On the corner of San Pablo Avenue and Virginia Street in West Berkeley, a small yellow light flashes, day and night. Beneath it are the words “School,” and “Speed Limit 25 When Children Are Present.” But no one seems to pay much attention to the signs anymore. The City of Franklin Elementary School—which patterned itself after a small metropolis—has been closed for a year and the kids are long gone.
Now, the Berkeley Unified School District is planning to move its Adult School, which provides English as a Second Language, dance, literature and financial planning courses to more than 1,300 students per day, from a beleaguered building on University Avenue to the Franklin site in time for the 2004-2005 school year.
A growing group of about 40 neighborhood residents, who packed a community meeting on the proposed move Monday night, are concerned that the flood of adult students will create parking and traffic problems. Some say it may slow the progress of a rundown neighborhood that, in recent years, has seen crackhouses and cheap furniture stores give way to upscale food shops and a greater sense of cohesion and identity.
“I’m worried that the improvement of the neighborhood ... might sort of stall,” said James Day, a Kains Street resident. “Each issue involved, whether it be traffic, economic development, noise, security, is too close to call. And if it’s too close to call, it’s not worth taking a risk with a neighborhood that is so close to reaching stability.”
But school officials say the traffic impact will be minimal and argue that the Adult School will bring a new vitality to the neighborhood.
“A vibrant, active education center is far superior to a vacant lot,” said Board of Education Director John Selawsky.
Some neighbors and local businessmen say they have no objection to the plan, which is scheduled to go before the Board of Education Aug. 20.
“It wouldn’t bother me,” said Jerry Koehler, owner of Koehler’s Auto Body on San Pablo Avenue, across from the Franklin site. “It’s too bad it’s sitting there vacant.” He added that the students might even provide a boost to local merchants.
Neighbors of the Adult School, which sits five blocks from Franklin at 1222 University Ave., say they don’t want the facility to move. The Adult School’s constant foot traffic has warded off crime, they say, and moving it will expose the area to shady dealings.
“We’re going to have dark alleyways,” said neighbor Connie McCullah, who has vowed to fight the move.
The district plans to renovate the University Avenue building after the move, and then shift its maintenance and administrative operations to the site.
Maintenance is currently housed in a seismically suspect building on Oregon Street and administration is based at Old City Hall on Martin Luther King, Jr. Way. The district rents its central office space from the city for $1 per year, but the lease runs out in 2009, and the city wants the historic structure back.
Superintendent Michele Lawrence said the district is also considering a number of other functions that could sit alongside administration and maintenance at the University Avenue site. A professional development center for teachers, a new home for the district’s Independent Study program and “opportunity” classes for its most troubled students are all possibilities, she said.
McCullah objects to the idea of large maintenance trucks and disruptive students in the neighborhood. But residents say they are most upset that the district, which has met repeatedly with the Franklin neighbors, is not planning to meet with University Avenue residents until July, just a month before the vote.
“They’ve done absolutely nothing here,” said Lois O’Connell, administrator of the Strawberry Creek Lodge, an affordable housing complex that serves 163 seniors, many of whom take courses at the Adult School. “We’re a little angry.”
O’Connell said many of her tenants will not be able to make the trip to the new Adult School site.
City Councilmember Linda Maio, whose district includes the Franklin building, said she would prefer to keep the Adult School where it is, but understands the district’s planned move. “I just don’t see very many options the district has,” she said.
Maio praised Lawrence for agreeing, at the Monday night meeting, to a small neighborhood advisory group which will meet with the district’s Oakland-based architect, Hardison Kamatsu Ivelich & Tucker, on the school’s renovation.