Neighbors Launch Effort to Save Historic Hillside School

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday October 23, 2009 - 03:51:00 PM

Neighbors and tenants of Berkeley’s Hillside School say they are determined to do what it takes to save the 80-year-old architectural landmark. 

A former Berkeley public elementary school dating back to 1928, Hillside, at 1581 Le Roy Ave., was abandoned by the Berkeley Unified School District in 1983 because of sagging enrollment. 

The school sits on a trace of the Hayward Fault, and the Alquist-Priolo Act forbids any kind of public educational use within 50 feet of an earthquake fault. 

So for more than two decades, the school, with its handsome slate roof and broad corridors, has been of little use to the school district, and in 2007 it was declared surplus by the Berkeley Board of Education, who put it up for sale last year. 

At a school board meeting Oct. 14, board members agreed to put the property on the market after the city and other public entities expressed no interest in purchasing it. 

Despite being forsaken, Hillside houses a vibrant community. 

In the early ‘90s, it was home to the Berkeley Montessori School until it moved recently to a new location on University Avenue. 

The Berkeley Chess School has called it home for almost 20 years, using its spacious airy classrooms to train future chess wizards. 

Hillside is also headquarters for International Child Resources, a global non-profit which helps sick, impoverished, displaced and orphaned children and youth in India, Ghana, Zimbawe and more than 30 other countries. 

Diotima Academy, established to teach children about Hellenic culture, language and arts, also rents space at Hillside, along with In Dulci Jubilo, and a host of artists for whom this Tudor-style Walter Ratcliff-designed architectural marvel perched high on a hill is a perfect place to hone their craft. 

Hillside’s playground is a popular place for basketball players, Tai Chi enthusiasts and families who want a bit of open space for a picnic or to play jungle gym with their children on holidays. 

But despite all these uses, Hillside has its share of problems. Years of neglect has left broken windows, peeling paint and a leaky roof, and although parts of the school have been retrofitted, a complete renovation is estimated to cost millions. 

“There’s been no classes there for a long time so we haven’t treated it the same way as where our kids are,” said the district’s Facilities Director Lew Jones. “We haven’t done much maintenance work, but we have done some work. The building needs a lot of work.” 

Despite its shortcomings, many consider Hillside as the neighborhood jewel, and when an effort between a group of Hillside residents and the City of Berkeley to buy the property through the Naylor Act—which allows public entities to buy a property for a quarter of its market price—fell through, three of the tenants in the building decided to try to buy the building themselves. 

Elizabeth Shaughnessy, who started the Berkeley Chess School in 1982 as an after-school program, said tenants were eager to form a foundation to save the building. 

“The location is great,” Shaughnessy said. “Friday evenings we hold seven different levels of classes in seven different classrooms. Where else will we get that kind of space?” 

Shaughnessy, an architect, underscored the importance of bringing the building back to its original glory. 

“We know it will take millions, but we are willing to take on a big project,” she said. “We’d like to start fixing it up so that it’s properly rentable. It’s hard to get people to rent if the electricity goes out every time you plug in the heater.” 

The school district, which rents space at Hillside for $5 per square feet, has an agreement with tenants to not increase the rent for a year, but all leases are technically on a month-to-month basis, Jones said. 

“This is our home,” said Ken Jaffe, executive director of International Child Resources. “We have been here for more than 10 years. We will do everything in our power to develop an agreement with the Berkeley Unified School District that will help us to keep serving children and families in Berkeley.” 

Shaughnessy, Jaffe and Diotima are not alone. The Hillside Association, a neighborhood group fighting to preserve the Hillside playground, also wants the property preserved. 

“The property influences the neighborhood,” said Peter Lydon, secretary of the Hillside Association. “A lot of the neighbors would like to see it preserved. We want the open space—we have a new generation of kids coming in, and Berkeley in general doesn’t have a lot of open space.” 

Although the school district has assessed the market rate for Hillside, Jones said that information is not public yet. The board said at their last meeting that they would consider long-term leases with an option to sell, but would like to consult with the community before deciding their next step. 

“I want to make it clear that we are not asking for any kind of free lunch at all,” Jaffe said. “In fact, if we decide to go for a lease-purchase opportunity, then that will provide additional funding to the school district.”