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BUSD Studies Development On Former Tennis Court Site

By Matthew Artz
Friday December 19, 2003

The Berkeley Unified School District will consider tearing up its former high school tennis courts to put up a better parking lot—and maybe more. 

The school board voted unanimously Wednesday to study the possible development of its roughly 40,000-square-foot lot on the corner of Milvia Street and Bancroft Way across the street from the main high school campus. 

Until three years ago, the lot housed tennis courts. Then fallout from a building fire and construction of new school buildings forced the space into service as a supplemental teachers’ parking lot. 

Now, with the district $2.4 million in the red and teachers’ cars still spilling onto the main campus, the district’s School Construction Oversight Committee has been contemplating a solution that could exile cars from the main campus and make the district some money on the side. 

The committee’s notion is to partner with a developer who would build apartment units over a parking garage that could serve residents, teachers and shoppers, simultaneously earning the district some much needed cash. 

“We’re all quite sold on it,” said Committee Chair Bruce Wicinas. 

Two months ago, developer Patrick Kennedy of Panoramic Interests and city parking czar Matt Nichols—at the behest of school board member Terry Doran—met with the committee to pitch a mixed-use development on the site that would feature the robotic three-spaces-in-one parking lifts Kennedy has installed in several of his downtown developments. 

The lot could fit 300 parking spaces in a relatively small area and at a low cost, committee members said, since the robotic lifts don’t require concrete ramps. 

Patrick Kennedy didn’t return phone calls for this story. 

Committee members cautioned that they are solely an advisory board with no policy power and that other options for the property include a conventional parking lot or a lot beneath an athletic field. 

Their recommendation, adopted by the board as an amendment to the Yearly Facilities Plan Modifications, called for studying the best use of the lot for the community and district, while considering ways to optimize district profit.  

Wicinas believed there was lots of money to be made from a parking lot. But Denny Yang, manager of the parking lots at Allston Way and Kittredge Street, said business was improving but that during most of the recent economic downturn, lots were not filled to capacity and profit margins were tight. 

A 1993 campus master plan identified the parcel as a future parking lot, and Doran said that after a decade of delays, the pieces are finally in place to pursue development. 

With the Library Garden’s project at Milvia and Kittredge streets set to deprive the city of over 200 parking spots and the new Vista College campus having closed 50 spots—and promising to bump up downtown parking demand—city planners and merchants are hungry to bolster the parking supply. 

“This piece of property has been a political football for 10 years,” Doran told the school board. “Now we have indications from city staff, developers, and city officials that it wouldn’t be the political football it was in the past. 

Cisco Devries, aide to Mayor Tom Bates, said Bates was interested in the district’s lot as replacement parking, though he is more focused on upgrading the Center Street garage. 

The political minefield, however, hasn’t been entirely cleared. Officials acknowledged the potentially explosive public backlash that could accompany any for-profit partnership between Kennedy—or any other developer—and the district which doesn’t pay city assessments and isn’t bound by the city permit process.  

BUSD Director of Facilities and Maintenance Lew Jones said the district would submit to “more outside control processes” for a mixed-use development and committee members urged the district to perform extensive community outreach to bolster public support. 

“In order to get there the process is more important than the product,” said committee member Lloyd Lee. “If you do a Request For Proposal without doing a process, everyone will turn on you.” 

Then there’s the problem of the teachers. Currently, high school teachers are the only downtown workers who park for free. Doran and some committee members agreed that the privilege would likely have to end, though committee members convinced Doran to delay broaching the issue to the board until they had time to inform teachers of their plan. 

They also shot down a Doran idea to possibly pave over a district parcel housing portable classrooms and overgrown grass at Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Derby Street if parking at the old tennis courts was unattainable. 

The future look of the high school is still in flux. With construction on the east side of the campus nearly complete, the district must decide what to do with the south portion—home to athletic fields, a structurally unsound gym, and a makeshift parking lot that holds about 100 cars. 

To add class space and possibly new tennis courts to bring the tennis team back from its current home at Grove Park, about a half-mile from campus, committee members resolved to banish cars from the main campus. 

Under Kennedy’s concept, the robotic lot could fit about 300 spots—enough for building residents and the approximately 210 teachers, as well as the public, with more space available after school hours. 

The lot could also provide spaces for Vista College students and possibly qualify the district for a share of the $3.5 million Vista will pay the city for parking mitigations. 

Jones said that if the district realized such a plan, it would lease the land to a developer who would operate the building, while the district received parking or other revenue. 

“This is not an area of great expertise for the district,” Jones said. “My sense is we would have a hands-off relationship.” 

The state of downtown parking remains a source of contention. Merchants argue that the loss of lots has made more parking vital, while others push for spending dollars on better mass transit access. An Environmental Impact Report (EIR) from the Vista College development on Center Street forecast future parking shortages, but the Library Gardens EIR predicted overflow parking only during peak early afternoon hours.