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BUSD Eyes West Campus For New Headquarters

By Suzanne La Barre
Tuesday May 23, 2006

With a lease set to expire on a seismically unsound building, Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) officials are pushing to relocate district headquarters. 

West Campus, a district-owned parcel on University Avenue between Curtis and Bonar streets, is the designated new command center. 

On Thursday, BUSD will present architectural renderings for the northeast corner of the property, which will house district administration, classrooms, professional development facilities and other offices. The site would also include surface parking. 

“I’m very excited about it,” said Board of Education President Terry Doran. “I think it will address many of the needs of the district, especially relocating administrative offices.” 

At present, BUSD administrators occupy Old City Hall at 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, a city-run building branded unsafe because it is not retrofitted for earthquakes. 

The district’s lease on Old City Hall runs out in 2009. Consequently, officials are moving quickly to develop West Campus, a site that served as the Adult School for 20 years. It was abandoned in 2004. 

Preliminary drawings, prepared by Baker Vilar Architects, show demolition of six structures north of Addison Street and east of the playing field at University and Curtis. An existing classroom building on Bonar at Addison and an auditorium at University and Bonar will both remain. A new 8,000 to 10,000-square-foot classroom and administration building would extend from the latter. 

District administration offices would predominantly take up the first and second floors of the Bonar Street building, which would also hold a print center, a purchasing warehouse and conference rooms. Classes would be held on the third floor for about 145 independent study students—who currently occupy space at the Alternative High School campus—and other yet-to-be-identified students. 

“The superintendent has a dream of that being a real educational facility not just offices,” said district spokesperson Mark Coplan. “We anticipate a lot of different programs, but we haven’t identified what they will be at this point.” 

The building on University would accommodate a Board of Education room, a media lab and library, staff development facilities, conference rooms and other offices. About 100 parking spaces would be accessible via entryways on University and Addison. 

District officials expect administrators to move in by spring 2009. The estimated cost of the project is $9.93 million in Measure A and Measure AA funding. About $600,000 was already spent on minor projects, roofing and project planning.  

Community members are invited to weigh in on the proposed development on-site (at the auditorium) Thursday, at 7 p.m. However, the public process that characterizes most projects in Berkeley is not on the books for this phase of West Campus development. That’s because BUSD is held to the standards of the Division of State Architects, not the city of Berkeley, district officials say. So long as instruction takes place on the premises, the district claims it is exempt from city zoning laws (though the city would be responsible for approving curb cuts for the parking lot.) 

“The fact that we will have students in the building gives us no option,” said Coplan. “We have to design it to meet student needs [per state standards] and the fact is it’s a higher standard.” 

Some residents are balking at that allowance, insisting that because only a portion of the buildings is designated for classrooms, the district is still accountable to the city. 

“A lot of us feel it’s inappropriate,” said John McBride, who lives close to West Campus. The project “just doesn’t rise to the level of exemption from city review,” he said. 

The city has not forged an official legal opinion, because the district has not provided enough information on the project, said Assistant City Attorney Zach Cowan. 

“It’s not entirely clear to me what they’re doing,” he said. 

Coplan said the district has been in touch with the city on numerous occasions, but not the city attorney’s office per se. Deputy City Manager Lisa Caronna called the Daily Planet later on Monday to clarify that the city is “waiting for details from the district and they are in the process of getting that information to us.” 

Other concerns raised at a meeting May 5 held by the West Campus Site Committee, a group of district and community representatives, included environmental impacts, traffic, the student body makeup and the timeline for project completion. 

The entire West Campus site covers 5.77 acres, but the district has only drafted a concrete concept for the northeast portion. Use for the remainder of the property, currently home to a child development center, a playing field and other structures, is still unknown, though a pool center and a gymnasium constructed in 1930 will remain.