Nexus Artist Blasts Animal Shelter Decision

Friday June 04, 2004

I’m writing as one of the “anxious artists” from Nexus who attended the recent Berkeley City Council Subcommittee on the New Animal Shelter. These meetings have been going on for about two years—this is the first we have attended since finding out about them one month ago. 

It’s been quite a shock to learn that after 30 years as an arts and crafts cooperative (one of the first in West Berkeley), with two years remaining on our lease, we have a bulls-eye painted on our backs. Jill Posener, chair of the city’s Citizens Humane Commission, who ran the meeting, told me afterward that we are the only site in West Berkeley suitable for the new bond-subsidized animal shelter. 

How we got to this point seems like a classic case of missed opportunities and capricious, arbitrary judgment calls. I am basing my commentary largely upon Posener’s remarks at the public meeting, a previous meeting she requested at Nexus, and on my conversations with her. We have had scant opportunity to negotiate with Councilperson Breland, the mayor, or city staff. I applaud Posener for open and forthright (if belated) communication with us. Otherwise we would be completely out of the proverbial loop. This letter should not be interpreted as a personal attack on my part, but Posener is de facto the city’s only negotiator vis a vis Nexus and presumably with the knowledge of and on behalf of city staff, councilmembers, and the mayor. 

Posener blames city officials and the bond language for thwarting the acquisition of her optimal site: the former Urban Ore location on Gilman at Sixth Street. 

As I understand the scenario, she advocated for using the bond monies to buy the McCauley Foundry site on Carleton below Seventh Street, and then trading up for the Gilman location. After that deal fell through (or was quashed at the highest levels), Posener provides various explanations for why the Foundry site was then rejected, lost, or some combination of the two. 

At the subcommittee meeting, she objected to the Foundry’s proximity to the railroad tracks and to Bayer Corp., which conducts animal-testing. Yet the area of West Berkeley that she wants to relocate to is permeated with Bayer parking lots, offices, and labs, Nexus is a scant two blocks from the tracks, one more than the foundry, and one (short) block from Bayer. 

Even Alan Shriro of the Berkeley East Bay Humane Society, part of the proposed joint venture with the city-owned animal shelter, indicated that a new building could be almost completely sound-proofed. (One example of the co-existence of noise and human residents is the Clocktower luxury loft building at the San Francisco end of the Bay Bridge--windows have been double and triple-glazed.) 

At the meeting, Posener reacted angrily to a participant at the meeting holding up a handout from the city manager’s office, describing a for sale property at 945 Camelia containing a 20,000 building on a 35,000-square-foot parcel. She dismissed the building as a “tear-down” (apparently acceptable in the case of the distinctive Nexus Building), and later told me another drawback was the proximity of neighbors she feared would object. This squares perfectly with her preference for Nexus--located in what she (inaccurately) described at the meeting as not being part of a neighborhood. 

After the meeting, Posener angrily shot down my suggestion of the Jetco site at Channing Way and Fifth Street, saying I was insulting to suggest a location so close to the tracks. 

In her visit to Nexus, Posener indicated that her “vision” for a new shelter required that all operations except for possibly offices must be on ground level. She said it was not acceptable for dogs to use elevators or climb stairs. She said a pet emergency room must be on ground level. The Humane Society’s Shriro, again, seemed to disagree about the inherent problems for dogs with stairs and elevators. 

In reality, while Posener recognizes the difficulty of finding a site in a dense city like Berkeley, her “vision” and what she finds acceptable are the more expansive suburban models involving the conversion of open space and farmland. 

The obviously inadequate existing animal shelter has a 7,000-square-foot building on a 12,000-square-foot lot, the voter-approved $7.2 million bond measure provides for a 12,000-square-foot building on a 20,000-square-foot, and Posener’s goal is a 20,000-square-foot building on a 35,000-square-foot lot. She does allow that the bond measure is inadequate for her goal. 

I certainly do not mean to suggest that Posener alone is driving the site selection process that has apparently been concluded behind closed doors. A compromise of sharing the spacious site—a retrofitted Nexus alongside a new shelter—although floated by a city manager, is apparently not seriously under consideration. It’s clear what the Humane Society brings to the table is the land, which they own. Unfortunately for Posener and some city officials, that site is not vacant but the location of Nexus. 

Arts and crafts uses are protected by both the West Berkeley Plan (part of zoning) and the newly drafted Cultural Plan. The Nexus Building is a potential landmark—the brick portion was built by the prestigious Austin Building Co. in 1924, and is an unfortunately increasingly rare example of early industrial activity in West Berkeley. Nexus is also notable for being a locus of studios, woodshop, and gallery exhibits for some 30 years. 

It is not bragging to say that Nexus helps to provide the ambiance that’s bringing developers, shoppers, and residents to this vital neighborhood. 

I would also like to make a small correction to an implication in Brenneman’s well-written article (“Arts Commissioners Call For Public Input,” Daily Planet, April 27-29). Nexus has not had the opportunity to negotiate an extension of our lease as a trade for Nexans providing the seismic upgrade—we have been consistently told by the Humane Society that they will tell us what they have decided to do about our lease renewal when they have made up their minds. 

Under state law, the property owner—in this case, the Humane Society—is ultimately responsible for seismic upgrades. But because the city continues to grant their requests for waivers for seismic compliance, the Humane Society apparently feels no urgency to bring the building up to code. This despite the hazards to their own staff, patrons, and pets in their dog-training area which is part of the unreinforced masonry building. They would benefit from our retrofit. 

We shouldn’t forget that those who died in the recent Paso Robles earthquake were killed on the street by falling debris—Nexus is right on the street and the parking in front and side is claimed by employees from nearby businesses, customers of Juan’s Place, and probably even Humane Society users. 

As an individual who lives in a household with two rescue cats, a dog, and macaw, and who has spent hundreds of hours and dollars rescuing, taming, having neutered and trying to find homes for feral cats and kittens I am acutely aware of the paucity of shelter services in the immediate area. I have often had to drive to San Francisco and even Novato shelters in order to place animals. I fully support the creation of an expanded and improved local shelter. 

But irrational, inconsistent reasoning and pious opinions must be set aside before another site can be found or the Nexus site be shared. Time is of the essence. An Environmental Impact Report, which the proposed demolition of the Nexus Building would surely trigger, will only add long delays and additional costs. The consideration of alternatives and constructive solutions mandated by an EIR should be happening right now. 

This is one catfight that could have been avoided. Arbitrary and short-sighted decisions should stop driving the process, and all the stakeholders should be at the table. 


Bob Brokl is an Oakland resident.