UC Berkeley officials are pushing ahead with plans to transform Bowles Hall into a corporate executive education center with a new call for a seismic consultant.
Berkeley City Planning and Development Director Dan Marks called the project “really distressing,” especially when considered along with other major projects planned at and near UC Memorial Stadium.
If plans move forward, California’s oldest state-owned and frequently rowdiest undergraduate student residence hall would become a venue for corporate brass taking special executive education at the university’s Haas School of Busi-ness.
According to an early planning document, the project will include guest rooms and “state of-the-art instructional and conference spaces for up to 300 participants in residential and nonresidential programs,” along with “up to 100 guest rooms; and requisite support facilities.”
The Request for Qualifications posted by the university declares the university’s intent to retrofit the existing structure as guest housing and add 50,000 to 80,000 square feet of conference and support facilities.
Added to the 451,000 square feet of other new construction nearby, those figures would increase the total to more than a half-million square feet of new space—and more than 650,000 square feet when including existing space construction that would be replaced by new construction.
Most of the Bowles addition would be built between the hall and the William Randolph Hearst Greek Theatre, built in 1903 and recognized as a landmark by the city, state and National Register of Historic Places.
The theater, like Memorial Stadium itself, was designed by John Galen Howard; Bowles Hall, a city landmarks and a National Register site, was conceived by George Kelham, chief architect of the 1915 Pan Pacific Exposition in San Francisco and Howard’s successor as architect for the university.
The controversy over the future of Bowles Hall pits project neighbors and three institutions in a struggle already blazing over the nearby university projects—all of them bank-rolled by corporations, Cal graduates and other deep-pocket donors.
City officials have voted to sue if UC Regents give final approval to the other projects, and so have members of the Panoramic Hill Association (PHA).
Opponents claim the university will violate the California Environmental Quality Act if they approve the final project environmental impact report (EIR) for the Southeast Campus Integrated Projects (SCIP).
Among the city’s claims is that the EIR is flawed because it fails to include the Bowles project, which will add to the cumulative impacts of the other construction on city streets, landmarks, an imperiled somewhat pastoral setting.
The Bowles Hall Alumni Association raised the argument in Nov. 10 letter to the UC Board of Regents, delivered just prior to Nov. 14 meeting when the board’s Committee on Building and Grounds approved project plans and backup funding for the athletic training center but withheld approval of the EIR—which includes all the other SCIP projects as well—until a committee meeting, probably over the phone, in the first days of December.
The geological survey is critical to the project because of the Alquist-Priolo Act, which bars new construction on active faults. The western of two known “traces” of the Hayward Fault runs under the northeastern corner of the existing building.
An early seismic study by a private consultant concluded the fault—while there—hadn’t been active in the last 11,000 years. Presence of an active fault would prohibit any expansion and kept the cost of renovations below half of the value of the existing building.
Federal geologists rank the Hayward fault as the most probable site for the next major Bay Area earthquake.
The one good thing about the university’s approach to the project, Marks said, was the fact they decided to do the seismic study before they went ahead with the plans.
UC Berkeley officials had contracted for plans for the 132,500-square-foot Student Athlete High Performance Center on the west side of the stadium before conducting earthquake safety studies.
A seismic study for that project was only ordered after plans were drawn up for the center and the stadium. The training center seismic study was prepared by the same consultant which had conducted the earlier Bowles Hall study and concluded the training center was exempt from Alquist-Priolo Act.
Similar findings were reached for the parking structure, though the university acknowledges that the stadium renovations are with the law’s purview.
Marks said plans for the Bowles project have been presented to the university’s Design Review Committee, where he had seen them.
Much of the addition would be built underground, Marks said. “It’s a very large structure,” he added.
Conveniently for the business brass attending meetings at the repurposed Bowles, one entrance to the proposed addition is just a few steps across Stadium Rim Way from the 912-space, 325,000-square-foot-plus underground parking lot the university plans to build at the site of Maxwell Family Field.
The hall and annex face not only the lot, but the stadium itself and the athletic training center site along the stadium’s western wall. Western facing rooms at Bowles also overlook, just across the landmarked Piedmont Avenue/Gayley Road, the site of the proposed 186,000-square-foot building that would join functions and offices of UC Berkeley’s business and law schools and provide a new venue for conferences and gatherings.
“We are very concerned about the quite significant cumulative impacts to what had been a pastoral setting and to significant resources, including Bowles Hall, the Oak grove next to the stadium, grasslands, the Greek Theatre. I said all of that to the Design Review Committee,” said Marks.
“This one is really distressing to a lot of folks,” he said.
The residence hall was built in honor of UC Berkeley graduate and former UC Regent Phillip Bowles with a $350,000 construction grant from his spouse.
Prejudice played a central role in the rise of Bowles. At a time when fraternities reigned supreme, Jews weren’t welcome among the Greeks but they were embraced by the Bowles culture, along with others who didn’t fit the confinements of fraternity row, said Lesley Emmington, a member of Berkeley’s Landmarks Preservation Commission who also works for the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association.
Bowles alumni, among them corporate executives and punk rock stars, are willing to fight for a cherished institution.
“As a result, you have many of the business leaders in San Francisco are Bowles alumni,” Emmington said. “Many of them are very concerned about the university’s plans to end its use as a student residence.”
Students originally lived in the Gothic structure throughout the four undergraduate years, though university officials later limited the hall to first-year students. Rooms are organized in suites.
Few Berkeley institutions are more colorful than Bowles, or embody such an odd assortment of venerable and not-so-venerable—though invariably colorful—traditions, among them a copyrighted song and an assortment of titles and rituals.
The building’s only break from undergraduate life came during World War II, when the army took over the facility to house soldiers taking training classes at the university.
Residences and alums have fought for the hall before, and it was in response to university plans to demolished the structure that led students and graduates to lead a successful drive to have the building listed landmarked and enrolled in the National Register.
For more on Bowles Hall, see www.bowles-hall.org and the Wikipedia entry at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bowles_Hall.