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The Long History of the Berkeley Civic Center

Harvey Smith, Author, Berkeley and the New Deal
Saturday December 16, 2017 - 05:46:00 PM

Berkeley Civic Center as a concept goes back over a hundred years. However, it is also self-evident that a great city deserves a great civic center. 

Berkeley’s Civic Center District Zoning Overlay, which was passed three years ago, merely respects, codifies, and protects over 100 years of Berkeley history. Civic uses of the district are not in opposition to other types of development in the city but will complement them. 

In 1909, the new City Hall was presented as part of the city's image of the "Athens of the West" and was linked to the neo-classical buildings being built on the U.C. campus. 

City Hall bordered what was planned as a City Beautiful Movement-style central park area. Architect and city planner Charles Henry Cheney, who drafted California’s first city planning act (passed in 1915), provided initial designs for what he called “Liberty Square.” 

The 1914 Post Office was part of this conception and was done in an Italian Renaissance style. 

The Veteran's Building, Community Theater, Farm Credit Building (now the Civic Center Building) and other buildings contributed to this grouping of public buildings. 

Berkeley voters approved a bond measure in 1940 that furnished the last funds needed to complete Civic Center Park. 

The historic Civic Center has the most concentrated number of New Deal-era projects in Berkeley - "Berkeley's New Deal Nexus": Berkeley Community Theater, G and H Buildings at Berkeley High, old Hall of Justice, Farm Credit Building, WPA work on Civic Center Park, art work on and in a number of these buildings (including the Main Post Office). 

The entire district was listed in 1998 to the National Register of Historic Places and the California Register of Historical Resources due to its historic, cultural, educational, governmental and judicial significance. The Civic Center Park fountain is at the center of the axis of these structures representing our community's democratic and social functions. 

Civic Center Park continues to function as site of public events, concerts and fairs, and the adjacent Center Street hosts the weekly Saturday Farmers' Market. Dubbed Provo Park in the 1960s, it was the site of many anti-war demonstrations. In 1983, it was designated as Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park. 

The effort to privatize our postal system and the selling of post offices in the past several years throughout the country illustrate how public assets can be stripped from communities for private gain. 

Citizens in communities throughout the country have protested this heist of cultural heritage. In Berkeley it has been a broad-based effort involving two mayors, the entire city council, citizens of every background, and members of the state and federal legislative delegations. 

The Shattuck corridor, North Berkeley, South Berkeley, West Berkeley, Fourth Street and Telegraph Avenue are target areas for development. Protection from private development of Berkeley’s Historic Civic Center District is seen by many as a way to preserve the civic values cherished by most Berkeleyans. Berkeley citizens are not alone. Across the Bay, San Francisco also has its own Civic Center Historic District.
Proposed Liberty Square (1919), Berkeley Public Library