Artists Challenge Proposed Animal Shelter Location

Friday May 14, 2004

When the five-member Berkeley City Council Subcommittee on the New Animal Shelter and the Citizens Humane Commission sat down at their joint meeting Wednesday afternoon with the Berkeley-East Bay Humane Society to discuss the future of animal care in the city, nobody expected a catfight. They got one anyhow. 

A group of anxious artists used the session to challenge both the city and the Humane Society over the fate of the building that’s been home to the Nexus Gallery and Collective for more than two decades. 

The key problem for the artists is that they fear the Humane Society, which owns the building in the 2700 block of Eighth Street, plans to tear it down to make way for an enlarged animal shelter facility 

“We’re scared because we got a call that Mayor Bates wants to do a walk-through of our building next week,” said Sharon Siskin, a Nexus artist. Our landlords are not telling us what’s going on.” 

With both the animal shelter and the humane society facilities running out of room, Berkeley is under pressure to start using the bond money voters authorized for construction of a new shelter large enough to combine both functions. 

“We are very interested in the opportunity to work together with the city,” said Mim Carlson, executive director of the Humane Society. “Having two separate shelters does not serve the needs of this community.” 

“We’re in a time crunch,” said Jill Posener, chair of the city’s Humane Commission. “We have to push for some kind of joint working group to start this process rolling. My preference is that we include members of the arts community. While the shelter will hopefully be built in West Berkeley, there shouldn’t be a conflict between animal lovers and art lovers.” 

Posener said she was worried that the city was looking at sites of 20,000 square feet or less for the new shelter, “which would preclude a joint facility” with the Humane Society. “We have a bond fund of $7.2 million and we don’t even have cleaning staff for the shelter. Animal control officers are doing the cleaning.” 

Bob Brockl of Nexus faulted Posener and the city for rejecting other sites, increasing the pressure on Nexus, which houses work space for 25 artists and crafts workers in an unreinforced masonry building which the city has tagged for either a seismic retrofit or the wrecking ball. 

With two years left on their lease and no commitment for a renewal from the Humane Society, Nexus is reluctant to shell out the six-figure retrofit costs—which Brockl and Siskin said the group would be happy to pay in return for a long-term lease. 

Dan Lambert, city coordinator for unreinforced masonry retrofits, said the structure—built in 1924 by the Austin Company of Cleveland (builders of the Heinz Building at Ashby and San Pablo avenues)—had already received two retrofit extensions, and a third couldn’t be issued unless a building permit was filed.  

“We feel very sympathetic to nonprofit organizations, but we have to treat all owners the same way. There’s not a lot of time left from out point of view.” Lambert said. 

Posener said she regretted turning down one site near the Bayer facility because she didn’t want to relocate near a company conducting on-site animal experiments. She rejected another site at 925 Camellia because the site was across from a residential neighborhood and the existing structure required demolition. 

Under the West Berkeley Plan, anyone “demolishing space used by artists is required to replace it with similar space and similar rents. 

Councilmember Dona Spring said she’d heard from a Nexus artist who didn’t like the idea of tearing down their building and setting them up on top of a new animal shelter, an idea that’s been floated by the Humane Society. 

“Having a wood shop anywhere but the ground floor doesn’t make sense,” Brockl said after the meeting. “And we’ve already put $100,000 into roof work.” 

The joint subcommittee/Humane Commission meeting did end on one positive note when a motion by Councilmember Betty Olds carried, establishing that the city favors working jointly with the Humane Society on humane issues. 

That resolution and other issues will be taken up at the next meeting, scheduled for 4 p.m. June 2 in the sixth floor Redwood Room at City Hall. 

After the meeting ended, one member of the Humane Commission muttered, “People are telling me they won’t show up for another meeting if those damn artists are there again.”