BUSD Mulls Fate of 6th Street Site

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday March 07, 2008

More than 50 seniors, parents with toddlers and teenage moms crammed inside a Berkeley Unified School District conference room Tuesday to voice their support for the LifeLong Health Center at 2031 Sixth St. 

The district is weighing options to surplus the Sixth Street property—which houses LifeLong’s West Berkeley Family Practice Center. The district lent the city the site in exchange for use of the Old City Hall Building at 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way under a 20-year lease agreement that expires in 2009. 

The city then subleased the Sixth Street property to LifeLong, which provides low-cost medical services to the uninsured and the sick. Now, with the city hall lease about to expire and the district administration moving to West Campus, the Sixth Street property is about to revert back to school district ownership. For LifeLong to remain at the site, the school board must declare the site not needed for school use. 

The district, which has never used the site for teaching, has said that “the enrollment patterns and existing school buildings” indicate that the Sixth Street facility does not have to be used as a public school. 

“For LifeLong to go on a long-term lease, Berkeley Unified has to deem the property surplus,” said John Selawsky, school board president. 

Robert Jackson, chair of the Sixth Street Surplus Committee, said, “The board should ensure, to the greatest extent possible, that LifeLong Medical Care’s community health center facilities be retained at the site and that its historic landmark status be preserved and enhanced,” he said. 

The committee also recommended that the district work with the city to sell or lease the property for less than “fair market value.” 

“It’s essential to keep LifeLong as it is,” said Bruce Dixon, who has lived in Berkeley since 1980. “I work for a local painting contractor and I don’t get health insurance ... I really depend on the people there for my health care.” 

The City of Berkeley subsidized the clinic’s current lease payments and building maintenance in recognition of the services provided to the community and its non-profit status. 

The committee has recommended that adjusting the current lease payments to market-rate levels—“which would reflect the ‘highest and best use’ of the property in real estate terms—would prove incompatible with the clinic’s operations. 

Councilmembers Darryl Moore, Max Anderson, Kriss Worthington and Gordon Wozniak also spoke in favor of retaining the clinic. 

“Couple of months ago I took a tour of Lifelong and was very impressed,” Wozniak said to applause. “I will work with Berkeley Unified and the City Council to keep this vital service here.” 

Immigrant families and day-laborers without MediCal or Medicare thanked doctors at LifeLong. The clinic, one of the few community medical centers in the city,treated about 2,300 patients a month last year, according to staff. 

“We are using every inch of that space,” said Dr. Amy Gordon, who works at the family practice clinic. “We now have weight loss groups, smokeless groups and acupuncture ... We are also providing books to six-month-olds.” 

Julie Sinai, chief of staff to Mayor Tom Bates, spoke of the need for such a clinic in the otherwise underserved area of West Berkeley. 

“The stability of the family practice center is very important,” she said. “Healthy kids and healthy moms, dads and grandparents make for a healthy school system.”