A group of Berkeley community members and Bay Area skaters have come together to explore actions which could save the 67-year-old Berkeley Iceland from closing down in March.
SaveBerkeleyIceland.org is a community-based organization which wants to preserve the historic art deco building at 2727 Milvia St. through local and possibly State or Federal landmarking, and to highlight its importance to the sports of skating and ice hockey on the West Coast.
Thursday’s announcement of the closure of the ice rink seemed to mark the end of yet another Berkeley institution. On sale for a year now with a price tag of $6.45 million, the property has yet to find any takers willing to keep it open to skaters.
Michael Kaplan, acting manager for the Berkeley’s Office of Economic Development, called the loss of Iceland a “shame.”
“The economics just didn’t seem to work out,” he said. “It was taking up a lot of space and not making enough profit. The city worked with the rink to try and figure out a way to save it, but nothing could be done in the end.”
Jay Wescott, General Manager for Berkeley Iceland for the last 10 years, blamed bad publicity and dismal profits as two of the main reasons for the closure.
“We did everything in the last year to find a new operator for the rink, but there have been no buyers,” he said.
“It’s extremely expensive to maintain a facility this old,” Wescott said. “We have been trying everything to keep this building open. We even brought in a temporary refrigeration system but the energy bills just kept going up. We had no choice but to make this decision.”
Berkeley Iceland was scheduled to appear at the Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board meeting on Feb. 22 to request a use permit for a temporary outdoor refrigeration system.
Board members had wanted to see proof of considerable reduction in the amount of noise generated by the system before granting the permit. The Berkeley Fire Department had considered its permanent ammonia-based cooling system a hazard in 2005 and had forced the rink to install a temporary system.
“It was no secret that they were looking for a buyer. We had to do a delicate dance to see that they followed the rules in the meanwhile,” said ZAB commissioner Dave Blake.
“I guess they realized that the business would not go on to make enough profit. It’s sad but young people don’t want to spend money on ice skating any more,” he said.
Currently, the rink is used by skating clubs and hockey teams—including the UC Berkeley hockey team—as well as for skating lessons and broom ball events.
Some rink users questioned why the UC Berkeley was not stepping in to buy the 66-year-old institution for use by its ice hockey team.
“Cal does’t have its own rink to practice ice hockey. Why doesn’t it pick this up?,” asked UC Berkeley student Neal Dubinsky who was playing a pick-up game at the rink on Friday afternoon. “This is our rink. This is where we practice. I think it’s bullshit that we are letting this slip away.”
Bryan Farris, captain of the Cal ice hockey team, told the Planet on Thursday in an email that he had not heard of any plans by the university to buy Iceland.
“I don’t know why the university is not willing to do something about this,” he said. “This is perhaps the last chance the university will ever have to have an ice rink as a part of campus. It’s regrettable that so much money is being spent renovating Memorial Stadium when a fraction of that cost could be diverted to salvage a local heirloom.”
Faris added that the Cal Bears ice hockey team would be forced to play in Oakland next year, which would significantly reduce their fan base, as students, band members and community members wouldn’t be able to come to games as easily
The Bears will be playing their last game at Berkeley Iceland this Friday at 8 p.m. against Stanford.
“UC Berkeley could certainly take over and keep it going. They know that it’s up for sale but they have never expressed any interest in it,” Wescott said.
John Gordon of Gordon Commercial Real Estate Services—the firm responsible for the sale of the property—echoed his thoughts.
“We have not seen any interest from UC so far,” he said, adding that there had been six queries about Iceland since the announcement on Thursday.
Cal ice hockey head coach Cyril Allen told the Planet in an email on Thursday that “the university had no interest in purchasing the Berkeley Iceland rink for the purpose of providing the hockey team with a home for practices and home games.”
“We have been extremely fortunate to have had access to an historic, albeit tattered landmark facility, located just minutes from our campus for several decades. The University does not provide us with significant budgetary assistance, nor is it likely to make a measurable capital investment on our behalf. As a club sport, we are exclusively funded through players' dues, ticket sales, merchandise sales and donations from our alumni and fans,” Allen said.
The Cal Ice Hockey team is an intercollegiate club team which is a founding member of the PAC 8 Hockey Conference and is a member of the U.C. Berkeley Club Sports Department.
Allen added that the team was currently researching options for a new ice contract with rinks throughout the Bay Area.
Gabriel Desjardins, an UC Berkeley alumni and former member of the Cal hockey team, said that no one wanted to invest in hockey in California.
The oldest skating club in California, Berkeley Iceland played host to the U.S. National Figure Skating Championships in 1947, 1957 and 1966 and was the home club for world and Olympic champion Kristi Yamaguchi. At 200 by 100 ft., the rink surpasses Olympic size.
Berkeley residents Kristen and Jessie Quay expressed disappointment at the news.
“Where else can you go at 11 p.m. with 40 friends, don sneakers and grab a broom, blast your own music from a loudspeaker and play a furious game of broom ball? With Iceland closing, it’s all going to end now,” said Kristen.
Jessie, who organizes a broom ball event at Berkeley Iceland on the first day of spring every year, called the closure the end of a Berkeley institution.
“They were trying hard to keep it going but we knew it was coming all along,” he said. “I think at one point they were talking of handing it over to a non-profit. They were also looking at solar panels. But that kind of stuff needs a lot of capital and I guess that’s just not possible.”
Wescott told the Planet that the real concern at the moment was to come up with a way to make the transition for Iceland’s employees easier.
“We are working with a couple of agencies, such as the Alameda County Workforce, to help find suitable employment for the thirty or so people who work here,” he said. “In the meanwhile we are hoping that people will come down and enjoy the rink as much as possible before it closes down for good in March.”
Photograph by Riya Bhattacharjee.
Berkeley Iceland employees Jessica Cotton and Kwaku Boating arrange ice-skate rentals inside Berkeley Iceland on Friday afternoon. Both Cotton and Boating will lose their jobs if the ice-skating rink closes on March 31 as planned.