Four years after it struck out in its bid to close a block of Derby Street to build a baseball field in South Berkeley, the Berkeley Unified School District is proposing a far more modest field of dreams. At least for now.
The district last week announced plans to build a multipurpose athletic field at its East Campus site on Martin Luther King Jr. Way, between Derby and Carleton streets.
Though the stated goal would likely result in a softball field and soccer field on the two-acre lot for use by the high school, the Alternative High School Program and Longfellow Middle School, several school board members have professed their preference for reintroducing a controversial plan to dig up the adjoining block of Derby Street to create enough space for a baseball diamond.
Currently the Berkeley High baseball team plays their games a mile-and-a-half from campus at San Pablo Park—long a sore spot for backers of the team.
In 2000 a similar baseball diamond plan proposed by Berkeley Unified fell flat on its face when neighbors and the Ecology Center’s Berkeley Farmers’ Market (which uses Derby Street Tuesday evenings) objected and the City Council refused to close Derby between Martin Luther King Jr. and Milvia Street.
Since then, the lot has remained home to a collection of portable classrooms that once housed the Berkeley Adult School and the Alternative High School Program, but is now mostly storage space with a few offices. Neighbors have pushed for the district to tear down the buildings, which several said attracted rowdy homeless people at night.
Berkeley Unified had always planned to develop some sort of field on the site, said Lew Jones, the district’s Director of Facilities and Maintenance, but the bad blood caused from the first proposal led the district to pull back for several years. “There was so much acrimony, it wasn’t anybody’s favorite project to pick up and run with,” he said.
The new project presently being proposed doesn’t appear likely to face the same level of passionate opposition as the previous one. Jones said the plans are to remove the portable classrooms, rip up underground utilities, and fix the drainage problems.
The drainage woes are caused, in part, by Derby Creek which flows below the property, said School Board President John Selawsky. After fixing the grounds, the district plans to build athletic fields, fences, bathrooms and bleachers to hold between 60 and 100 people. Jones gave assurances that the district would not install lights for night games.
The project would likely require environmental review resulting in a mitigated negative declaration, Jones said. In 1999, the city spent roughly $150,000 on an environmental impact report to study the closing of Derby, but neither the city nor the district ever adopted its findings.
In all, the project should be completed by spring 2006 ,and cost no more than $1.5 million, paid for by money from voter-approved school bond Measure AA passed in 2000.
But the question remains: Will that be the final project or will the district push to close Derby and build a bigger field? At a Board of Education meeting last week, Directors Shirley Issel, Joaquin Rivera and Terry Doran all expressed a preference for the bigger project if the political climate was right.
“We should keep the door open so when we’re allowed to close Derby, we can go ahead with bigger plans,” Rivera said.
Should the district proceed to request the closure of Derby, a renewed battle with the Ecology Center’s farmers’ market doesn’t appear likely. Pam Webster, an executive board member at the Ecology Center and one of the most vocal critics of the district’s former plan, is the wife of School Board President Selawsky, who has already stated he will support closing Derby only if the farmers’ market can stay at its present home.
Penny Luff, the market’s director, said that during the first battle over Derby vendors rejected a proposed move to Sacramento and Oregon streets out of fear they would lose customers.
Selawsky’s assurance that the farmers’ market would be safe was good enough for her, Luff said. Her primary concern was that a proposal to pave over a stretch of grass beside Derby for a new farmers’ market would make her the tenant of the school district, which had previously forced the market to move repeatedly when it operated out of school parking lots.
While the farmers’ market doesn’t appear to be an obstacle to either plan, neighborhood sentiment remains mixed and not all passions have died down. “If they build a field life as we know it comes to and end,” said neighbor Michael Bauce, who lives a block from the property. He discounted assurances that the fields would not have lights.
Brian Boudreau, who lives across the street from the portable classrooms, said he wants to see a field, but not the bleachers or bathrooms that might accompany it. “Bathrooms open up a whole can of worms,” he said. “We live just close enough to a problem area that they could be a draw for activity we don’t want to see happening.” Boudreau also worried that fire trucks from the engine company at Shattuck Avenue and Derby, would use his street, Carleton, as its main thoroughfare.
Boudreau’s next door neighbor, Ruth Reffkin, said she wasn’t as concerned by the final project as much as establishing a fair process that wouldn’t lead to the same animosity that led many of her neighbors to hang signs in their windows reading “Keep Derby Open.”
The School District’s Jones said that he will form a site committee with neighbors and the farmers’ market to discuss the project.
Though Reffkin was hesitant to reveal what kind of park she wanted to be built across her street, she was quick to say what she wanted gone. “Those buildings,” she said pointing to the portable classrooms. “Nothing could be as bad as them.”