UC Berkeley opens new dorm named for first tenured African-American professor

Resident assistants gather in the “academic success” room for a meeting at David Blackwell Hall which is opening this week. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

David Blackwell Hall, UC Berkeley’s new dorm on Dana Street, between Bancroft Way and Durant Avenue, will be opening its doors to about 751 freshmen this week. And boy will they be lucky.

Named after an esteemed mathematician and the first African-American tenured professor at Cal, David Blackwell Hall is an environmentally friendly, LEED certified Gold Building with decent sized dorm rooms, colorful lounges with large screens, pool and ping-pong tables, an “academic success” room, with public computers and printers, fast internet, a full gym, cozy study spaces, bike racks, a hidden deck garden and no dirty sock or disinfectant smell. Some of the windows on the west side of the building look out at the Bay Bridge, the bay, and the San Francisco skyline.

Given the amenities and close proximity to campus, it’s not surprising that the eight-story David Blackwell Hall was the number one requested living residence for incoming freshmen, according to Brett Hahnel, the vice-president of campus development for American Campus Communities, which built the structure and which will manage it. Those lucky enough to live there were chosen by lottery.

David Blackwell Hall as seen from the corner of Bancroft Way and Dana Street. Photo: Clark Schaefer

David Blackwell Hall is the first UC Berkeley dorm to open since 2012. Since then, the school’s enrollment has grown 17%, prompting the university to increase its efforts to offer more housing to its 42,000 students. Currently, UC Berkeley has the lowest percentage of beds for its student body of any campus in the UC system, with only 22% for undergraduates and 9% for graduate students. Across the system, the average is 38.1% for undergraduates and 19.6% for graduate students. Cal’s new goal is to house 50% of its 30,000+ undergraduate students and 25% of its 11,000+ graduate students.


The $98.7 million David Blackwell Hall is a joint project, of sorts, between UC Berkeley and American Campus  Communities, the nation’s largest builder, owner and manager of student dormitories. Based in Austin, TX, ACC is a self-managed real estate investment trust (REIT) that has properties on  94 campuses around the U.S. It owns 168 properties with approximately 103,500 beds, according to company documents. It has around $6.5 billion in real estate assets. Bill Bayless, who was a resident advisor in college, started the company, which counts 25 other former RAs on its senior staff.

“We build for the masses, not the classes,” said Hahnel. “Affordability is paramount.”

ACC has a 75-year ground lease with UC Berkeley for the land under David Blackwell Hall.

Building that many dorms has given ACC insight on how to provide comfortable living accommodations for today’s students, and the company incorporated some cutting-edge designs into the 185,000-square foot building. For example, students have told ACC that privacy in a shared dorm room is critical, but it is difficult to achieve when two people are sleeping side by side in twin beds just a few feet apart.

“How do you accomplish privacy in a shared residence hall?” said Hahnel. “A privacy wall.”

Clark Schaefer, construction manager for David Blackwell Hall, shows a typical dorm room. The beds are set end to end to increase each student’s privacy. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Karen Hohnsbeen is the receptionist at the entry to David Blackwell Hall. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
The entry lobby at David Blackwell Hall. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
A hallway in David Blackwell Hall is decorated with art. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

In the dorm rooms, ACC placed the student beds end to end with two short walls in between. That configuration doesn’t take up more space, but allows more separation of the students, he said. Each student will pay $16,670 in rent for the 2018-2019 academic year, the same as for other doubles on campus.

The privacy walls are just one of the building’s modern attributes. The lights throughout the structure are on sensors, so if there is no movement in a room the lights will automatically dim 50%, according to Clark Schaefer, an ACC construction manager. The lights can also interpret how much ambient light is coming through the windows and adjust accordingly. There is no air-conditioning in the building and temperature control is achieved through a heat exchange that can pull hot air into a cold area in the building and vice versa, he said. Fresh air is also pumped around the structure.

ACC “makes relationships through building design,” said Schaefer. “The building is a community. Each level is a community.”

There are 66 rooms on floors three through eight with plenty of gender-neutral bathrooms. There are quiet places to study at the end of the halls, but there is also a lounge and hang-out area in the center of each hall where people can gather. There are HDMI input screens for students to play games. Everyone enters through a common front door on the corner of Dana and Durant. There is a fully equipped gym on the first floor, a spacious “academic success” room, a presentation room with three large flat-screen TVs and a movie screen and a pull-out podium, as well as lots of places to gather and talk.

Study room. Photo: UC Berkeley/Stephen McNally

There is no dining hall in the building, which should make it somewhat easier for the dorm to achieve its goal of being a zero-waste building. All the dorm rooms have a mini-fridge, microwave and compost bucket. Students all have meal plans and will eat a nearby UC dining halls.

The building also serves as a new and permanent home for Stiles Hall, a community service agency that helps inner-city youth stay in school, engages Cal students in community service and promotes interracial understanding.

ACC built the structure in just 18 months, said Schaefer. It is built to the highest seismic codes and has a 2.5% “drift,” which means the building can sway two feet in every direction during a large earthquake. The foundation is eight feet thick in some parts, he said.

Blackwell was favorite professor, esteemed mathematician  

Blackwell was 22 when he got his Ph.D. in math in 1941 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He taught at Howard University, a historically black college, until 1954, when he came to Cal as a visiting professor. He spent the next 34 years at Cal and was an extremely popular professor, according to his son, Hugo Blackwell, who lives in Berkeley. He received numerous accolades and honorary degrees. UC Berkeley describes him as “distinguished researcher who independently invented dynamic programming, a statistical method still used today in finance and areas like genome analysis.”

He died in 2010 at the age of 91.

Blackwell might not have liked having a hall named after him, however, said his son.

“My father was a very humble person and private. I think he would be a little bit embarrassed,” he said.

ACC will be constructing other dorms on campus

ACC is also the contractor for Cal’s “Upper Hearst” project, which would convert part of a parking lot at the top of Hearst Avenue into a one-acre residential and academic complex. The project, which is still in its early stages, would provide new academic and office space for the Goldman School of Public Policy as well as 132 living units.

ACC also intends to compete to be the master developer to build about 7,500 beds for UC Berkeley in the next decade, said Hahnel. A housing task force convened by former Chancellor Nicholas Dirks identified nine potential sites that could accommodate housing around the campus and in Richmond.

The current chancellor, Carol Christ, has vowed to move forward with speed, even though controversy already surrounds some of the sites, including People’s Park and the Oxford Tract. The university is in the process of choosing a master developer.

About 100 students will move into Blackwell Hall today with the bulk moving in tomorrow. About 5,500 first-year students will be coming to campus for Cal Move-In Day on Tuesday, Aug. 14. Many streets around the dorms will be closed to parking on Tuesday.