Berkeley City College Opens, Ready or Not

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday August 25, 2006

With hallways and classrooms still filled with construction tools and rubble and workers only taking a short break to make way for brief speeches and a hurried open house public tour, the Peralta Community College District cut the ribbon this week on the new $65 million downtown Berkeley City College campus a day before fall semester classes were scheduled to begin. 

“It’s been a long gestation process, burdened with broken promises, polemics and an awful lot of politics,” Peralta Trustee Cy Gulassa told a crowd of some 250 gatherers on a narrowed portion of Center Street blocked off for the continuing construction. “But at long last, thanks to the midwifery of a team of visionary leaders, Peralta has finally delivered.” 

Gulassa called the new college “one big beautiful baby, 65,000 square feet from head to toe and weighing thousands of tons, … ready to shout ‘I’m here!’ to the community and its big Berkeley sister just down the street.” 

With workers in hard hats listening as they lounged on nearby cranes, eating an early lunch, trustee Nicky Gonzalez Yuen paid tribute to “the men and women of the building trades field who put hand to stone, laid the tile, and poured the foundation. Keep those folks in mind as well as the dignitaries.” 

City College President Judy Walters, who recently received her doctorate and quipped that she can “now be called Dr. Judy,” said the opening “represents over 30 years of hopes, aspirations, obstacles, and dreams. The cutting of the ribbon symbolically releases all those energies.” 

Berkeley City Councilmember Daryl Moore, who served as a Peralta trustee during the time the Berkeley City College construction was being planned, said in an interview following the ceremonies that the opening was “an exciting event that was a long time coming. It’s too bad we had to fight that long. But we certainly feel vindicated.” 

Dale Bartlett, a former aid to Berkeley City Councilmember Maudelle Shirek and now a Peralta consultant, said the building was a tribute to Shirek, who he said was “really the spirit and force behind the school.” 

Bartlett said it was “too chaotic” to bring the elderly Shirek to the opening, but promised she would appear sometime at the end of the year for the planned grand opening for the new City College facilities and the naming of the auditorium in her honor. 

The genesis for the new building came several years ago when several Berkeley leaders, including Shirek and now-Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, threatened to split the college—then named Vista—away from the Peralta District because of allegations that Peralta was not funneling a fair share of resources into the college. A citizen lawsuit was filed containing the same allegations, and settlement negotiations between the plaintiffs and the district eventually led to the promise to build the new Berkeley campus. 

Bates told gatherers at the opening ceremony that he “took pleasure in sitting across the street in his office, watching the college rise beam by beam, day by day.” 

But despite the enthusiastic words at the opening, much work is left to be done at the college, with Walters telling the crowd that “we are not occupying all of the areas [of the college] at this time.” 

In the ground floor reception area, concrete dust still covered the unfinished floor, a wooden barrier with a notation “Stair Closed” blocked one stairway to the lower floor, and standing at the bottom of the central atrium, silver-wrapped heating ducts were clearly visible through the open ceilings of the floors above. Several shelves in the library were still empty of books, and in one computer laboratory, only half of the tables had been put up, with no computers in sight. Stepladders, extension cords, unattached molding, and boxes of construction equipment were strewn everywhere. 

In a side hallway off the reception area, a series of work tables with signs indicating “Financial Aid,” “Admissions & Records,” “Drop-In Counseling,” and “Assessment & Orientation,” were busy with students trying to sign up for the new semester. 

Computer instructor Carolyn Jarvis dropped in to survey the room, saying that she had a class scheduled there for 9 a.m the next morning. “I’m going to give a lecture,” Jarvis said. “Obviously, we won’t be able to use the computers.” 

Peralta Chief Financial Officer Tom Smith wandered in, and to a remark that the premises “seemed unfinished” replied that “you should have seen it last week. They’ve made amazing progress in a short time.” 

Even as visitors toured the computer lab, workers filed in behind them, picking up their tools and getting back to their work of assembling the desks and tables. 

Some people were upbeat and optimistic. Dolores Harshaw, a student worker, said that “I think [the new college facilities are] great,” adding that even with the disruption, the new college was a decided improvement “from where we were” in the old and crowded Vista College rented facilities a block away. 

Still, Harshaw conceded that “we haven’t been able to get into our offices, yet. I don’t even know if we’re going to be able to do it tomorrow,” the first day of class. 

In the bathroom, some teachers were decidedly more disgruntled, grumbling among themselves about the unfinished state of affairs, saying, “Judy’s [Walters] dreaming if she thinks this will be ready.” 

Flushing the urinal, one of the teachers remarked, “Anyway, at least one thing works.”