Heated tempers and pointed questions dominated the opening minutes of Thursday’s Berkeley Unified School District’s public planning meeting last week on the West Campus site.
The first moments of the Thursday meeting, however, were devoted to City Councilmember Darryl Moore’s tribute to his predecessor Margaret Breland, who had died earlier in the day.
Following his tribute, Moore addressed the issue at hand—formulating plans for the future of the 10 buildings on six-plus acres the school district owns along University Avenue between Bonar and Curtis streets.
“It’s going to be complicated, and it’s important that we work together,” Moore said.
And, within minutes, things got more complicated.
The first issue was David C. Early, the consultant hired by BUSD to conduct the community planning process for the site, and his dual roles as head of Design, Community & Environment—the firm awarded the consulting contract—and as the chair of Livable Berkeley, an advocacy organization that is currently formulating its own plans for the site.
Rachel Boyce, a Curtis Street resident, was the first to raise the issue of a conflict with Early’s role, noting that a Livable Berkeley meeting in Early’s offices two days earlier had conducted its own session to propose alternatives for the site to present at Thursday’s meeting.
“I was out of the country,” Early said when asked about the meeting in his office. “The agenda had a workshop about what members wanted to do, but I was not in attendance and I don’t know about the results.”
“What stake does Livable Berkeley have?” Boyce asked.
“There’s a question about your role because of your involvement in Livable Berkeley,” said Kristin Leimkuhler.
“I hope the people who are unhappy will let this proceed,” said developer Ali Kashani, who had come to participate as a project area resident.
A Daily Planet reporter who has been evicted from the evening meeting at Early’s Walnut Street office asked if the planning consultant saw any conflict between his role as a district consultant and the fact that he was offering office space to a meeting called by an activist group to formulate a policy on the project.
“Livable Berkeley has not taken a position yet,” Early said. “There are members here this evening, but I know absolutely nothing about what may have happened at the meeting, and as a citizen of Berkeley I have as much right as anyone else to join an organization. I would say that in this case, there is no conflict of interest.”
BUSD Board Member John Selawsky later said he was unaware of Early’s connection with both groups and said he would look into the issue of potential conflicts of interest.
Others said they were angry that a 52-page needs assessment report on the site Early had prepared for BUSD wasn’t posted on the district’s web site until the day before the meeting. Early acknowledged that the report had been prepared about a week earlier and apologized for the late web posting.
Others said they were concerned at the speed at which the project was moving forward.
“This is a very fast-track process,” Early acknowledged. “The school board meets only during the academic year, and Superintendent Michelle Lawrence has made a commitment to the staff to get them out of two incredibly unsafe buildings.”
The structures in question are Old City Hall and those at the district-owned complex at 172O Oregon St. The district hopes to move district officers and other uses from those sites to West Campus, which already hosts some programs in its largely vacant buildings.
“Part of what offends me is that this is the largest single parcel in Central Berkeley, and you’re asking people to participate without briefing them on the University Avenue Strategic Plan,” said Leimkuhler. “I feel you’re asking people to make enormous decisions that are sort of pie-in-the-sky.”
Thursday’s was the second of four public participation sessions Early’s company is running. The first session was held March 17, and additional meetings are scheduled for April 21 and May 12.
Once the opening dustup had settled, participants split into groups to formulate their own plans for the site, starting with printed maps and multicolor sheets featuring cut-along-the-non-dotted-line representations of the district’s mandatory and optional uses for the site.
Six groups retired to separate tables to talk, cut and tape, emerging at the end with reports presented to the meeting.
One mandatory use for the site was rejected by a large majority, the presence on the site of BUSD’s Community Day School, which provides education for students who have been expelled, put on probation or referred by the School Attendance Review Board and who are now currently being home-schooled. Many of the Day School pupils have been sent to the program for violence and other behavioral problems, prompting great concern from participants that the program would be on the site.
Most of the groups favored the option of daylighting Strawberry Creek’s course through the property, a program strongly endorsed by Livable Berkeley. Most also favored the option of including residential housing over ground-level commercial space and parking along University Avenue. One group favored arts programs to augment the majority-approved recommendation to transform the current auditorium at the site into a community theater.
All groups favored keeping the swimming pools now on the site as well as the 12,000-square-foot boys’ gymnasium.
The groups divided on preserving the three-story, 39,000-square-foot three-story classroom building, which was built without a now-mandatory elevator. While some wanted to preserve the seismically sound structure, Planning Commissioner David Stoloff favored demolition, noting that rehabilitating an existing building costs as much as a structure.
District requirements for the site include:
• 31,200 square feet of administrative offices plus 4,500 square feet for a board room and ancillary quarters.
• 8,800 square feet for a teacher and staff development center, 4,000 square feet each for the district’s independent study and Community Day School programs, and 2,800-square feet for a child care program.
• 6,000 square feet for buildings and grounds shops.
• A 6,000-square-foot district-wide kitchen, a 1,700-square foot print center, a 1,500-square-foot district warehouse and 800 square feet for document storage.
• 75,500 square feet for parking.
Optional uses included:
• The existing 26,500-square-foot softball and soccer field on the west of the property
• 30,000-square feet of housing along with 9,000 square feet of parking and a 1,600-square-foot child development center for residents, and
• 30,000 square feet of retail space with 3,000 square feet of parking.
One big question raised by the audience was who would oversee the site. Under state law, a school site where instruction occurs falls under the Office of the State Architect rather than under local agencies, while an administrative-only site is overseen by local building, planning and zoning agencies.
Because the site includes a mix of uses, including possible retail and residential uses, Early said he couldn’t predict which agencies would assume ultimate jurisdiction.
“It has never been an issue in Berkeley before,” he said.
At the meeting’s end, Early promised to post photos on the school district’s website of the plans formulated at Thursday night’s gathering. The presentations will be boiled down to three alternative schemes, including a preferred alternative, and brought back to the next community workshop on April 21. The final recommendation will be presented as a West Campus Draft Master Plan to be hashed out at the final public workshop of May. 12.