Neighbors of the defunct Franklin Elementary School filed suit against the Berkeley Unified School District Monday, jeopardizing the BUSD’s plan to shift the Adult School to the Franklin campus.
Under the title Friends of Franklin, Tim Arai and his wife Carrie Adams charged in Alameda County Superior Court that the district’s environmental plan for the move underestimated the traffic burden posed to neighbors and purposely ignored the second half of the district’s plan—moving the administrative offices to the West Campus site at 1222 University Ave., which currently houses the Berkeley Unified Adult School.
Neighbors have fought with the district for months over its plan to relocate the Adult School to their backyard, which they fear would result in less on-street parking, more crime, reduced play area for their kids and lower property values.
“The lawsuit is the tool to try to get the district to deal with us in a responsible manner,” said Arai. “So far they have blown us off.”
BUSD spokesperson Mark Coplan said the district had not received a copy of the filing and could not comment on it.
The suit could potentially derail the move of the Adult School to Franklin, which has been abandoned since the elementary school closed in 2002.
Under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), a plaintiff may ask for an injunction to halt construction while briefs are filed. Arai refused to say if he planned to do just that, but if a judge approved an injunction, construction scheduled to start on Nov. 1 could be delayed indefinitely.
“Our construction schedule is built on the idea of starting Nov. 1,” said Lew Jones, BUSD director of facilities. “That gets us finished around the middle of next July.”
Any delay that pushes the completion date past the start of the next school year, Jones said, would undercut the district’s $6.5 million refurbishment program.
City Manager Weldon Rucker, in a July 29 letter to the district, charged that BUSD’s decision to issue a Mitigated Negative Declaration was faulty because it examined only the impact of the Adult School’s move to Franklin, not the impending move of BUSD’s administration office and its maintenance operations to the current adult School.
In his letter, Rucker cited BUSD documents as well as statements by district officials that tied the two projects together. He insisted the district is required to perform an Environmental Impact Report studying the entire plan, not just the Franklin School segment. Neighbors at the West Campus have urged the district to keep the adult school at the site, because the increased street traffic fends off prowlers.
The district has said they plan to move their offices from Old City Hall on Martin Luther King Jr. Way to the Adult School before its $1-per-year lease on the city building ends in 2009, but insist that the plan is too preliminary to do a study.
“We don’t know what we are going to do yet,” Jones said. “There might be opportunity classes (for troubled students). There might be other classes. There are a host of things we can’t study there at this point.”
The district settled on the current shakeup of their facilities because the Adult School requires major construction work and district officials say moving the Adult School during construction, only to return it later, would cost too much.
The suit also alleges that the district has failed to mitigate traffic congestion presented by the roughly 1,300 Adult School students. The plan calls for paving over a playground and grass area to build about 200 parking spaces on the site to accommodate students at the four-square-block West Berkeley school bounded by San Pablo Avenue to the west, Curtis Street to the east, Virginia Street to the north and Francisco Street to the south.
Neighbors worry that an entrance located near the intersection of Virginia and Kanis Street and an exit on Francisco would cause traffic congestion throughout the 8:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. school day. The district found that the report, in accordance with CEQA, would not “significantly” impact neighborhood traffic.
Arai argued that the report examined the impact at major intersections, like Cedar Street and San Pablo, but not the smaller streets that might be most impacted by the school traffic. “They studied the impact at Sacramento and Delaware [Street], they may as well have studied San Pablo and Alcatraz [Avenue] too.”
Jones contended that the city chose which streets to study and that studying major traffic arteries is standard procedure for environmental reports.
The district petitioned the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) to allow a right-turn-only driveway on San Pablo to ease congestion on residential streets, but Caltrans spokesperson Brigetta Smith said the agency planned to reject the district’s request because they failed to provide traffic studies on the impact of the new driveway and had not specified where on the block they would construct the driveway.
Jones said the district could still win Caltrans approval if they provided the required information.
Peter Hillier, Berkeley director of transportation, said the San Pablo Driveway is pivotal, but that other traffic concerns still needed to be addressed. The city is pushing to forbid motorists driving southbound on Kains Street—one block east of San Pablo—from entering the parking lot to keep students from flooding the street.
Arai said neighbors had promised to help fund the lawsuit but that he had advanced most of the roughly $1,000 already spent on the lawsuit. “All we’ve ever asked is to stop the project and look at all the parts,” Arai said. “If [the district] doesn’t have a master plan they should create one.”