City Council seeks to move meetings to West Berkeley

The BUSD Headquarters on Bonar Street. Photo: Kaia Diringer
The Berkeley City Council wants to move its meetings to the BUSD headquarters on Bonar. Photo: Kaia Diringer

Update, Sept. 15 The neighborhood meeting has been moved to Sept. 24 because of a scheduling conflict, district spokesman Mark Coplan told Berkeleyside today. Coplan explained by email that “It is a neighborhood meeting like we conduct when there is going to be construction or something that will have an impact on the surrounding area. We are not posting it or encouraging a larger audience so that our neighbors have ample opportunity to discuss the impact.” The district will be posting fliers in the neighborhood, and inviting residents in Daryl Moore and Linda Maio’s districts around the West Campus “to come and share their questions, concerns and expectations with Daryl and Linda, facilitated by the superintendent and board president.” Added Coplan: “The impact of the city’s proposed pilot on our neighbors is the only issue that involves BUSD. Any town hall or larger discussion about the COB’s plans to move their meetings would be conducted by the city.” (See a meeting flier here.)

Original story, Sept. 2 The Berkeley City Council, set to resume its meetings later this month after summer recess, is exploring a potential move to West Berkeley to the Berkeley Unified School District’s meeting room on Bonar Street.

Last week, the School Board considered the request, and voted to hold a town hall meeting Tuesday, Sept. 15, to allow community members to give feedback about the proposal.

Council has been looking for a new meeting space since 2011. Its current meeting space at Old City Hall, the Maudelle Shirek Building at 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, is lacking in a variety of ways.


According to a June 23 staff report, “The physical condition of the building is very dilapidated and poses significant dangers. The capacity of the hall is not adequate to accommodate the public on nights when there is significant interest in agenda items. In addition, the safety of the elevator is precarious, the toilet facilities are not adequate and the sound system makes hearing the meetings very challenging for both the council and the public.”

Council voted June 23 to ask the school district to consider a three-month pilot in 2015-16 program during which council would meet at 2020 Bonar, in response to a proposal from council members Susan Wengraf, Jesse Arreguín and Laurie Capitelli. (Councilman Kriss Worthington voted against the proposal and Councilman Darryl Moore, who represents the district that includes 2020 Bonar, abstained.)

Susan Wengraf at the City Council meeting 6/9/15 Photo: Melati Citrawireja
Council members Wengraf and Arreguín have expressed support for a move to Bonar. Photo: Melati Citrawireja

Wengraf said in June that she put forward the proposal due to capacity issues, after numerous high-turnout council meetings made it clear that the Old City Hall council chambers were not up to snuff. The West Campus board room on Bonar has about twice the capacity of the current council chambers, which is 123. She also described a spot in the floor behind the council dais that felt particularly unlikely to support significant weight.

“When we did our study, we exhausted all of the possibilities,” she said, as far as other options the city has considered as potential new meeting spots.

“We need to do something right away because it’s unsafe for all of us to be in this building,” said Councilwoman Linda Maio. “I won’t go through the nightmare scenario here, but it is pretty bad.… It is irresponsible of us to continue to deal with the status quo and not do anything.


Councilman Arreguín noted that the West Campus facility has a large room available for overflow crowds, as well as a large parking lot. Others noted that, although it is not as centrally located as the current council chambers, it is located near University Avenue, which they said is well-served by transit.

Worthington said he did not think the school board room would be large enough for the crowds who want to attend council meetings with controversial items. He said he would prefer to hold meetings at Longfellow Middle School, which is much larger and could as a result more easily handle a large turnout.

Other council members noted that the Longfellow auditorium does not have a permanent meeting infrastructure, which would require timely and costly setup for council seating, as well as audio and video services. They noted that the acoustics are particularly bad in the auditorium as well.

Photo by Melati Citrawireja
The Maudelle Shirek Building, also known as Old City Hall, is seismically unsafe. Photo by Melati Citrawireja

A long road to West Campus

According to city documents, the city has been trying to solve the meeting room problem for four years. As of January 2012, city staff had analyzed 11 possible locations to see if they might be appropriate ones to move the meetings.

According to that analysis, West Campus was the only option that had a permanent meeting setup and infrastructure in place for off-site closed captioning. It was also identified as one of the facilities with the best access for the disabled, the best access to transit, and one of only two to allow live broadcasts on Channel 33.


At that time, however, city staff recommended three top locations for the possible move: the Berkeley City College auditorium, Longfellow and the North Berkeley Senior Center’s multi-purpose room. (See the checklist compiled by staff to compare various facilities.)

In June of that year, staff identified the senior center as the best possible fit noting, however, that required upgrades to the building would cost an estimated $350,000. (The city’s complete analysis regarding Berkeley City College, the senior center and the Florence Schwimley Little Theater at Berkeley High School is available online, beginning on page 7.)

In January 2014, Mayor Tom Bates put forward a proposal asking the city manager to work with the school district to come to an agreement about using the West Campus room temporarily, but the matter was held over for further discussion. Council asked the city manager to come back with additional information on options for alternate meeting locations, according to minutes posted on the city website.

Local architect Jim Novosel tells council the city should use community benefits fees for open space and sustainability features. Behind him, other members of the public have signs asking the city to halt new construction. Photo: Emilie Raguso
City Council has used the Longfellow auditorium for meetings with large turnouts expected. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Last year in May, council asked the city to take a close look at the first floor of 1947 Center St., the building where the city’s Customer Service Center is located. The analysis found that the room was large enough, but that “large supportive columns in the proposed area prevent the space from being used as an open meeting chambers. There is not sufficient space for the dais between the columns and the line of sight for the public and members of the Council is very limited.”

The city has also considered the Berkeley Adult School, Live Oak Park Theater, the Ed Roberts Campus Atrium, the Main Library community room and more.

“Staff toured each location with the facilities management staff from the governing jurisdiction. Each location has certain strengths and weaknesses and none were judged to be superior to the existing Council Chambers at the Maudelle Shirek Building,” according to an October 2014 staff report.

In October, the city identified the West Campus facility as council’s best possible option. But it wasn’t until the June 23 vote that council agreed to move ahead with its request to ask the School Board to use it.

Neighborhood feedback to council split on Bonar proposal

In June, five people wrote to the city to express views about the potential relocation. One woman wrote that she lives a block away and was “fine with the move.” Another said she was opposed to the move, which she described as a “controversial” item. She said meetings that go past midnight should not be held in “a facility located on a dead end street in a residential neighborhood.”

One man, Joshua Pfeffer, wrote that neighbors were “very upset” about the proposal. He too noted a concern about how late the meetings can go, in addition to other issues.

“Noise, parking, traffic, and a large number of angry people coming and going on our dark streets are a concern,” he wrote, adding that neighbors wondered whether other city bodies, such as the Zoning Adjustments Board, would also be moving to the area.

Katherine Harr wrote that council twice rejected West Campus, in 2012 and 2014, and said the School Board told council in January 2014 “that it was too late to adapt their new chambers to accommodate Council.” She noted that there are seven seats on the dais, while council has nine members.

Harr said neighbors were concerned about “extra people” coming to council lingering in the breezeway “about 70 feet from single family homes,” and said the auditorium is on the residential side of the building on Bonar. She also said, in her estimation, that the property was not easily accessible by public transit late in the night due to what she described as infrequent or unreliable service.

Another neighborhood resident, Joe Walton, wrote that he saw no problem with the relocation.

“When the Berkeley Adult school was at West Campus, their night classes probably involved more people than any Council meeting. At the time, many of us thought that the night-time activity at West Campus enhanced the safety of the surrounding streets,” he wrote. “There are always a small group of Chicken Littles who see every change as an impending catastrophe. They may make a lot of noise, but you should not think that they represent neighborhood opinion.”

The Berkeley Unified School District Board of Education. Photo: Mark Coplan/BUSD
The Berkeley Unified School District Board of Education (file photo). Photo: Mark Coplan/BUSD

School Board votes for public hearing; lukewarm on council proposal

Last week, at the Berkeley School Board’s first meeting of the season, the board voted to hold a town hall meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 15, to collect community feedback about the council request to relocate its meetings on a pilot basis to West Campus.

That night, Sept. 15, is also the City Council’s first meeting following its summer recess, which began in mid-July.

According to the school district staff report prepared for last week’s meeting, council had asked to use West Campus from Sept. 15 through Nov. 17.

According to the report, council and the district “have a history of sharing facilities” for meetings. The School Board used to meet at Old City Hall prior to the renovation of West Campus. The city and the district discussed that renovation project in 2010, district staffer Timothy White wrote. The project had an estimated cost of up to $1.15 million, and “the understanding was that the cost of the project would be shared.”

At a 2011 community meeting, local residents expressed concerns about “the volume of the traffic and city politics converging into a single family neighborhood,” according to White. “No opposition was expressed about the use of West Campus as Board chambers for BUSD Board of Education meetings.”

White notes that council “no longer considered” 2020 Bonar as a location for its meetings in January 2012, and pointed out the May 2012 city staff report that identified three options other than Bonar as the city’s top picks.

“No funding was received from the City of Berkeley for this project,” the report concludes.

Last week, recalling the 2011 community meeting about the subject, White told the board local residents said there was “some concern about having City Council politics in the building here, relative to the type of element they felt would be attracted into the actual neighborhood.”

Superintendent Donald Evans told the board at its Aug. 26 meeting that the city had proposed paying the district $700 for each meeting session, along with some other terms that were not described.

Board members said they wanted to recognize the support the board and district get from the city, in terms of both general fund dollars and other types of partnership efforts — including the school board’s use of council’s meeting room for years prior to its own move to Bonar — but said they needed to move ahead cautiously.

Board President Judy Appel said there would have to be a public process to determine the impact of council using its chambers, as well as what fair compensation would be.

“They put forward a proposal… but we haven’t really had a chance to discuss it ourselves,” she told her colleagues. She also suggested the creation of a negotiating team, after the Sept. 15 public meeting, to spearhead discussions with the city about whatever issues arise.

She noted that, though the request is for a three-month pilot program, interim approval would potentially set council “moving along the path of a longer term use.”

Director Karen Hemphill identified herself as the only member of the board to have been on it during the discussions related to West Campus, and whether the city would partner with the district on the project.

“It was the city that decided not to go through,” she said, adding, “We have always been very willing to cooperate with the city.”

Hemphill said she felt the Sept. 15 forum would be important to allow the board to hear local concerns, and for the council, too, to determine whether it then wanted to move ahead.

The discussion is slated to be back before the School Board Sept. 30, Evans said, adding that he hopes the board would vote on the matter at that time.

“I do know that we need to make a decision on this soon,” he told the board.

Read more Berkeleyside coverage related to Berkeley schools.

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Op-ed: BUSD superintendent responds to story on Berkeley Technology Academy (06.19.15)
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Teachers at Berkeley Technology Academy raise the alarm (06.03.15)

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