Future Uses for BHS Old Gym Discussed

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday March 21, 2008

Friends Protecting Berkeley’s Resources—the local group which sued the Berkeley Unified School District for an inadequate environmental impact report on the demolition of the gymnasium and warm-water pool within its Berkeley High School South of Bancroft Master Plan area—met with school district officials and community members Saturday to discuss the adaptive reuse of the Berkeley High Old Gym and the warm-water pool to settle the lawsuit. 

The lawsuit charged that the district had failed to consider feasible alternatives to demolition that could be developed to meet all or most of the district’s objectives and that the EIR “did not justify its findings.”  

Both the district and the Friends group agreed on a charrette the results or which will be presented before the Berkeley Board of Education during a public hearing on April 9. 

School Board President John Selawsky told the Planet that the settlement meant the district could now move ahead with deciding the future of the Old Gym. He said he had not been invited to the charette. 

“My idea is that the meeting was limited to a certain number of participants,” he said. “School board members were not present. District Superintendent Bill Huyett will give us an update Friday.” 

Marie Bowman, a spokesperson for Friends Protecting Berkeley’s resources, told the Planet that participants had discussed adapting the gym to meet the school’s academic and physical education needs as identified in the Berkeley High School South of Bancroft Master Plan. 

The district’s South of Bancroft Master Plan calls for the demolition of the landmarked Old Gym to make room for new classroom facilities, with the option of relocating the warm-water pool to Milvia Street.  

Berkeley High is facing a severe space crunch, with teachers holding classes in portables at Washington Elementary School and on the steps of the Community Theatre.  

The city is looking at ways to develop the tennis courts on Milvia Street into a warm pool but has yet to come to an agreement with the school district about its use.  

Plans to put a $15 million bond measure to construct the new pool on the November ballot are being discussed. 

“The good news is that we could accommodate everything in the building,” Bowman said. “The environmental impact report talks about building 10 to 15 classrooms to meet the academic needs of the school district. The warm-water-pool users wanted to have 14,000 square feet for the pool. The building also has to meet certain legal requirements. All that stuff fits in there plus there was room left over.” 

The Berkeley High School campus, including the Old Gym, was named a city landmark last year and a national landmark in January.  

Designed by renowned Bay Area architects William C. Hays and Walter H. Ratcliff, Jr., the warm-water pool and the gymnasium represent early seismic engineering work and are rare examples of an early 20th-century high school gymnasium. 

“The district wasn’t aware of the fact that since the building is now a national landmark, federal, state and private foundation funds are available for restoring the Old Gym,” said Bowman, who worked on the national landmark application. “FEMA funds are also available for rebuilding the gym after a natural disaster. Berkeley voters approved Measure G in 2006, promoting green and sustainable use of public assets. Rehabilitation and reuse is by far the better environmental alternatives for the gym versus the wasteful plan to demolish and rebuild. Our public officials have an obligation to implement sustainable practices in accordance with the will of the voters.” 

District officials told the Planet that the district was not legally obligated to consider the outcome of the charette.  

One Warm Pool Advocacy Group Co-Chair JoAnn Cook told the Planet that she was skeptical about adaptive reuse of the Old Gym. 

“There’s a difference of opinion within our group on what effect this charette will have because it’s not legally binding,” she said. “We are split between getting a bond measure passed for a new pool and maintaining the current pool. I think the possibility of ending up with a pool is more likely with a bond. But keep in mind that a bond is very iffy, especially with the economic situation right now.” 

Bruce Wicinas, a member of the district’s Citizens’ Construction Advisory Committee, said that the charette had made him change his mind about the demolition. 

“I was on the same page as the district on that, but the truth is that Berkeley Unified no longer has enough money to build classrooms in place of the Old Gym,” he said. “Also I wasn’t aware that people in the community cared so much about the Old Gym. It would be nicer for students to have more space, but given the uncertainty of the bond measure and the district’s lack of funds there’s no need to be at a rush to demolish the building.” 

The school district recently hired ELS Architects to redesign the bleachers outside the track on Martin Luther King Jr. Way this summer and create a timeline for the demolition of the Old Gym.  

Selawsky told the Planet that the demolition of the gym was not scheduled till 2010.