A throng of well-wishers turned out on a sunny Saturday, April 9, 2011 to formally dedicate the Ed Roberts Campus adjacent to the Ashby BART station in Berkeley.
Although the two story building which serves as a headquarters for several independent living and disabled rights and service groups has been functioning for some months, the ceremony served as the official “ribbon cutting” for the project.
Dignitaries including Congresswoman Barbara Lee, City of Berkeley, BART, and private sector representatives spoke at the brief outdoor ceremony prior to the ribbon cutting.
The campus, built on part of the east side parking lot of the Ashby BART station, is a single structure that contains offices for programs including the Center for Independent Living, Center for Accessible Technology, Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program, Computer Technologies Program, Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, and other organizations.
It includes a childcare center run by Through the Looking Glass. A large, currently empty space along the street front is slated for a café. The eastern entrance to the below street level BART Station passes through the lower levels of the site.
There are meeting rooms, a south facing terrace, and an expansive, glassy, atrium with a signature red spiral ramp from lobby to second floor. The entire structure was designed for “universal accessibility”, with features from wide corridors to specially arranged restrooms making it as functional as possible for people with a wide variety of physical challenges.
The project is named for Ed Roberts, a pioneering disability rights activist who spent much of his life in an iron lung after contracting polio. Roberts was the first severely disabled student to attend UC Berkeley, and lived in the Berkeley community as an adult.
In addition to leading the Center for Independent Living, Roberts was Director of the California Department of Vocational Rehabilitation from 1976-83. He died in 1995. His mother, Zona Roberts, was one of those who spoke at the ceremony.
“Oh my God, look at this crowd, this is great!” exclaimed Ed Roberts Campus President Dmitri Belser as he came to the podium to begin the ceremony. I estimated there were probably close to 500 people standing or sitting in front of the main building entrance on Adeline, and dozens more already inside.
The street had been blocked off and the throng spilled out into the empty traffic lanes as the ceremony commenced. Wheelchairs, service animals, and the graceful gestures of sign language populated the scene.
“This is an incredible moment in our community”, Belser said, calling the complex “an important structure for our community and the Bay Area.” He noted that the building project had helped the independent living community both develop bonds between both participant groups, and unite with “many people outside the community.”
Belser introduced Congresswoman Barbara Lee as someone who ten years ago was “the lone voice of sanity in a nation screaming for blood.” He called her “a person who has always taken the values of Berkeley and put them on a national stage.”
She had, he said, taken a morning flight to the Bay Area from Washington after Congress reached agreement last night to prevent a government shutdown.
Lee came to the podium to warm applause. “I told those Tea Party Republicans they better not shut the government down, so I could be here!” she said. “We’re going to beat them.” Much of the crowd cheered.
“This is such a wonderful day”, Lee said. “So many years of hard work and dedication. Let’s give Ed a round of applause, too!” she added, a suggestion that the audience heartily followed.
“I remember Ed very well. I know he’s here with us today. But I know he’s also saying, our work is just beginning.”
After noting that the about 45% of the project was funded by private sources and the tenants, and 55% paid for with government funds, she said, “we can accomplish much…we can do it, we can do it.” “It’s been an amazing effort.” “It’s so important we share today in this legacy of Ed Roberts.”
She praised “all of the Berkeley officials for being such leaders in the independent living movement.” “We’re the birthplace. This is a model for the rest of country.”
Lee noted that in her role on the Appropriations Committee she made funding for the Ed Roberts Campus “a priority in my earmark requests.” “I like earmarks” she went on, a dig at Congressional leaders who have temporarily ended the practice of Members of Congress asking for funds to be dedicated to specific projects in their districts.
“We have got to make sure that Federal funds come into our community for non-profits and efforts such as this.”
“It’s very dismal in Washington D.C.”, she said. “Being with you today provides a beacon of hope,” she said, calling the 9th Congressional District “the most progressive and enlightened in the country.”
After Lee’s brief remarks she was presented with an A.T. & T. leadership award by Loretta Walker, Vice-President, External Affairs-Bay Area, for AT& T California. Walker praised the campus as “the first transit oriented development in the country designed solely for people with disabilities.”
“This is for all of us,” Lee said, hefting the award “all those who have led in the disability movement.” She said he would put the award on display in her district headquarters.
Belzer returned to the podium to introduce local dignitaries. He said that when the Ed Roberts Campus was proposed, people said “In Berkeley? At BART? Good luck.” But, he added, “we had strong advocates in both the City of Berkeley and BART.”
“This is a wonderful day”, said Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates. “Congratulations to all who made this happen.”
“There’s something like 19 different agencies that dealt with transportation that funded this particular project”, Bates added. At the end, the project still had a funding gap of about six million dollars, which was bridged with tax credits.
Bates pointed out in the crowd fellow Council members, including Susan Wengraf, Gordon Wozniak, and Linda Maio. He initially missed Councilmember Max Anderson who was sitting in front of him and stood up, waving his arms, to laughter from the crowd. Bates didn’t mention Councilmember Kriss Worthington. Worthington me afterwards, somewhat wryly, that he had also waved at Bates from the crowd. I also saw Councilmember Darryl Moore at the ceremony.
As Bates finished his Council introductions a women in the crowd called out “...and Dona Spring!” recalling the deceased disabled Councilwoman who had also been a proponent of the project.
Bob Franklin, BART Board President, followed Bates saying, “BART has embarked on many transit oriented projects that turn its parking lots into community serving facilities.” “This is the best possible example of that.” “On behalf of the BART organization, welcome to your new home.”
“This is a prime example of public / private partnerships” said Matthew Reilein, Senior Vice President of J.P. Morgan Chase. That firm had been instrumental in securing the last six million of tax credit funding for the forty six million dollar project.
He praised Belser in particular, saying, “I do want to single out Dmitri, he’s a very persuasive and persistent guy.” “The City of Berkeley was an incredibly flexible partner”, he added.
The final speaker, Zona Roberts—“Ed Roberts indefatigable mother” as Belser said—put the final touch on the occasion with warm and thoughtful comments. “As we’re all proud of our creation of the Ed Roberts campus, she’s the person who created Ed Roberts”, Belser said, to laughter, as he brought her to the podium.
“I feel like I’m kind of honored for getting pregnant,” the 91 year-old Roberts said. “Part of that was easy, the rest of it got a little complicated.”
“I’m proud,” she continued. “The first time I walked up that ramp (inside the lobby) I thought I would burst into tears.” The building is “just so perfect.”
Roberts added she did nearly cry when, on a previous visit from the top of the ramp, she “looked down for the first time and saw this building come to life”, with staff and users moving through the lobby.
She introduced two brothers of Ed Roberts in the audience, told of their role in supporting him through college and in his activist causes, and praised his caretakers, some of whom were in the audience. “I want to appreciate, for all of them, what it’s meant to keep Ed alive, and have this happen.”
“Thank you for being here, enjoy the building, enjoy each other. As Ed used to say, ‘Here we are, and we’re not going away’.”
After Roberts spoke, Belzer made a final series of acknowledgements, including the design firm of Leddy Maytum Stacy. “Bill Leddy and Greg Novicoff gave us the building we had all dreamed of all these years,” he said.
He also singled out Caleb Dardick for praise. Dardick, he explained, had been working as an aide to Mayor Shirley Dean when the project was proposed. “They were the ones who were really the brood hens of the Ed Roberts Campus and they hatched this thing”, Belser said.
He thanked the past presidents of the Ed Roberts Campus.
With the formal remarks concluded, the crowd pressed forward to watch Barbara Lee and Zona Roberts take a large pair of gold shears and cut through a red ribbon across the front doors. The two then entered, arm in arm, and made a stately progression up the spiral ramp to the second floor, pausing halfway along to look over the happy crowd below as it poured into the building.
In the crowd I ran into Councilmember Kriss Worthington. “This is very exciting”, he said. “A bunch of my friends used to joke this is the only thing Shirley Dean and I actually agreed on.”
Worthington praised the project for increasing cooperation between activist and community service groups. He noted that many of the varied programs using the facility were spinoffs from the pioneering Center for Independent Living. They had initially gone to separate quarters, but were now together in one campus.
“A beautiful completing of the circle”, he concluded.
Elsewhere in the crowd Councilmember Susan Wengraf paused to say “It’s a wonderful day. It’s a wonderful feeling you can actually get something as complex as this done.”
“I’m happy it’s completed”, said Berkeley City Manager Phil Kamlarz as he walked through the building. “It’s beautiful.”
“A fifteen year odyssey” Dardick, who is now the UC Berkeley Director of Local Government and Community Relations, told me.
Most stayed to explore the building, share refreshments in the large atrium, and mingle. The various organizations in the two-story structure had set out tables with information on their programs and there were hundreds of conversations going on.
I ran into a neighbor who works at the Ed Roberts Campus. We chatted a bit, then “I see someone I have to talk to, I have to network!” she said, and went off through the crowd, expressing perhaps one of the key spirits of the occasion.
There was considerable security at the event, perhaps because of the presence of Congresswoman Lee. Part of the BART parking lot at the rear of the building was blocked off and flanked by police cars and black sedans. Men and women who appeared to be Secret Service agents stood at strategic points and scanned the crowd.
“How many of you are there?” said a woman to one of them as he watched from the ramp inside the building. “More of us than you think”, he replied. But they were unobtrusive and the crowd co-mingled and explored freely, many stopping Lee to thank her and talk with her as she moved through the throng.