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UC Extension Building in SF May Become Mall, Condos

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Tuesday November 21, 2006

UC Berkeley’s controversial plans to convert its historic six-acre Laguna Street extension campus in San Francisco into a private development featuring condominiums and a shopping center are moving forward. 

The development of the Laguna Street property is the focus of producer/director Eliza Hemenway’s documentary film Uncommon Knowledge: Closing the Books at UC Berkeley Extension, which premiered in San Francisco on Thursday. 

The San Francisco Planning Department has not yet approved rezoning for the site at 55 Laguna St. A public comment period has been set for next month. 

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors also need to approve the zoning changes.  

The proposed plan is facing strong resistance from community members who want UC to honor its mission as a Land Grant University, retaining public use on the Laguna Street property. 

Neighborhood groups from San Francisco’s Hayes Valley and Lower Haight are creating petitions for a citizens’ advisory committee to help save the UC Berkeley Extension Laguna Street Campus. 

“The real issue is to maintain public zoning,” Hemenway, a graduate of New College of San Francisco, said on Thursday. “There are plenty of places to eat and shop. We need to focus on what our culture will look like if we take away spaces to learn, make art and create community.” 

She said she hoped her film prompted a public outcry to save the campus. 

Grey Brechin, author of Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin, agreed that the time had come to resist UC’s efforts. 

“I had taken the series of wonderful buildings, the wide corridors, the big classrooms and the New Deal art in the Laguna campus for granted,” he said at the premier of Hemenway’s film. “But I can’t take it for granted any more.” 

Brechin said that the University of California’s immense real estate belongings had turned the UC Regents into real estate agents. 

“What is happening here is not unique,” he said. “Community-based learning is slowly being destroyed and levels of bureaucracy have increased. There is a political economy behind this.” 

UC Berkeley has leased the property to A.F. Evans, a Bay Area developer, for 75 years to bring about the proposed development. 

Touted as being good for “the heart, soul and lungs,” the proposed UC residential and commercial project promises to provide residents with alternative energy sourcing, water reuse and conservation, bike-centric design, creation of a new 20,000 square feet of parkland and gardens. 

It would include 328 market-rate rental units (20 percent of which will be affordable to households making 50 percent average median income), 80 rental units of senior housing with comprehensive services that welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender older adults, a 20-plot community garden, which will be built, operated and maintained by the developer at no cost to the City, 10 City Car Share spaces (the largest group in the City) and over 100 secure on-site bicycle storage spaces. 

According to the developer, the historic buildings on site will be preserved and renovated for residential units and public community space.  

There will be a community center for youth and seniors and a restaurant on Laguna Street which will help open up an otherwise blank wall to create interaction in an existing commercial zone. 

San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi said that the City of San Francisco was not doing enough to explore alternatives for the site or include local residents in the discussions. 

“The proposal with its creative-use green space, rental units for citizens and the LGBT seniors recreation center is satisfying emotional needs,” Mirkarimi said. “It feels right but somehow cheats us of what we want the project to be. I would like to see more open mindedness when it comes to deciding the fate of this large piece of land that is designated as public. Once we lose that, we might not be able to get it back. What bothers me is the dissmissiveness of UC to not even entertain the community’s proposals and that is something I would like to confront.” 

The UC Laguna campus is home to several historic buildings and has a history of public use that goes back 150 years. It was used by the city as an orphanage from 1854 onwards until the San Francisco State Normal School was established in the 1920s to accommodate public school teachers. 

It finally went on to become San Francisco State University, but the need for more space forced the institution to move to its current location near Lake Merced in 1957. An empty site and the urgent need for the UC Berkeley Extension to move into expanded quarters made the governor approve an act of emergency legislation that transferred the campus to the UC Regents.  

The transfer, however, had one caveat: the property on the 55 Laguna St. campus was to be put to “university uses.” 

During UC Berkeley’s use of the campus for its continuing education program for over 50 years, the infrastructure was neglected and the historic buildings were not brought up to code. 

In 2003, UC sent e-mails to employees and students at the extension which said that the campus was going to be shut down because its deteriorated state was too expensive to be maintained and upgraded to current seismic and disability codes. 

“These issues have been used as a smokescreen,” Nigel French, UC Berkeley Extension graphic and web design director, commented in the movie. “There are probably deeper issues involved as to why the campus was shut down.” 

“Nobody communicated with us,” said Angie Adams, a UC Berkeley Extension registration desk employee who lost her job in the layoffs that were announced before Thanksgiving in 2003. “All the custodians at the extension lost their jobs after the campus shut down. Dean James Sherwood told us that if we read the papers we would find out that a lot of people were getting laid off everywhere.” 

According to the documentary, none of the custodians was placed in new positions following the layoffs. The university has been paying more than $2 million in rental space while the campus, which prior to closing in 2004 served 15,000 students a year, has been sitting empty for the past two years. 



For more information on the film Uncommon Knowledge: Closing the Books at UC Berkeley Extension, see 


For more information on the project at 55 Laguna St., San Francisco, see 


To contact the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, see