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West Campus Plans Falter with High Costs

By Suzanne La Barre
Friday July 28, 2006

A construction estimate for new Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) offices has come in at more than double the budget, forcing district officials to head back to the drawing board. 

Development of the northeast corner of West Campus, a 5.77-acre district-owned expanse on University Avenue, between Curtis and Bonar streets, will cost about $19 million—$11.6 million over the amount allocated, according to Lew Jones, BUSD director of facilities. 

“We’re clearly going to have to rethink our approach to the project,” Jones said Tuesday. 

District officials have stressed the need for a hasty move to West Campus, since central office employees currently occupy the seismically unsafe Old City Hall buildings, at 2124 Martin Luther King Jr. Way. 

Representatives of Baker and Vilar, the architecture firm retained by BUSD, revealed West Campus design schemes at a community meeting in May. The plans involved demolishing five structures, refurbishing two existing buildings, constructing a 10,000-foot addition and installing a parking lot. The facilities would accommodate district administration employees and the independent study program, in addition to other student classrooms.  

The Berkeley Board of Education was set to approve the plans at its June 28 meeting before the estimate came in, Jones said. Superintendent Michele Lawrence has emphasized progressing with the project as quickly as possible (and avoiding city review in the process—permissible, she has said, because instructional facilities are exempt from local zoning laws) to remove employees from hazardous buildings by 2009, when the district’s lease on Old City Hall, for a dollar a year, expires. 

School board Director John Selawsky said last week he doubts the district will meet that deadline. Instead, he said, BUSD headquarters may need to temporarily relocate to another building. 

“That (estimate) is so far off the scale, I don’t know how we’re going to build anything,” he said. 

Escalating construction costs brought on by higher global demand—namely from China—are partly at fault, Jones said. Between March 2003 and July 2006, the price of steel nearly doubled, from $340 a ton to $660, according to the American Institute of Steel Construction, Inc., an industry organization. Concrete costs are also on the rise; in March, the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics showed an increase of11 percent over the course of a year. 

An overly ambitious project scope is additionally to blame, Jones said. For instance, the new building, which would accommodate discretionary features like a staff development room, a demonstration classroom and a media lab raised the estimate by $3.3 million. 

“What’s reflected in the design is what everyone wanted,” and some components may need to be reconsidered, Lawrence said.  

Tearing down structures initially slated for renovation is an additional option, she said. Existing plans call for the refurbishment of the University Avenue auditorium, built in 1953, and the Bonar Street administration building, constructed in 1967, but the district never explored the cost effectiveness of starting from scratch, she said. 

Selawsky suggested that the district retrofit Old City Hall and maintain offices there, but renovation costs may be comparably steep to West Campus, he said, though he has not seen actual figures.  

BUSD won’t secure additional project funds, unless it pulls from other sources—which Lawrence said she doesn’t want to do. The total budget for West Campus, through bond measures A and AA, is $9.9 million; BUSD has already spent $636,783 on minor projects, roofing and project planning. 

West Campus, erected in 1913—though little original architecture remains--served as the Adult School for 20 years, before it was vacated in 2004. The following year, the school board hired local planning firm Design Community and Environment (DCE) for a maximum of $200,000, to draft a comprehensive design scheme for the site. On the heels of considerable community outcry, the board rejected that proposal, and opted for a staff-developed plan. 

Despite financial setbacks, Lawrence maintains that central offices will relocate to West Campus—it’s just a matter of how. 

“We can’t nix the idea of moving those individuals out of this building that’s unsafe,” she said. 

The city also has an investment in ensuring the site gets developed. 

“We definitely would like to see that area occupied in one form or another and an administration building would be more eyes on the street,” said Ryan Lau, legislative aide for District 2 City Councilmember Darryl Moore. “Because it’s not occupied, a lot has gone by the wayside. There’s a lot of loitering over there. It’s not a terribly welcoming site.” 

District officials will explore all options and go to the board with new recommendations by fall, Lawrence said. 

“I’m disappointed,” she said, “but not without hope.”