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BUSD Rebuffs City Review Process

By Suzanne La Barre
Tuesday May 30, 2006

Development of a portion of a defunct Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) campus will move forward without city review, whether city officials and community members like it or not.  

Plans to relocate the district’s central offices to West Campus, an abandoned BUSD-owned site at University Avenue between Curtis and Bonar streets, will not slog through the public process required for most building projects in Berkeley, said Superintendent Michele Lawrence Thursday. 

District headquarters are currently housed in Old City Hall, a seismically unsafe building at 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way that the district leases from the city, a lease set for expiration in 2009. 

Those two factors combine to necessitate a speedy move to West Campus, Lawrence says, and the city’s notoriously slow review procedures will only serve as a hindrance. (An existing BUSD project to erect a transportation yard between Sixth and Seventh streets, near Gilman, is stalled in the zoning process and is costing the district about $400,000 a year.) 

The proposed project, slated for the northeast corner of the 5.77-acre West Campus property, would involve refurbishing two buildings at University Avenue and Bonar Street, constructing a 10,000-square-foot addition along University, and demolishing several buildings north of Addison Street and east of a playing field at University and Curtis Street.  

Though most of the space is earmarked for district offices, the third floor of the Bonar Street building would accommodate classrooms for independent study students and alternative educational facilities. Experimental classrooms for middle and elementary school students are also in the works. 

Because California school districts are exempt from city zoning laws at sites where instruction takes place, BUSD staff insists plans for West Campus can circumvent the review process.  

“We’ve got the law on our side,” said Lawrence, claiming that the district has the backing of three attorneys. District Spokesperson Mark Coplan could not identity those lawyers, because they are still in talks with the city, he said. 

The city of Berkeley has not yet formed a legal opinion on the matter, Assistant City Attorney Zach Cowan told the Daily Planet last week.  

At a public meeting held Thursday to examine architectural renderings of the proposed project, community member John McBride insisted the district was navigating dicey legal territory, and called Lawrence’s dismissal of the public process “appalling.” 

McBride and others suggested that the district submit plans to the Design Review Committee (DRC), a sub-division of the Zoning Adjustments Board charged with reviewing design proposals in non-residential districts. 

District 2 City Councilmember Darryl Moore agreed it’s worth a shot. 

“I understand the superintendent’s need to expedite the process, it does take a long time to go through the permitting process,” he said. “But I do think a courtesy visit to Design Review Committee wouldn’t hurt.” 

After some prodding, Lawrence said she would consider going before the DRC as a matter of courtesy, but resolutely rejected a longer review. 

“Absolutely I will fight getting this thing into a process so it’s delayed,” she said. “I won’t do it.” 

The approval process was just one issue raised by community members, including West Campus neighbors, parents of independent study students and other project stakeholders, at Thursday’s meeting. 

Neighbors expressed distaste for the design scheme, particularly the frontage on University, which, as a flat façade with few windows, McBride found “really, really stark.” Another resident called it “horrible.” Architect Jose Vilar was open to suggestions, including adding a canopy on the eastern edge of the University structure that would serve the dual purpose of a bus shelter and an aesthetic enhancer. 

The independent study community was more concerned with the logistics of moving students from their existing locale on the Alternative High School campus at 2701 Martin Luther King Jr. Way. 

“I don’t see this location as kid-friendly,” said Gia Johnson, who has a child at independent study. “To me it just doesn’t look like it’s going to be a great fit. The location where they’re at right now is a good fit.” 

The existing campus is small, full of garden space and just blocks away from Berkeley High School, where independent students take occasional classes. Some parents say the new site, atop district offices, is too far away from Berkeley High and won’t offer students a cohesive school identity.  

“It feels to me like you’re squeezing a school into an office building, it doesn’t feel like a school, it feels like a community college,” said Meredith Gold, whose ninth-grader attends independent study. 

Independent study students are being relocated to West Campus because it is a larger space, and will give the program room to expand, said Lawrence. 

As for the school’s identity, “Those are kid decisions that ought to come later on down the road,” Lawrence said.