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Franklin School Site Playground in Doubt

Friday October 24, 2003

The future site for the Berkeley Adult School will have a different look as neighbors had demanded, but some now fear that the additional expenses required could cost them a planned playground.  

On Monday, a site committee of seven neighbors and six Berkeley Unified School District officials and employees voted to scrap the district’s site plan for the old Franklin Elementary School Campus at San Pablo Avenue between Virginia and Francisco streets and replace it with the neighbor’s proposal, designed by a local architect. 

The vote was a victory for neighbors, who had argued for months that the district’s plan directed too much traffic onto residential streets. But their triumph was tempered when shortly before the vote, BUSD Director of Facilities Lew Jones warned that the added costs required by the new plan would have to come from money slated for the playground. 

“It was a bombshell,” said Carrie Adams, a neighbor who along with her husband has filed suit against the project. “None of us had previously thought there was any question about the establishment of the playground,” she said. 

Jones disagreed. “It’s never been clear whether there will or will not be a playground,” he said, adding that some neighbors had complained that a playground would lead to increased vagrancy near the school. 

The northeast corner of the school site has housed a playground since 1989. When Franklin Elementary School closed in 2002, the district fenced in the entire property, including the playground—which needs repairs. 

Neighbors thought the $8.8 million plan included an un-touchable $130,000 for the playground, but Jones said that sum was part of a $250,000 contingency fund to cover necessary changes during construction.  

He said the new site plan and interior changes requested by the Adult School would cost nearly $300,000, jeopardizing playground funding. Adult School Principal Margaret Kirkpatrick requested a new kitchen to house a nonprofit baking group, an expanded computer lab and the division of a large classroom, which Jones said will cost the district around $140,000 

After the discussion ended, the committee passed the new site plan 10-2-1, contingent on winning Caltrans approval for a driveway on San Pablo Avenue and with an added clause that the vote “not prejudice” construction of the playground.  

The recommendation now goes to Superintendent Michele Lawrence and then to the school board for ultimate approval. Caltrans, which manages San Pablo Avenue is expected to approve the driveway within a month. 

Since Monday’s meeting, School Board Director and Site Committee member John Selawsky has reassured neighbors that the playground will be included. 

“I’ve made a commitment to neighbors to work something out,” he said.  

While the playground remains in question, neighbors and school officials both say they have a better design for traffic and parking. 

The new plan—designed pro bono by local architect Dietmar Lorenz—shifts the orientation of the school from Virginia Street to San Pablo Avenue, constructing a pedestrian walkway on San Pablo and keeping much of the mass transit, pedestrian and car traffic off residential streets. It also alters the parking arrangement to offer more space for planted buffers between parked cars and neighboring houses. 

Jones said the pedestrian walkway and extra plantings are among the added costs that have inflated the price tag by about $150,000. 

Lorenz became involved with the project when he attended the unveiling of the original plan this summer. 

“I was startled as an architect how poorly designed it was,” he said. “It seemed like a wasted opportunity so I worked with neighbors to determine an alternative site plan.,” 

“I think it really improves the site,” Selawsky said. “I don’t think district staff had the sense that re-orienting the site to San Pablo was so important.”  

Franklin Elementary School had been oriented to Virginia Street because young children needed to enter and exit school grounds away from car traffic, but adult school students, both sides agreed, would be better served by the new design. 

Any construction at the site remains contingent on the outcome of a lawsuit filed by Adams and her husband, Tim Arai, who have charged that the district’s Environmental Impact Report was insufficient under the California Environmental Quality Act. Attorneys for both parties met Monday, but were unable to bridge their differences. Adams said she was still considering filing an injunction to halt construction, which is planned to start in early November.