Hillside School Neighbors Seek to Purchase Playground

By Kristin McFarland
Wednesday December 17, 2008 - 06:44:00 PM

Hillside Elementary School, a local and national historic landmark, stands on the brink of yet another reinvention. 

The Tudor-style building, located at 1581 LeRoy Ave., was built by Walter H. Ratcliff Jr. in 1925 to replace the Virginia Street location that burned down in 1923. The school operated until 1983, when it was closed due to declining enrollment. 

Because it is located on traces of the Hayward fault, the building cannot be used as a public school, and in the past 20 years it has played home to a variety of tenants, including artists, the Berkeley Chess School, and several pre-schools. 

But in September, the school district approved the sale of the surplus, run-down property. 

The Hillside Association of Berkeley, made up of community members, school alumni and friends, now seeks an agreement with the city that would allow the community itself to help pay for the purchase of the playground section of the property. 

“The city would love to have it as a park but has financial constraints,” said Cynthia Cowgill, coordinator of the Hillside Association’s Playground Committee. “We hope to partner with the city to provide financial help.” 

The Berkeley Unified School District declared the Hillside School property surplus in 2007 and put it up for sale in October 2008. 

Under the California Naylor Act of 1982, cities or counties are allowed to buy a portion of surplus school properties used for outdoor recreation at a significantly reduced price. The city could buy up to 30 percent of the property for 25 percent of the market price. 

When it became clear that the city could not afford the $250,000 reduced price tag, the Hillside Association took action, working with the city to propose a Mello-Roos Community Facilities District, a neighborhood tax-assessment district that will reimburse the city through slightly increased property taxes over the next 10-12 years. To create the district, 67 percent of the 150-200 affected households will have to approve the proposal in a mail-in election. 

“If the city goes forward, the neighborhood will support the city,” said Peter Lydon, secretary of the Hillside Association. 

Christine Daniel, deputy city manager, said the school board will not enter into discussion with the city until mid-January and that a formal proposal cannot be made until the school board has decided if it wants to accept the purchase under the Naylor Act.  

The desired parcel of land is an acre of paved playground, complete with basketball goals, jungle gyms, swing sets and a small baseball diamond. 

Once purchased, the playground would continue to serve not only as a haven for local kids and basketball players, but also as a gathering point for emergency vehicles or residents in case of a fire or earthquake, Lydon said. 

“It has served as a de facto playground/park for years,” Cowgill said. “Kids learn to ride their bicycles there.” 

The school building itself remains unsold and troublesome for BUSD and any potential buyers. The school district must decide who will buy it and for what purpose, while the new owner will face significant repairs to bring the building up to code. 

Lew Jones, facilities manager at BUSD, said that the partial sale of the Hillside property is potentially problematic for the school district, and the city would rather sell the whole property at once.  

City Manager Phil Kamlarz, who has been working with the Hillside Association, is on vacation and could not confirm the details of the current negotiations. 

Negotiations on the playground, including appraisals, definition of the land parcel and implementation of the community facilities district, will go forward after the new year, when the city and school district must navigate the “twists and turns” of the Naylor Act, Jones said.