Many Berkeleyside readers wondered this week why downtown Berkeley’s Civic Center Park was suddenly fenced off Monday.
The answer is that the city is planning a long list of improvements at the park, which are set to keep it off-limits through December, city staff told Berkeleyside. The end goal? “Beautification and maintenance.”
According to a brief notice on the city website, “MLK Civic Center Park will be closed for maintenance from October 16-December 31, 2017. During that time staff will be performing maintenance work to all turf areas, the upper plaza, the tot lot, tile, fountain cover, concrete and other areas. The lower plaza/skate park will remain open during this time.”
Parks director Scott Ferris said Tuesday that the work is slated to cost about $100,000 spread over a series of small contracts. A lot of the work can be done in-house, using city staff, too. The city has a $450,000 fund for these “minor maintenance” projects, courtesy of Measure F, which was passed by voters in 2014.
In addition to the concrete work, the city will do some painting and fix broken stonework that was posing various “trip and fall” hazards. The concrete sidewalks were in bad shape, too, due to age and tree roots, Ferris said.
“There’s tile in the plaza that needs work,” he said, in reference to the Peace Wall in the park that was “inlaid with tiles made by hundreds of community members,” according to the city website. “And the water faucet hasn’t been replaced for years,” Ferris added.
Light poles will be replaced and the grass will also be resodded. The ground may look green, but much of what’s there is weeds, Ferris said: “We’ve been watering to keep it green, but we need to renovate, aerate, kill the weeds and grow new grass.”
Ferris said tree roots have also made a bit of a mess of the rubberized surface at the tot lot, and can be felt through the material. The city will fix that, and aims to “eliminate the safety hazards out there.”
Old capped-off parking meter poles — the city now uses a different payment system — will also be removed from the sidewalk where they have been getting in the way of pedestrians.
The park is bounded by Center Street and Allston Way to the north and south, and Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Milvia Street to the west and east. A plaza, popular with skateboarders, on the western boundary of the park remains open. The space is a bit more crowded now, however, as other visitors from the high school and homeless community sit on the benches and sidewalks that are still accessible.
Civic Center Park, at 2151 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, has been the site of many city festivals, including Earth Day, Cinco de Mayo and How Berkeley Can You Be? A popular farmers market takes place Saturday mornings just north of the park. The 25th annual Indigenous Peoples Day Powwow was set to take place in the park Sunday, but it was canceled due to air quality concerns related to the North Bay fires.
The park has also been the focus since March of a series of protests between Trump supporters and their opponents. The political clashes have often drawn hundreds upon hundreds of people, and made national headlines when they have periodically turned violent, including on March 4, April 15 and Aug. 27.
The last announced political rally in the park, Sept. 24 after Milo Yiannopoulos appeared briefly at UC Berkeley, drew a few dozen people. There were some arrests, and some heated exchanges, and a few people threw flags on the ground and stomped and spit on them. But overall the event passed without much ado — in part because most of those in attendance seemed to be on the same side, and also likely due to the dozens of Berkeley police officers ringing the fountain area of the park, ready to address problems immediately.
The costs this year for demonstrations in the city have been significant. An estimated $500,000 in damage was done in downtown Berkeley during demonstrations Feb. 1 to protest a Yiannopoulos talk at Cal, along with $100,000 in damage on campus. And the city says it has spent close to $500,000 more this year on overtime staffing related to several demonstrations through Aug. 27. The university has said it has spent at least $1.4 million on security since Feb. 1.
That said, the city has said nothing to link this year’s political protests to the park closure. But the timing is convenient. At other points in time, the city and other agencies have used fencing in Berkeley to keep an otherwise public area out of service after messy political demonstrations. In 2015, after the city disbanded the “Liberty City” homeless protest camp outside Old City Hall, the area was closed for a period of time for clean-up and maintenance the city said was needed. The city erected plastic fencing after moving the camp out, and posted a notice that said, “lawn area under renovation.” (There were also reports of public health hazards.)
Plastic fencing also was put up near the downtown Post Office in 2016 after a long-time protest camp at that location was broken up by federal authorities. A more robust metal fence had been installed by June of that year. Two months later, Caltrans erected its own fence at Gilman Street, near the I-80 freeway, to stop people from camping in that area.