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Hills Fire Station Over Budget, Behind Schedule By RICHARD BRENNEMAN

Friday June 10, 2005

Thirteen years after Berkeley voters approved the Hills Fire Station, the project is within a year of completion, with the final tab estimated at $6.7 million. 

Though little beyond the reinforcing bars of a retaining wall are visible from the street, City Capital Projects Manager Henry DeGraca said the project should be completed by December, barring bad weather. 

“We were hit by a lot of rain, which delayed things for a while, but we’re still on schedule,” DeGraca said. “We’re about 30 percent complete, and we have the complete foundation pads in place.” 

However, Dave Mitchell, project manager for Alten Construction, which is building the station, told a reporter at the site Thursday that completion might be a year away. 

The latest figure represents an increase from $4.39 million, the figure floated two years ago and nearly double the original estimated cost. 

The 6,920-square-foot station at the intersection of Shasta Road and Park Gate will replace the existing 2,565-square-foot station just down the hill on Shasta Road. 

If the total construction and site acquisition costs are divided by size of the new station, the per-square-foot costs are now $968, compared with the $200 per square foot paid by the City of Oakland for their new Oakland Hills Fire Station, built after the two cities failed to agree on a planned joint station. 

One of the chief reasons for the difference in costs is that the Oakland station was built on a level hilltop site while the new Berkeley station is dug into a hillside slope, which has had to be reinforced and stabilized by an expensive retaining wall. 

The fire station has been the subject of contention between neighbors who oppose the project because of both siting and cost issues and neighbors who like the current location. 

Louise Larson, a longtime hills resident who lives near the new station site, said she was especially irritated by the escalating construction costs. 

“The original estimate was $2.5 million, then it went up to $4 million and now it’s $6.7 million. It’s just so irritating,” she said.  

Opponents claim that the Berkeley hills would be better served by the originally planned joint jurisdiction station. Oakland pulled out of the arrangement after a battle over the location. 

Oakland wanted the station further south, in the area which has historically produced the overwhelming majority of fires that have devastated the costly residences built to capture the spectacular bay vistas only the hills can provide. 

Construction of the station was authorized in 1992, when Berkeley voters passed Measure G, whose provisions included a new station in the hills designed to fight wildfires. 

Initial plans called for a multi-jurisdictional station that would be built on land donated by the East Bay Regional Parks District and house about 10 vehicles and 15 to 20 firefighters from Berkeley, Oakland, the parks district and, possibly, the University of California. 

That plan was scrapped two years later, and followed six years later by the current plan. 

Oakland built its own Hills Fire Station in 1999 at 1006 Amito Ave., just two-tenths of a mile south of Claremont Ave. The design, by an architect who lives near the site after neighbors reject the city-sponsored plans, blends unobtrusively into the residential neighborhood. 

Many Berkeley residents wanted the station closer to the existing station, in part because of the paramedics and ambulance service needed by the aging and affluent population. 

Larson said DeGraca has volunteered to meet with neighbors, “but he said he had to ask his boss first.” 

Larson said she hoped that in future meetings, unlike some held earlier, neighbors would be able to get answers to critical questions. 

The new station will retain some of the original vision of the old, albeit on a much reduced scale. Some firefighters from the park district—which has its own station nearby in Tilden Park—will be assigned to the new Berkeley station on high fire danger days, which average about 15 per year. 

The official fire season started earlier this month, but the highest fire danger typically comes later in the year after annual grasses have died and dried into tinder.