Public Comment

Housing and History at Anna Head

By John English
Wednesday January 07, 2009 - 06:25:00 PM

The university is gearing up to build a big student-housing complex on what it calls the “Anna Head West” parking lot. This project poses complex and vital issues, including ones regarding the UC-owned and historic Anna Head property itself and the project’s relationships with the also-historic surrounding neighborhood. 

Within the large block that’s bounded by Bowditch Street, Channing Way, Haste Street, and Telegraph Avenue, UC now owns 2.79 acres. But for much of its history this acreage was in two significantly distinct parts. (The distinction has gotten blurred because parking now sprawls across much of the former lot line.) I’ll call them the “Anna Head campus” and the “Hinkel estate.” 

The rectangular Anna Head campus occupies the block’s easternmost 300 feet, is landmarked, and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The Anna Head School, an important private facility for girls, operated here from 1892 till UC bought the property in the 1960s. That school developed the remarkable planned ensemble of Brown Shingle buildings that we see today, the Bay Region’s largest such grouping. These buildings were interspersed with diverse outdoor areas and landscaping that were used in the curriculum and contributed to the school’s image. The buildings are now occupied by various UC entities but decades of deferred maintenance have left much of their exterior fabric in poor condition. Most of the open space has been harmfully invaded by auto parking. Yet as emphasized in the pertinent HSR (Historic Structure Report) that was done this year for UC, the “spatial organization of the site” is still intact—and is both “character-defining” and “very significant.” One important feature of this layout is that there’s still continuous open space between the historic buildings and Channing Way. 

The Hinkel estate is a rectangle comprising the western 150 feet of UC’s present landholding. On it, in about 1895, a large house was built for prominent Berkeleyan John Hinkel (for whom today’s park in north Berkeley is named). The house faced Channing and the estate also had generous landscaped grounds extending down to Haste. Later on, the house was for some years a noteworthy “approved” residence for women students, and called Casa Hispana. UC bought the property in 1948 and demolished the house about a decade later. The land is now paved over for parking, though several large trees remain. 

UC says it’s preparing a “master plan” for all its property on the block. But it emphasizes that the imminent project per se “does not include renovation of the Anna Head buildings.” 

The project as such is to build what a May 2008 RFQ anticipated as a “479-bed student housing complex”: a 134-bed freshman residence hall plus a 345-bed apartment building for upper-division students. The design process has already begun and construction supposedly will start in May 2010. Please note: UC says the project site covers not just the entire Hinkel estate but also the now-open northwest corner of the Anna Head campus per se. 

Though the RFQ said the site’s present parking would be “partially replaced on-site,” a subsequent UC fact sheet apparently says none of it will be. 

Unfortunately it seems that the new construction would extend into the Anna Head campus itself and thereby disrupt the latter’s historic spatial organization—which UC’s own HSR says “should be maintained.” Especially if there’s any such intrusion, project mitigation per se should include restoring the full original extent of the front lawn area along Channing. (The HSR recommends that restoration in any event.) Is the project’s density excessive? With 479 beds, it would be notably denser than UC’s present “Channing-Bowditch” housing across the street. An important concern here is livability for the project’s own future residents. 

How will the new buildings be massed and oriented? This will of course signficantly affect the project’s livability—and its compatibility with the surroundings. 

Indeed will the project be visually, and functionally, sensitive enough to the special context? It should conscientiously relate to, and take cues from, the Anna Head buildings—and the impressive larger cluster of historic structures that nearly surrounds People’s Park. Even more broadly, it should contribute importantly toward reknitting the badly frayed fabric of the general Southside neighborhood. 

Will the new housing sufficiently provide “eyes on the street”? It would be good to have multiple doors adjoining the public sidewalk. Street-facing terraces or balconies would also help. 

How will the housing relate to People’s Park? It should be so designed as to encourage wholesome recreational use of the park by students, and give perceived surveillance of what’s long been a pretty unsavory corner of the park. 

How will the project acknowledge, such as with plaques, the Hinkel estate’s own interesting history? 

The project site now offers public parking very close to Telegraph’s shops and restaurants. Even if UC replaces this with parking somewhere else, will that happen anytime soon and at a location similarly convenient for customers? 

When will the historic Anna Head buildings ever get the rehab they sorely need? The master plan should include serious commitments and timelines for this. It should also include compatibly reusing some of these buildings’ upper floors as housing for faculty, staff, grad students, or visiting scholars. 

UC hosted an “informal discussion” of the project on Dec. 17: miserable timing. when students were busy taking finals. Only 16 or 17 people showed up and about half of them were UC staff. Though attendees mentioned diverse relevant issues, none got discussed at any length. The whole thing was over in two hours: a typically unsatisfying UC gesture toward public involvement. 

Meatier meetings are needed—and very soon, while the project’s design is still within the conceptual stage. In them, meaningful alternatives should be posed and seriously discussed. So should strong mitigation measures. 

If UC is truly open and responsive, the result for town and gown could be a real win-win. But will the 800-pound gorilla listen? 


John English is a very nearby longtime resident of the Southside neighborhood.