It’s ‘Hail Mary’ time.
Berkeley city officials pledged Tuesday night to make one last shot at an agreement with the Berkeley Unified School District to use its West Berkeley chambers for city meetings. Lengthy negotiations between the city and BUSD have been unsuccessful to date, and city officials announced possible plans earlier this year to use the old Premier Cru space, at 1011 University Ave., for meetings until Old City Hall could be seismically retrofitted.
But council members made it clear Tuesday night they need an answer from BUSD fast, and are going to drive a harder bargain than they did in the past. The deadline? Council said it expects a report back from the city manager Nov. 28 about whether BUSD wants to proceed.
“Let’s put forward our best proposal,” said Mayor Jesse Arreguín. “If they accept it, great. If not, we’ll build this facility.”
Arreguín said the outcome of “one last-ditch effort” could be different now due to the composition of the new council, because it was the previous council that put forward its “last and best” offer in the prior go-round.
“The ‘last and best’ has changed,” City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley told council. “I just want you to understand that.”
Tuesday night, council was discussing whether to earmark more than $1.7 million for the buildout at 1011 University. Previously, council had budgeted $640,000 from the General Fund for the project, said Councilman Kriss Worthington, whose questions about the city’s plans had put the item on the agenda. Worthington said he was concerned about adding another million dollars to the budget on top of that.
City staff said $460,000 of the project’s budget could come from cable franchise fees that can only be used for increasing meeting accessibility for the public.
Staff said it would cost $1.3 million to use the BUSD meeting chambers for five years, including a one-time payment of approximately $600,000, and then estimated annual costs of around $100,000 for the rental of the space.
The one-time $600,000 payment was roughly comparable to what the city had reportedly agreed to pay in the past to help cover the cost of the West Campus renovations at 2020 Bonar St. that resulted in the new School Board room. The BUSD project had an estimated cost of $1.15 million, and “the understanding was that the cost of the project would be shared,” BUSD staff said previously. Ultimately, the city pulled out of that agreement and did not help pay for the boardroom.
The nine seats on the School Board dais are a sign of those earlier efforts, however. The School Board has just five elected members, and two student members, while the City Council has nine.
The Berkeley City Council, the Rent Stabilization Board and the Zoning Adjustments Board all currently meet at Old City Hall despite the seismic risks. Public Works Director Phil Harrington said it will take an estimated $35 million to $45 million to bring Old City Hall up to code.
“It does have a concrete ceiling overhead,” he said. “Seismically, that’s not really one of the greatest things to have.”
The building has a number of other “failing systems” too, he said, including the plumbing, much of which is shut down. Many of the drinking fountains in the building also don’t work. The lighting is “antiquated and outdated,” and seating is limited, with room for only 90 people. Then there’s the heating.
“The old boiler system is basically on its last legs,” Harrington told council. “Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. It takes a lot of maintenance to repair that.”
And let’s not forget the elevator, which is needed to comply with ADA access laws. It will cost $100,000 to $150,000 to repair it.
“The elevator is kinda like in a state of its own,” Harrington said. “That’s a meeting-by-meeting process that we go through to make sure it’s running.”
The new building is set to have seating for more than 200, electronic screens throughout the room for easy viewing of meeting materials and council discussion, and bamboo floors left over from Premier Cru, the wine shop that closed after its owner was implicated in a $45 million Ponzi scheme. The city said it would likely have to lower the room’s high ceilings for acoustical reasons.
The new space is set to include a new council dais and public seating area, acoustical and ventilation improvements, new restrooms, a new conference room, and fire separation walls, staff said. If council moves ahead with the plan soon, staff said the new space could be ready by the end of September 2018.
The city has looked at many other sites to try to find a new home for meetings, but all have had drawbacks. The main challenges were that many of the rooms would require setup and teardown for each meeting, and had no on-site storage for equipment.
The other major challenge was scheduling, since the city has three bodies that hold regular meetings that will need to move.
“A lot of these sites couldn’t accommodate all three,” Harrington said. “It was a struggle for them … to accommodate the council meetings with the scheduling.”
The city has also considered a new type of meeting where council would focus on land-use issues, which could create new scheduling demands.
The best city-owned option staff identified had been the North Berkeley Senior Center, Harrington said, but that would require $200,000 to $300,000 to update.
City Clerk Mark Numainville, who took part in the BUSD negotiations, told council there were scheduling issues at the School Board chambers, at 1231 Addison St., as well as set-up and teardown needs. And then there was the money. The five-year cost for meeting on Bonar would be “comparable” to the city preparing the Premier Cru space.
Worthington said he could not support the proposal because he saw it as a “duplicate space” just blocks from the School Board chambers.
“If we’re going to spend a million dollars, let’s give that money to the school district,” he said.
But several officials noted that the scheduling issues remained, as well as the logistical challenges.
Deputy City Manager Jovan Grogan told council the Premier Cru space “is actually cheaper” than the BUSD option over five years, and that the city would save more money by using the Premier Cru building for 5-10 years.
City Manager Williams-Ridley advised council there was also “a community issue” that made the BUSD chambers a challenge during a pilot last year. The city moved its meetings to the board room for several months, but ultimately had to move back to Old City Hall when the pilot ended.
“Our pilot was built around how well we would behave in the environment, how loud we would be, how quiet we would be,” she said. “And so there were a lot of measures put into place to make sure that we would not disrupt this neighborhood.”
She went on to note, of the School Board meeting chambers, that BUSD “will not allow for us to use them as often as we need.”
During public comment, Steve Finacom called it “astonishing” that the district wanted $600,000 up front when, according to him, BUSD had the use of Old City Hall for 40 years at the cost of $1 a year in rent.
“It was supposed to maintain this building, and it did just the minimal stuff to keep it operational,” he said. “And it returned it to the city in terrible condition.”
He continued: “I would suggest that you use your political offices to call the School Board and say: ‘What the hell are you doing, asking the city to pay for … the school district space?'”
Details of the negotiations have taken place in closed session and have not been made public because they are protected by confidentiality laws. But Councilwoman Sophie Hahn said “we did negotiate with them for a long time. A long, long time.” Councilman Worthington called staff efforts in the negotiations “valiant.”
Mayor Arreguín said he had talked with the school superintendent and multiple School Board members, who said “they were rather sad that we pulled out of the negotiations.”
Hahn said officials and the public have a right to hold meetings in a safe place, and that the city needs to take that issue seriously. But she said it made sense to try one last time to reach a deal with BUSD.
“I don’t want to get into a situation where we are delaying one solution because the other possible solution won’t come to the table, won’t give us an answer, and wants to play hardball,” Hahn said. “I think a ‘Hail Mary,’ a last try, is not necessarily a bad thing.”
She continued: “It’s never a bad thing to ask. And the terms would have to be the terms that work for us.”
Council said the city is still committed to building affordable housing on the property at 1011 University, when it has the money, perhaps on the Ninth Street side. Councilwoman Kate Harrison said the space is also under consideration as a possible location for a winter homeless shelter.
Councilwoman Maio asked if staff might look at whether the city could use the new space for events too, as a way to help cover the costs of the facility. And Hahn wondered if there might be ways to divide up the large space so multiple meetings could take place at once.
Officials also made it clear they want to return to Old City Hall for meetings once it is safe to do so.
In the end, council voted to set aside the requested money pending a further discussion Nov. 28 to hear the latest news from BUSD. Councilman Worthington was the lone “no” vote, though Councilwomen Cheryl Davila and Susan Wengraf had left by the time the discussion took place.
Councilwomen Maio and Lori Droste abstained from the vote to try negotiations with the school district again, while the other five in attendance voted in favor.
“I don’t see a good outcome,” Droste said.