Whither the Council, and What's to Become of Old City Hall?

By Becky O'Malley
Wednesday May 11, 2011 - 10:07:00 AM

Chances are you didn’t know that the Berkeley City Council was planning to abandon Old City Hall and move in with the Berkeley Unified School District for council meetings when BUSD finishes remodeling the old West Campus site to house its new administrative headquarters. I certainly didn’t, and a quick poll of six knowledgeable citizens encountered at the Farmer’s Market yesterday (the type often called activists) suggests that a lot of other people don’t know either. I even called a councilmember to check, and he seemed surprised too. 

I got wind of the plan for the first time when listening to last week’s City Council budget workshop online. The budget will be officially discussed in open session next week, on May 17th, but a bit of side chat between the manager and the dais during last Tuesday’s workshop let the cat out of the bag, so to speak. 

City Manager Phil Kamlarz and Councilmember Linda Maio were talking about the staff’s draft budget, which is supposed to be dealing with the city’s sizeable fiscal shortfall. It had not been available for council or public in advance of the meeting, certainly not in time for that morning’s “press briefing” which we didn’t bother to attend, guessing correctly that it would be content-shy data-free PR fluff. 

The staff intended the workshop presentation to be PowerPoint all the way. As the meeting started, Deputy City Manager Christine Daniel announced that the council wouldn’t get hard copies of the draft document with line item figures until the meeting was over. Councilmember Worthington was compelled to insist that the copies (which had already been printed and were in the building) be handed out to councilmembers immediately so they could have figures in front of them during the discussion. 

Councilmember Maio, who sits at the Mayor’s right hand and prompts him when necessary, asked about a line item she spotted on the capital improvements page in the draft which she’d just gotten. 

“…We will be vacating this building [Old City Hall, re-named the Maudelle Shirek Building],” she said. “Not sure how we’re planning to…?” 

Kamlarz answered: “On that list, we have roughly $400,000, $500,000 to relocate the Council chambers to joint chambers with the school district...To retrofit this building is closer to $30 million, $40 million..." 

Maio’s response (rising inflection, plaintive tone): “When I explain that we may not be meeting here over the long term, everyone wants to know what will happen to this building which we all love because we drive by it all the time. It's one of our historic treasures. The answer is right now we don't know, can't say.” 

Kamlarz: “Well…when we last went to a ballot measure to fix this building it got kind of creamed.” 

Maio: “Right. We did put a ballot measure on to raise funds to retrofit this building and make it seismically safe and preserve it.” 

Kamlarz: “And that did not pass. Issues about seismic safety, infrastructure is shot…And it's major repairs to the building right now. The plan is to secure the building until we can develop a long-term plan to … get $30 million, $40 million to retrofit this building.” 

Maio: “We may have to figure out preservation money or something. …” 

Later in the meeting, when the council was discussing hypothetical new sources of revenue, Councilmember Susan Wengraf asked about underutilized property: “I know we … own lots of property all over town….I’m wondering if you are looking at underutilized properties and selling them.” 

Kamlarz answered: “Yes. ….we are looking at getting rid of our surplus property. …” 

Wengraf: “And when we vacate this building is it possible to rent this building or lease it or is it not possible?” 

Kamlarz (laughing): “I think one of the issues is that…nothing works in the building.” 

Wengraf: “You want to do tenant improvements.” 

Kamlarz: “Get the elevator, the heating, the lighting…while you're at it, you might as well rebuild the whole building.” 

Mayor Bates: “Maybe we can sell it…it's also not earthquake safe and costs 30 million to repair.” 

Kamlarz: “And has a cement ceiling.” 

So what’s the plan? 

Well, from BUSD’s side, it’s mentioned in passing on a web page :“The Berkeley Unified School District is in the process of renovating the classroom building ‘C’ on Bonar Street at the West Campus site to house the Central Office Administration; Technology; classrooms and a Teacher Learning Center. The adjacent cafeteria building (located on Browning St.) will also be rehabilitated for BUSD School Board, City Council and other public meetings. Watch this page for photos of the construction as the work progresses.” 

The photos show only interior demolition of Building C in progress—no word on what kind of facility if any is being prepared for Council meetings in the cafeteria. 

Anyone who has ever tried to attend a controversial city council meeting knows that the present council chambers are inadequate. The audience can’t see or hear very well, and frequently overflows down the stairs and into the lobby, often necessitating police presence to keep order (with accompanying overtime). A major feature of the Citizens' Sunshine Ordinance, soon to be on the ballot, is requiring provision of adequate space for the public to watch what the council’s up to. 

Disabled citizens, led by the late Councilmember Dona Spring, have frequently complained about accessibility. Dona once led a press tour via BART to the new Hayward City Hall, which features many amenities besides excellent accessibility, including piped-in internet at every council seat so that constituents can text in questions and comments during meetings. 

But how do we know that whatever deal is being planned between the City of Berkeley and BUSD will solve our problems? Where’s the public process to discuss what might be needed? How about a little sunshine in the decision-making? 

With all its faults, Berkeley’s Old City Hall is a beautiful building listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It looks suspiciously like it’s being subjected to the same process of Demolition by Neglect which has shadowed Berkeley’s public libraries and might lead to scrapping two of them. 

At the same budget workshop where the city staff’s plans to move the council meetings were revealed, Mayor Bates suggested a remedy for the budget crisis: “At some point, I don't want to do it, but I think we will have to go back to the citizens and say this is what we're doing, spending as prudently as we can, maintaining a good bond rating, trying to do the best job we can. At some point we can't reach it without get something more revenue.” 

English translation: They might want to go for a new ballot measure to add some sort of additional parcel tax or bond issue to raise more funds for continuing city services at their present level. 

That’s well and good, and might even be necessary, but councilmembers need to be aware that the lack of transparency regarding the last round of library bonds, which has surfaced as a result of the Concerned Library Users suit, could create a real problem with the electorate for new projects. Even voters who claim to hate historic preservation have objected to two out of four branch libraries being demolished instead of restored as the language of that ballot measure promised. Preservation-minded voters might fear that they’re being asked to support another demolition scheme in sheep’s clothing. 

And if the failure of the pools measure is any indication, voters are no longer complacently willing to fund whatever’s on offer in any election, even if the pitch is truthful. 

Rather than announcing the fate of the location of Council meetings as a fait accompli, there should be open public discussion of what the problems are, and the pros and cons of a variety of solutions. Here are a few possibilities, close to transit, within blocks of City Hall and already built: the new Freight and Salvage hall; the auditorium at the new Berkeley City College; the old Berkeley Community Theater, originally supposed to be jointly owned and operated by the City and BUSD on the Berkeley High site…and there are more, all within easy walking distance of downtown. 

West Campus is relatively far from the action, and would probably impede rather than facilitate citizen attendance at meetings—but perhaps that’s the rationale behind what appears to be the current plan. At their next meeting on May 17th, the council has the opportunity to start a frank and open discussion of their impending move and the fate of the Maudelle Shirek Building, and they should do so.