If a proposal being developed by City and School District staff comes to fruition, a battered, vacant, one-story former cafeteria on a quiet residential side-street in West Berkeley may soon become Berkeley’s new City Council chambers—and meeting place for other City deliberative bodies, from the Rent Board to the School Board.
The project—estimated to cost $2.1 million—would trigger the essential abandonment of Berkeley’s 102 year old City Hall Downtown and the relocation of City Council and School Board meetings to the old cafeteria at “West Campus”, the School District property on University Avenue between Curtis and Bonar Streets.
The cafeteria, a dilapidated one-story structure, faces out on Addison Street between Bonar and Browning.
City and School District staff said at a community meeting Tuesday night (October 18,2011) that they have not yet presented the concept to either the School Board or the City Council for consideration.
Some of the neighbors of West Campus who spoke at the meeting characterized the meeting relocation proposal as “completely crazy”, “nuts”, ridiculous”, “not a good choice”, and “under the radar.”
However, the project seems to be on a fast track. A School District contractor at the meeting told the audience that renovation of the cafeteria building for the proposed School Board and other meeting use is “currently getting ready to go” and would be put out to bid as early as next February or March. The Superintendent of Schools later tried to walk back that statement.
Neighbors at the meeting, which was also attended by Councilmember Darryl Moore who represents the area, were generally skeptical about, or openly opposed to, the idea of bringing dozens of night-time City Council and other meetings a year to the small building which sits across from a row of single-story bungalows on a quiet Berkeley side street.
The meeting had a broader purpose of updating neighbors of West Campus on School District plans for the property, including the relocation of BUSD administrative and other offices there, and the renovation of part of the site for the REALM Charter School, which currently operates elsewhere in West Berkeley.
The extensive, and largely unoccupied, West Campus site includes the old academic, cafeteria, library, and auditorium buildings of what was once Burbank Junior High School, plus a day care center, one of the municipal swimming pools, a grass playing field, two gymnasiums, and a large parking lot.
Construction is currently well under way on the BUSD office wing along Bonar Street, and school staff are expected to vacate current offices in old City Hall (The Maudelle Shirek Civic Center Building) on Martin Luther King, Jr. Way, Downtown, and move to their new quarters during winter break, or shortly thereafter.
(The REALM Charter School construction plans are also well advanced, with the project intended to occupy part of the West Campus property along University Avenue in the 2012-13 academic year. REALM, BUSD representatives also said, would have some use of ground floor classrooms along Bonar Street, below the BUSD administrative offices.)
The School Board / City Council meeting room proposal came up late on the agenda at the community meeting, which was held in one of the rundown gymnasiums at West Campus.
A single piece of paper taped to the door identified the meeting site, which I found after circumnavigating the largely vacant campus. The room had abominable acoustics, and comments either boomed echoingly through the amplification system, or were barely audible, depending on who was speaking.
About 45 community members perched on wooden bleachers, and perhaps a dozen BUSD staff and consultants were present. Berkeley’s incoming interim City Manager Christine Daniels and City Councilmember Darryl Moore also attended and spoke. No School Board members attended.
From the audience comments and the sign-up sheets, it appeared that most of the audience members were residents of the immediate blocks surrounding the large West Campus site.
The meeting room proposal, the presenters said, envision a $2.1 million dollar investment split between BUSD and City funds to convert the old cafeteria into a multipurpose meeting room, with bathrooms and a back area set aside as a “break room” and a kitchenette installed in the rear for City and BUSD staff attending meetings, and a broadcast room for Berkeley Community Television, which simulcasts Council and School Board meetings.
The new space would essentially substitute for the current City Council Chambers in the Shirek Building, where the Berkeley City Council has regularly met for the past 102 years.
Mauricio Davila who identified himself as a project manager for Turner Construction working on the West Campus site, told the audience “the Board Room (project at West Campus) right now is currently getting ready to go.”
“We’re looking to order a contract, early 2012, late February or early March, construction beginning late March,” Davila said. “Budget is currently set at 1.2 million for the School District, and with an additional $900,000,” should the City choose to participate.
Daniels said the existing Council Chamber in the Shirek building “is not seismically safe” and there are problems with accessibility for the disabled since the elevator is unreliable. She also said that the West Campus site would provide a bigger space so more people could get in to Council meetings, rather than being held in the hallways if the Council Chambers are filled to capacity.
Huyett said the new room would provide about 192 seats. The capacity of the existing Council chamber is 125 seats, Daniels said.
“The School District has had an interest in developing a Board room in the old cafeteria, and we have funded base improvements for that…” Huyett said. He likened the idea of the BUSD and Council renovating a meeting space together to the 49ers and Oakland Raiders football teams building a new stadium together, producing economies and benefits for both participants.
When the School District proposal for the room was being developed, “the City expressed an interest in moving as well.”
Huyett added that the renovated room would also be used for the BUSD student court, and “for staff development in the middle of the day, and we would also anticipate community use of this facility as well, going through our use permit process…”
Huyett and Daniels emphasized that the meeting room proposal has not yet been presented to either the School Board or City Council.
“We’ve had staff level, and I want to emphasize this, staff level discussion, about the possibilities of the City participating with us. Now this has not gone to approval stage yet. Neither the Board of Education, nor to the City Council,” Huyett said.
“We don’t anticipate, the School District, for that action to be really done until January…” Huyett said, referring to a formal consideration of the idea by the School Board.
“This has not come to the Council,” Daniels said. “The Council hasn’t seen the plans.”
That was confirmed by Councilmember Moore who spoke from the audience. “The Council has had no discussion about this site for our meetings. This is the first time I’ve heard the public, others, talk about this site”, Moore said.
“To have your feedback is critical to me, and I appreciate it”, he told the neighbors.
Neighbor comments about the meeting room plan ranged from skeptical to outright opposition.
“I think this is completely crazy”, said one neighbor from the bleachers. “I know you’re just ‘thinking about it’…but the idea of having hundreds of people come to a quiet residential street is absolutely nuts.” “I think you’ve got to look much harder at other solutions.” He was vigorously applauded by much of the audience.
Kathy Harr, a neighborhood resident who is also an elected member of the Rent Board, said she was “really excited and enthused” about the school use of the West Campus site, but “that building is not a good choice” for a Council meeting space. “I think you will find that the number one concern in this neighborhood is mitigating traffic and parking.”
Other neighbors added that Council meetings run late at night, often feature protests, rallies, and media trucks in front of the meeting location, and hundreds of people who come and go. “I anticipate large numbers of people” worried one neighbor, “large groups of people chanting. I don’t think a lot of people want that to happen.”
The cafeteria site sits on a short, two-lane wide, block, across from four modest bungalow homes and around the corner from two other residential blocks.
“All previous discussions have been about daytime use” of the West Campus property, a neighbor said. The meeting room use would be at night, and thus a concern.
This was echoed later by Kathy Harr, who told me that the “neighborhood is very concerned about the Council meetings coming here, and the main reason is because they are at night.”
She said she felt most of the neighbors were fine with day time school uses, the traditional history of the site, but “any night time activity” would be a problem for many on the residential blocks. “People in the neighborhood are VERY interested” in following the meeting room proposal, she added.
Others expressed concern about the advisability of removing the existing cafeteria facility when the REALM school will eventually have hundreds of students on the site, no cafeteria, and a closed campus during lunch.
“I wanted to say something about the symbolism of putting the seat of government in Berkeley on a little residential street, away from our downtown, our public transportation”, neighborhood
resident business owner Kristen Kristin Leimkuhler said. She is also part of also leads the West Campus Neighbors and Merchants Alliance, a neighborhood group in the area.
“I think it’s ridiculous, and I think it will impact the ability of citizens to come participate in their government as well. I’m really concerned about that.”
Neighbors noted that the 52B, the “local” bus on University Avenue past the site, only passes three times an hour late at night.
There is a parking lot at the West Campus site, between Curtis Street and Browning Street, which BUSD is planning to pave as part of the other projects. Huyett said it would accommodate 135 vehicles.
Some neighbors said that the parking lot wouldn’t solve the problem of people trying to park as close to the meeting space and school buildings as possible. One neighbor noted that the on street spaces in front of the West Campus buildings fill up first. Huyett said that the City had the ability to restrict on-street parking, and noted he had personally gotten a “very expensive” ticket for parking in the neighborhood near the Trader Joe’s store on University Avenue.
Others expressed concern about the increased traffic on residential Browning Street, where the parking lot entrance is located and worried about speeding cars—both present, and potential—on Curtis Street, Addison Street, and Browning, and the safety of people trying to cross University Avenue. Huyett said that the BUSD didn’t control street changes, but could talk to the City.
“You have your right as citizens to lobby either your School Board member, or your City Council member” on the meeting room proposal, said Huyett.
As neighbor comments mounted, he later added, “I do realize there are concerns and issues about location, and the appropriateness, and we’ll share all these notes with Board members.”
“It’s not a decision yet. It’s a proposal that goes forward to the Board.”
“This is really happening under the radar,” Leimkuhler said. “First you told us that the Board and Council haven’t acted on any decision. (But) Mauricio (Davila) told us there’s going to be a contract at the beginning of the year. That’s a very short window in which the decision is going to get made, and you’re going to start cranking on the construction.”
“He’s just a construction guy, I’m a superintendent,” Huyett said in reference to Davila.
A neighbor then asked if the cafeteria building was under construction. “It’s not currently under construction at this point, no”, Huyett said.
“There’s definitely construction there”, a neighbor of the site later told me.
When I looked myself at the cafeteria building it seemed clear some sort of demolition or construction work had taken place. The interior appeared to have been gutted of its finishes. Floor tiles were gone, along with wallboard, there were open stud walls supported with what looked like temporary bracing, and the hung ceiling was gone.
Shop lights were festooned from the open rafters. Large metal louvers—possibly part of the school office building construction—were stacked in the middle of the room.
A site visitor later supplied pictures from this week of men in hard hats on the roof of the cafeteria, where it appears stucco siding of a roof pop-up has been recently torn off.
Neighbors noted that the West Campus site contains an unused auditorium at the corner of Bonar and University Avenue that is not part of any announced plans.
“I don’t think you’ve looked carefully enough at other options” including the existing auditorium, said Leimkuhler “Has anyone done a financial assessment of the auditorium” and whether it would be feasible to renovate specifically for BUSD and City Council meetings, she asked?
Daniels said, “I’m not familiar with that area” and deferred to Lew Jones, Maintenance Director for the School District. “It’s a more expensive solution”, Jones said.
A neighbor who identified herself as Stacy said, “We would love to see the auditorium renovated, and then parking for it in the field where you can access it from University” Avenue. “We want a rocking community center. We don’t want traffic. Why can’t you just do it right?”
Daniels said the City has tried a bond issue to renovate the Shirek building, but it did not pass. “We also tried to get Federal earmarks, and have not been successful,” she said. Renovating the current building is a “hugely expensive situation.”
“We have been looking at a variety of other options for meeting space. It’s not easy to find some place that will seat 200 people that’s available on a regular basis.”
“We’ve looked at the Brower Center, that didn’t work out”, she said. “We talked about the Adult School auditorium” on San Pablo Avenue, but there were “structural issues and renovation issues with that.”
What about seeking some regular, but temporary, meeting space on the UC Campus, a neighbor asked? “It’s a fair question,” Daniels answered.
When he commented at the end of the meeting, Councilmember Moore said that when he was a trustee of the Peralta Community College District and the building plans were finalized for Berkeley City College, a large auditorium was included. “The concept was that it could be used some day for a joint Council Chamber as well”, he told the crowd.
“I appreciate hearing your comments and insights”, he said to the neighbors. As the meeting ended Moore huddled at one end of the room with Daniels for a brief, private, conversation.
Daniels said at the Tuesday meeting, “I can’t bring all the places we’ve looked at to mind.”
An anonymous City source later showed me a list of the facilities that had internally been evaluated as possible relocation sites for City Council meetings.
The sites apparently rejected internally by City staff include the North Berkeley Senior Center (where several City Commissions currently meet), Berkeley City College (the location Moore mentioned), the Berkeley Adult School on San Pablo Avenue, the David Brower Center, and the Berkeley Community Theatre (where the Council has met, on occasion, when a large crowd is anticipated), Only one alternative site has apparently received some support from staff, Longfellow School on Sacramento Street.
Relocating Council meetings to the West Campus Cafeteria might also trigger the relocation of other city bodies that currently meet in the Council Chambers, including the Rent Stabilization Board and, on occasion, the Planning Commission and the Zoning Adjustment Board.
Would they move? “We haven’t heard. We’ve gotten nothing official, one way or the other”, Rent Board Chair Lisa Stephens told me.
She characterized the possibility of moving the major City meeting place to West Campus as “terrible”, but said “I think they’re going to go ahead with whatever plans they’ve made.”
When the BUSD administrative offices move, most of the Shirek Building will be vacant, except for the Council Chamber use. In recent weeks a number of individuals, including me, have asked City staff what is intended for that building after the School District moves out in a few months.
The building will be “boarded up” is the direct response I got from one City department manager. Others have received similar responses.
The School District has a webpage on West Campus projects here.