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UC Berkeley Wants to Buy Golden Bear Building

By Richard Brenneman
Wednesday February 18, 2009 - 06:47:00 PM

UC Berkeley is buying the Golden Bear, the University Avenue building that sparked a major political battle 40 years ago and continues to rumble today. 

Jennifer McDougall, the UC Berkeley planner working with city staff on the new Downtown Area Plan, told city planning commissioners last week that “the campus is working to acquire the Golden Bear.” 

The stark five-story edifice at 1995 University Ave. is half the size of the structure originally proposed by developers Michael Korman and Miriam Ng. 

One of the participants in that struggle was Tom Hunt, who once lived at the rear of the property, where turn-of-the-last-century homes were subsequently demolished to make way for an underground parking area. 

His landlords, Golden Bear Ford, owned both the houses and the car dealership, which fronted University Avenue. Hunt was among the tenants evicted in 1968. 

After the demolitions, the property sat vacant for a decade until Korman and Ng announced their plans for a 10-story office project at the site, rousing nearby residential neighbors, including Hunt, a computer consultant who had moved further up Berkeley Way. 

“They promised a lot of things, including a YMCA health club on the first floor, but it was going to be the biggest downtown building” since construction of the Great Western Building, which was built in 1970. 

The project’s details were hashed out in negotiations between the developers and a committee of neighbors, resulting in the current five-story structure. 

While the environmental impact report prepared for the project said the building would affect both city services and infrastructure, Hunt said, “it promised the costs would all be offset by the sales taxes generated by retail commercial uses on the ground floor. Needless to say, we never got any retail.” 

UC Berkeley added another twist to the story when it moved its extension programs to the site in 1995 from their previous headquarters at 2223 Fulton St. 

Because the university’s leasehold is used for educational purposes, the part of the building that the school holds was pulled from the tax roles. 

“There’s no loss to the city at least from taxes” if the university buys the building, said Steve Wollmer, a neighbor who said he’s not especially concerned about the sale of the building itself. 

What concerns both Wollmer and Hunt is the rear of the lot, where the concrete slab atop the underground lot is currently used for parking, even though the city agreement allowing the project had called for residential housing to be built atop the garage. 

“I can’t see any justification whatever for having anything other than housing on the Berkeley Way side,” said Hunt. 

“My goal is to see family housing on the Berkeley Way side,” said Wollmer. “It’s a nice residential neighborhood, close to schools and there’s a park a short walk away. It would be a decent place to raise a family.” 

Wollmer asked both the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee and the planning commission to designate the site for multi-family housing in the upcoming downtown plan. 

Since the university already leases most of the building, Wollmer said, “buying is probably the cheapest way for them to get total control.”  

Hunt said neighbors will be closely monitoring the building’s fate. 

Construction of the Golden Bear galvanized both the neighborhood and the city, coming at the same time as the Berkeley City Council shifted from conservative to progressive, Hunt said. 

One result of the conflict over the site was passage of the Neighborhood Preservation in 1973, the first of its kind in the nation. The law placed strict limits on demolition of existing housing and created new public hearing requirements for new housing projects. 

“I don’t want to see the Berkeley Way side become another office building,” said Wollmer. “I don’t want to see a Golden Bear II.”