Democracy, public safety and about $47 million in taxpayer dollars will be at stake Nov. 5 when Berkeley voters cast ballots on Measure J.
The most expensive proposition on the local ballot, Measure J would authorize the city to issue $21.5 million in bonds to renovate and seismically-retrofit old City Hall at 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Approval requires a two-thirds vote.
Berkeley property owners would pick up the tab, expected to mount to $47 million with interest. The average homeowner would pay about $20 per year in additional property taxes for 30 years to fund the project.
Old City Hall currently serves as district headquarters for the Berkeley Unified School District, with about 50 employees on the premises, and plays host to City Council, Board of Education and other public meetings on a weekly basis.
Supporters say a retrofit is vital to protect the safety of school employees and the hundreds of officials and members of the public who use the building’s City Council chambers for meetings.
“It’s an unsafe building,” said Mayor Shirley Dean, a chief supporter of the measure. “We know the big earthquake is coming.”
But opponents say the retrofit is an expensive proposition in the midst of an economic downturn. They also point out that the renovation plan, in an attempt to improve handicapped accessibility and comfort, would decrease the number of public seats in the City Council chambers from 110 to approximately 65 to 75.
“We’re spending $21.5 million, $47 million over the life of the project, and we’re not even going to end up with a decent meeting space,” said City Councilmember Dona Spring, a chief opponent of Measure J.
In May, as an alternative, Spring proposed adding a new $4.5 million wing to the building, including a 250-seat City Council chamber. But the council rejected the idea as too expensive.
Spring said the city has been forced, during a few public meetings in recent years, to lock out members of the public for fire safety reasons. Decreasing the size of the City Council chambers, as currently planned, would not improve the situation, she said.
“There’s only a few meetings a year that exceed the capacity of the City Council chambers,” Dean replied, adding that the city is considering an adjacent overflow room, with a television feed, for meetings that attract large crowds.
Spring said the overflow room would only frustrate members of the public, upset that they could not get into the main chamber.
Spring, who uses a wheelchair, also argued that the planned chamber does not provide enough handicapped accessibility. She said there should be enough space in the aisles to accommodate not just one, but two wheelchairs at once. Dean points out that the design meets all accessibility codes.
Carrie Olson, chairperson of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, said it would be “unconscionable” to go much longer without retrofitting the building because of public safety concerns.
But she also said the city should protect old City Hall, the first Berkeley building to win landmark status, for historical and architectural reasons.
“It’s a jewel,” Olson said.
Designed by architects John Bakewell and Arthur Brown, Jr., who also crafted San Francisco City Hall and the San Francisco Opera House, Berkeley’s old City Hall opened in 1909 and served as the home of Berkeley city government until 1977.
“It has a civic stature that other buildings (in Berkeley) don’t have,” said Burton Edwards, also of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, drawing particular attention to the cupola, a special spire, on the building’s roof.
If Measure J passes, it would take roughly two years to complete planning and another year-and-a-half to two years to finish construction, according to Berkeley’s Director of Public Works Rene Cardinaux.
Whether the measure passes or not, one prickly question would be what to do, in the long run, with the Berkeley Unified School District’s district headquarters.
The district currently has a $1 a year lease on old City Hall through the end of the decade and some observers say the city has an eye on taking back the building when the lease runs out.
Dean and Berkeley Unified’s Associate Superintendent of Business and Operations Jerry Kurr said the city and district have not discussed the matter.
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