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BUSD Passes Scaled-Down Plan For West Campus By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday July 01, 2005

After Board President Nancy Riddle recused herself because of a potential financial conflict, the Berkeley Unified School District unanimously approved a scaled-down version of the West Campus development plan at the board’s Wednesday night meeting. 

The plan, presented as a one-sheet line drawing with no supporting details, commits the district in principle to development of only the northeast third of the mostly-vacant, six-and-a-half-acre 10-building West Campus site on University Avenue between Bonar and Curtis streets. The site once housed the district’s adult school. 

Left in limbo was an ambitious renovation plan of the entire property, contained in a four pound, multi-page draft document produced at the district’s request by Berkeley-based Design, Community & Environment company (DCE). 

In its decision Wednesday night, the board committed to forming a site committee for the West Campus work, as well as holding more community meetings “as appropriate.” 

District officials say the major reason for the proposed renovation is to relocate the district’s administrative offices—currently housed at the Old City Hall—and the district’s Oregon-Russell street facilities. Both of those buildings are considered seismically unsafe, and BUSD Superintendent Michele Lawrence has made it a priority to move employees at those two facilities into safer quarters. 

District officials estimate that it will be at least two years before the move is made. BUSD rents its Old City Hall administrative offices from the City of Berkeley at a $1 per year on a lease that expires in 2007. City officials have said that a seismic retrofit of Old City Hall is economically unfeasible. 

The sprawling West Campus site has far more room than is needed for the relocated facilities, and much district and community discussion over the past several months centered around what was to be done with the remaining portion of the property. 

That discussion was put on hold by the passage of the scaled-down plan Wednesday night, which now only calls for renovation of the existing auditorium and administration building on the property, with the addition of an 8,000 to 10,000 square foot classroom and administration building to be built adjacent to the auditorium. 

Stating that the estimated $26 million price tag for the entire proposal far exceeded the “$6 million to $9 million set aside for the project,” BUSD Facilities Director Lew Jones recommended the rejection of the full-scale plan. While stating that he had no complaints about DCE’s “fine and comprehensive work,” Jones’ memo to board members said that “certain elements of the plan should be studied in greater detail before we proceed.” 

Jones listed some of those elements as the daylighting of Strawberry Creek which runs through the West Campus property and moving the district’s central kitchen to the property. It was the possible move of the district’s kitchen facilities from Jefferson Elementary to West Campus that caused Board President Riddle to recuse herself. Riddle said that because she lives in close proximity to Jefferson, she had a potential economic interest in any decision that affected the Jefferson property. 

Both the creek daylighting and kitchen issues caused considerable controversy during the five public meetings held at West Campus about the property development. Also controversial were suggestions to provide a 170 to 200 space parking lot on the property, and possible plans for housing or other commercial development. 

After both Directors John Selawsky, Shirley Issel, and Student Director Lily Dorman-Colby questioned the limited amount of information contained in the one-page drawing, Superintendent Lawrence said that the requested decision was on the concept only, and that there will be “plenty of time to ask questions. This is certainly going to be open for more discussion. You will have the opportunity to look at blueprints and a detailed plan to see what will actually go on the property, and where things will fall.” 

Facilities Director Jones said that his department’s next step would be to “come back to the board with a schematic design for your approval.” 

In public testimony that preceded the board vote, several neighbors of the West Campus property urged board consideration of an alternative development plan proposed by the West Campus Neighborhood-Merchant Association (WestNEMA). The WestNEMA alternative, available on their website (, calls for maintaining open space on the large portion of the site, south of the existing boys’ gym between Curtis and Browning streets, except for a small preschool facility. It also includes space in the northwest corner of the property along University Avenue for potential future private development, which it suggests should be “50 percent larger than proposed by DCE.” WestNEMA members have suggested that private development include ground floor retail with housing on top. Such development is permitted under Berkeley’s zoning ordinance for that portion of University Avenue. 

But the WestNEMA plan itself has caused controversy, with one West Campus neighbor, Dennis McCullough, telling board members that “I came here to support the WestNEMA plan, and I even have some doubts about that. Why are we considering selling school property for housing?” McCullough called that idea “shortsighted.”›