re appealing little details. We thought that since there’s already an appeal on file, we’d take this route as well,” said Lisa Caronna, city parks director. 

City Council is expected to make a decision on the city’s appeal tonight as well. 

Less contentious plans for Civic Center Park include improved landscaping, night lighting, additional benches, and an improved children’s play area. 

“Making this area a positive, friendly place to go is an important message of what Berkeley is about,” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington. “This is the living room of City Hall.”