School District staff appear to be proposing a giant game of musical chairs whereby (a) the Adult School would be moved from the West Campus to the Franklin School site; (b) the district’s administrative offices and storage and maintenance functions would be relocated from Old City Hall, and from the district’s Russell Street building, to the West Campus, and (c) the Rusell site would be redeveloped for housing.
Though this complex set of proposals does offer some advantages for the district per se, it also raises major issues that affect the broader community. For example, students of the popular Adult School would be inconvenienced by that facility’s move to a less central, less widely accessible site, while the neighborhood around Franklin School would get impacted by new daytime and evening traffic.
There is great danger that the Board of Education will quietly okay its staff’s scheme piece by piece, starting this summer, without Berkeley citizens’ grasping the full implications. And amazingly, it seems that nobody has seriously consulted two crucial city documents bearing on such issues: the Zoning Ordinance and the General Plan.
The employee at the zoning counter who recently remarked to me, sweepingly, that the School District is “exempt” from zoning was uninformed. People should read the California Government Code’s article (Sections 53090 et seq.) entitled “Regulation of Local Agencies by Counties and Cities.” While that article’s Section 53094 gives a procedure whereby a school board may, by a two-thirds vote, exempt proposed uses from zoning, it clearly indicates that the exemption procedure cannot be used for “nonclassroom facilities, including, but not limited to, warehouses, administrative buildings, automotive storage and repair buildings.”
So it appears that zoning will in any case apply to such proposals as redevelopment of the Russell Street site for housing, and reuse of the West Campus for district administrative headquarters—which, be it noted, the Berkeley Zoning Ordinance appears to classify as “offices” rather than “schools.” Note as well that although its University Avenue frontage per se is commercially zoned, the West Campus is mostly in residential zones (R-2A and R-2) whose lists of permitted uses do not include offices. (As for the potential housing site on Russell, it should be borne in mind that this is now in the R-2A and R-2 Districts—in which allowable density is rather limited.)
Highly relevant to the West Campus is a General Plan component called the University Avenue Strategic Plan, which the City Council adopted in 1996. That strategic plan treats the Adult School as an important anchor of University Avenue, and calls for supporting and improving it there. So moving the Adult School to the Franklin site would squarely conflict with the city’s plan.
Quite pertinent to the West Campus and Franklin sites (and potentially to the Russell site) is the General Plan’s citywide Open Space and Recreation Element. That element calls for zealously protecting existing open spaces (as well as seizing appropriate opportunities to create new recreation areas).
The city shouldn’t idly sit by and let its zoning and its General Plan be ignored. Although it’s conceivable that the city might eventually choose to amend those to accommodate the School District’s proposals, the city shouldn’t do so unless it’s truly convinced of the proposals’ appropriateness, after rigorous evaluation and full public involvement. And rather than just thinking about a short-term fiscal fix for the School District, the city should look to the long-term best interest of Berkeleyans as a whole.
In any case the City Council and the Planning Commission should actively address this whole matter—right now, before it’s too late.
John English is a planner by profession and has lived in Berkeley most of his life.