School Board Approves Plan to Sell Hillside School

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday September 18, 2008 - 09:23:00 AM

The Berkeley Board of Education last week unanimously approved a plan to put the historic Hillside School at 1581 Le Roy Ave. up for sale. 

Oxbridge Development, the consultants hired by the Berkeley Unified School District to determine whether the district should sell or lease the property, recommended the move at the board’s meeting on Wednesday. 

The school district said it does not have a buyer for the site at this time. 

Built in 1925 after the original Hillside School on Virginia Street burned down in the 1923 Berkeley fire, the building is a split-level three-story wood-frame Tudor designed by Walter Ratcliff. The school closed down in 1983 due to declining enrollment. 

Its main building straddles a trace of the Hayward Fault, which makes it unsuitable for public use, district officials said. 

The building was designated both a city and a national landmark in 1982 and the district subsequently rented out its rooms to artists and nonprofits, including the International Child Resource Institute, the Berkeley Chess School, the Berkeley Alumni Association—which organizes reunions for past students of Berkeley Unified—and iPride, a bi-racial and multi-ethnic children’s organization. 

The board in 2005 formed a citizens’ advisory committee to review whether the district should sell the site, and in December 2006 the committee recommended surplussing the property, explaining that it was not suitable for public school function because the Field Act prohibited classroom structures on seismic fault sites. 

The committee also reported that district officials had said that the site was not appropriate for administrative use and added that the property had deteriorated due to a lack of maintenance since it stopped functioning as a public school more than two decades ago. 

In August 2007, under recommendation from the committee and district administration, the board paid Oxbridge Development $32,000 to assist the district in deciding the fate of the Hillside property. 

Several organizations that rent space within the 2.85-acre property from Berkeley Unified told the school board at the public meeting last week that they were interested in leasing the site long term. 

Elizabeth Shaughnessy, founder and executive director of the Berkeley Chess School, which moved into the Hillside School several years ago, asked the board to allow the property to be listed for sale and long-term lease simultaneously. 

Ken Jaffe, executive director of the International Child Resource Institute, said that a number of tenants at the site were interested in long-term leases and possibly even buying the property. 

Peter Lydon of the Hillside Neighbors Association said Hillside residents wanted to save the building and the playground. 

“There will be a better outcome for Berkeley Unified if you continue dialogue with neighbors,” he told the school board. “We think it’s an important open space and we think it’s possible to get good lease offers.” 

Freya Read, another Hillside neighbor, stressed that some residents were concerned about seismic and fire safety upgrades. 

“We tenants share a common vision,” said Kathleen Frumkin, another lease-holder. “We want long-term leases so that we can continue our work.” 

Jones told the board that Oxbridge Development had not found a “substantial proposal for leasing.” 

“There were several reasons behind why Oxbridge recommended selling the property,” Jones told the Planet after the meeting. “It was hard to find a long-term lease holder who would say I will put up $10 million to rehabilitate the building. The place needs a lot of work. The consultants talked to a couple of developers but found no interest at that level.” 

District Superintendent Bill Huyett said it was in the best interest of the school district to sell the property because of liability issues. 

Jones said the property would be appraised, after which the district would negotiate with public entities about its sale. 

“If no public entity expresses interest, then private entities, such as the Berkeley Chess School can bid for it,” Jones said. 

Both Jaffe and Shaughnessy said they had offered on several occasions to lease the property longterm and even buy it, but that their requests had been ignored by the school district. 

Jaffe said he had put in a proposal for long-term lease two years ago but had not heard back from the school district. 

“This has been our home for many years and we want to develop good leases at reasonable terms,” he said. “We showed clear interest, but somehow that was not conveyed to the school district effectively.” 

Shaughnessy, a former school board member, said she had submitted a proposal nine months ago, but it was ignored. 

“Our proposal had an option to buy,” she said. “I submitted another one a couple of weeks ago, and that was ignored as well. It would be nice if they would sit down and talk to us. We have been here for three years now, and the district is doing nothing to keep the building from falling down. We used to hold chess tournaments in the auditorium, but we can’t anymore. I understand the Fire Department requires a firewall there before people can use it. Making it not usable means letting damp get in there.” 

Jones said he had not had a chance to review the requests. “Former Deputy Superintendent Eric Smith looked at them, and as far as I remember told me that ‘there were no legs behind those proposals,’” he said.