If the Berkeley Unified School District was hoping for community support for its new $8.3 million West Campus plan at a public meeting last week, it was looking in the wrong place.
More than 30 West Berkeley neighbors and activists criticized the district’s plans to build modulars on the abandoned Berkeley Adult School parking lot to relocate administrative staff from the seismically unsafe Old City Hall headquarters at 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way.
They also questioned the Berkeley Board of Education’s motives behind proposing that the project be exempt from the city’s zoning process.
Although the group agreed that Berkeley Unified administrative staff should be moved to a safe location, they emphasized the importance of rehabilitating the Bonar Street red brick building, instead of putting up prefabricated structures.
According to Rebecca Hayden of Baker Vilar Architects, the firm hired by the district to draw up new plans for the 10-building 6.5-acre West Campus, the three one-story modular buildings would house the district’s business, accounting and human resources offices among other departments, with the possibility of being turned into pre-schools in the future,
“Modulars are being used all over California now,” Hayden said. “They come in pieces and are then put together. It’s there at Laney College. We are hoping to use stucco and hardy plank and landscape it with a walkway in between.”
The district’s proposal, however, only covers the modulars’ costs, and does not outline funds for either landscaping or walkway canopies.
The district’s Director of Facilities Lew Jones said the district would submit plans for the West Campus project to the Division of the State Architect for approval, since designation of a building as a classroom exempts the district from city review.
Berkeley Councilmember Darryl Moore said he had asked Acting City Attorney Zach Cowan to give his opinion on whether the district could bypass local government on the West Campus plans.
Cowan told the Planet Wednesday the district hadn’t presented him with a full set of plans yet.
“So it’s hard to give a formal opinion,” he said. “But state law clearly states that non-classroom facilities are not exempt from the city’s zoning ordinance. They might change uses in the future, but the city is concerned about its current uses.”
Jones said that plans to use the West Campus gym for storage had been discussed but had not been finalized.
Neighbors were also concerned that the district proposed only 31 parking spots for more than 100 employees who would work at the campus.
“One thing that is really disappointing for me is the process,” said Kristin Leimkuhler, a member of the West Campus Neighbors and Merchants Alliance. “Eighty-three people filled out petitions for open space and here we are stuck with dull buildings. The modulars are not very attractive, even with some possible canopy designs to connect and unify them. And even if they become preschools, it is in no sense an ideal arrangement for a pre-school. I am skeptical about the district’s justification for not going through the city.”
Thomas Towey, CEO of Oakland-based Komorous-Towey Architects and a West Berkeley neighbor, criticized the lack of long-term planning for the West Campus site at the meeting.
“With $8.3 million you should be able to come up with a plan to remodel the Bonar Street building,” he said. “My experience as an architect tells me you should be able to get everything in the modular buildings into a retrofitted building. All you have to do is pay for the seismic retrofit.”
District Superintendent Bill Huyett said although retrofitting would be expensive, the district would investigate the possibility.
Jones said an earlier plan for retrofitting the brick building had included more programs.
“Which meant more square footage and therefore more costs,” he said. “The new plans are more simple and I think if we review the budget it will be different.”
Jones is scheduled to present an estimate to the school board on June 16.
Towey said his firm gutted a 15,000 square-foot building down to its concrete shell in Oakland and rehabilitated it for $3.5 million.
“Even if the Bonar Street building costs double that, it’s $7 million, and that’s still less than $8.3 million,” he said. “I don’t get it. There’s a radical difference between retrofitting an existing building and putting up modulars. I just hate to see people waste money. This is a bad use of land. They went straight from Neiman Marcus to Wal-Mart before looking for anything in between.”
The district also plans to sell off the giant strip on University for condos or mixed-use development, although nothing has been finalized yet.
A group of neighbors said that the abandoned site was becoming a magnet for mischief.
“My two girls are scared to walk down the Addison pathway,” said Nancy Kalter-Dills, who has lived on Curtis Street for 15 years. “There are homeless people loitering around. I have seen people dealing drugs and defecating there. I have even seen prostitutes. The school district doesn’t maintain it and it’s been an eyesore for the last 10 years.”
Some residents complained of sporadic lighting around the campus.
“If you were an absentee landlord, we would be getting together and doing something,” said another neighbor. “But I feel stymied. Where should we go? Who should we talk to?”
Others criticized the lack of a master plan for the site.
“The modular buildings seem like a short-term solution,” Leimkuhler said. “There is no plan which takes the entire site into consideration. We understand the risk its employees face in the current building but we are asking for a closer look at rehabilitating the existing structures.”
City Planning Commissioner David Stoloff described the school district’s proposal as “opportunistic.”
The West Campus neighborhood alliance have offered volunteer architectural services for the West Campus project, Leimkuhler said.
“The modulars are right smack up against the 30 feet wide mandatory setback for Strawberry Creek,” she said. “We are anticipating in the future there will be denser housing on San Pablo and University and people really feel strongly about open space. The school district is only looking at their own needs. We need a more complete and creative design.”