Berkeley Iceland Scores A Reprieve For Now

By Suzanne La Barre
Friday April 14, 2006

Berkeley’s legendary ice-skating rink will stay open—for now. 

A permit that allows Berkeley Iceland to operate expires Saturday, but the City of Berkeley has no intention of closing the rink, a representative from the mayor’s office said Tuesday. 

“We’re going to continue to operate and keep the programs intact,” said Jay Wescott, general manager of East Bay Iceland, Incorporated, which owns Berkeley Iceland and two other rinks.  

Berkeley Iceland’s fate was called into question in February, when owners placed the rink on the market, claiming they could not meet the climbing cost of facility maintenance. Many feared that if the Berkeley Iceland didn’t get new owners by April 15, the permit’s expiration date, the rink would shut down for good. 

Instead, rink operators are seeking to extend the permit through the city’s Planning Department. The Zoning Adjustments Board will rule on granting the extension, a decision that can be appealed to City Council.  

Berkeley Iceland, at 2727 Milivia St., was issued an administrative use permit in 2005 when the Fire Department deemed its permanent ammonia-based cooling system a hazard, and forced the rink to install a temporary system. Ammonia is known to cause serious respiratory problems if released in the air. Wescott maintains that the rink was never a risk to the community. 

The permit was granted under the premise that owners would invest in a new, permanent system. 

But they couldn’t afford the estimated $500,000, Wescott told the Planet in February—and the facility went up for sale Feb. 27. 

Gordon Commercial Real Estate has posted Berkeley Iceland for $6.45 million. So far, there aren’t any takers. 

“It’s still available,” said Ito Ripsteen, an associate with Gordon Commerical. “There have definitely been looks from different types of people, but no offer.” 

He declined to identify interested parties, but said there have been a few who would maintain the site as a rink, and others who would not. Possible uses for the facility include a sports center or an entertainment venue, Ripsteen said. 

“It’s a limited field to find a user to use it as is,” he said. 

And the ice rink business isn’t exactly booming. According to the Ice Skating Institute nationwide survey, median revenues for single-sheet ice rinks decreased from $566,000 to $505,000 in 2002, while the average amount invested in facility improvements shot up from $28,000 to $88,000 between 1998 and 2001. 

Berkeley Iceland is an especially hard sell, because it requires major work to meet city health and safety code, and other refurbishments such as window, roof and exit door replacements, new piping under the ice floor and snow pit improvements. 

Because rinks aren’t moneymakers, many cities offer subsidies or assume owership, said Oakland Ice Center General Manager Dave Fies, who’s been in the rink business for more than 20 years. 

Fies was hired in 1998 after the city of Oakland was forced to assume control of the Ice Center when developers failed to pay back a multimillion-dollar loan for the project. 

The rink just barely stays afloat, Fies said.  

Cisco DeVries, chief of staff for Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, said the city is doing everything in its power to keep Berkeley Iceland an ice-skating rink—looking into state grants and low-income loans, for instance—but it’s not interested in taking over the facility.  

“We do want to look at what ways the city can be helpful at keeping the rink in the current location, but we need to be realistic about the city’s financial resources and expertise,” DeVries said. And “ultimately, any decision is between the owners at Iceland and the potential buyers.” 

Last Thursday, the Landmarks Preservation Commission moved to designate Berkeley Iceland a city landmark. A hearing is slated for June 8.  

Built in 1939, Berkeley Iceland is one of few Olympic-sized skating rinks in the Western United States. It hosted the U.S. National Figure Skating Championships in 1947, 1957 and 1966, and was frequented by Brian Boitano, who earned gold in figure skating in the 1988 Calgary Olympics. The rink attracts 75,000 to 100,000 skaters a year, and is home to six skating clubs, eight hockey teams, including the UC Berkeley hockey team, and an ice-skating school. 

Tom Killilea has a daughter in skating school, and said he practically lives at Berkeley Iceland. 

“I just like the place a lot,” he said. “You don’t see any rinks like it around. It’s a special place and most people feel that way.” 

Killilea’s dream is to see the rink turn into a nonprofit organization and forge a partnership with the city that would allot for additional recreational activities, he said. 

But for now, he’s pleased Berkeley Iceland will stay open while the permit extension is under consideration.  

He said, “If it closed, probably we’d lose the rink forever.” 



—Richard Brenneman contributed to this report..