New picnic area, upgraded amphitheater anticipated for John Hinkel Park

Walkways and handrails in John Hinkel
Many of the walkways and handrails in John Hinkel Park are damaged and will be replaced. Photo: William Lundquist

John Hinkel Park is scheduled for a makeover. Funds have been secured to renovate the 4.19-acre park in the Berkeley Hills, which features trails, a playground and an amphitheater nestled among oak groves. Some improvements have already begun, but the major renovations won’t begin until this fall, according to Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Department director Scott Ferris.

The speed and scope of the project will depend on the city’s ability to find a contractor who can do the work within the budget, Ferris said.

The renovation plan includes replacing the rundown stairs and handrails and improving the amphitheater to attract potential performers. The current lackluster playground area, which only contains three play structures, will be moved into the parking lot by the amphitheater, and the abandoned clubhouse which burned down in 2015 will be replaced by a picnic deck overlooking the park. These are improvements that Berkeley citizens have been requesting for some time, Ferris said, and will make the park more kid-friendly and functional. The renovated areas will comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The City Council authorized the city’s parks department to spend $600,000 from Measure WW Bonds for the Hinkel Park project. In addition, the department has received $385,000 from an insurance claim following the destruction of the old clubhouse. The Measure WW funds will be used for improvements in the lower portion of the park (with the amphitheater and parking area). The money from the insurance settlement is being split between the various improvement projects, with $110,000 dedicated to removing fire fuel from the park, and the remaining $275,000 (as well as $175,000 from Park Tax Funds) going towards projects in the upper portion of the park (by San Diego Road), Ferris said.


According to Ferris, the department is still searching for a developer who is willing to work within the department’s budget constraints. Otherwise, the current plan may need to be altered.

“We’re either going to need to scale down the existing project or find a contractor who can do all of the elements of the project,” he said.

Two of the three current play structures at John Hinkel Park
Two of the three current play structures at John Hinkel Park. Photo: William Lundquist

The improvements to John Hinkel are planned in three phases. The first is eliminating potential fire fuel in the park, such as underbrush and long-hanging branches. This phase is mostly finished thanks to help from Berkeley residents.

“We had a couple community all-crew days within the period of about two months where the neighborhood came out and worked with us,” Ferris said. Parks and Rec staff also assisted with the fuel clearing efforts, which occurred on March 14 and April 25.

The department has also been deploying teams to replace old railings and staircases, many of which are old and damaged. Some railings in the park are in danger of toppling over and staircases are chipped and uneven.

The second phase of improvements will include creating a new picnic area at the northern end of the park, by San Diego Road. The picnic platform will be supported by a concrete wall where the old clubhouse currently stands. The clubhouse will be fully demolished when construction of the picnic deck proceeds. This area of the park will be fenced-off to the public during construction, but the park will never be completely inaccessible while improvements are taking place. This phase will also include a new ADA accessible path.

“We designed an accessible path from the north end of the upper grass area that connects with the other paths that lead to the picnic area,” Ferris said.

The third and final phase of renovations will occur in the lower portion of the park by the amphitheater, on Somerset Place. The park’s play area, which currently consists of an old, rusted slide and two rocking horses, will be moved to the parking area near the intersection of Somerset Place and San Diego Road. The amphitheater, which has hosted the California Shakespeare Festival in the past and, more recently, productions by Actors Ensemble, will be upgraded. The parks department is currently in talks with representatives from TheatreFirst, a performing arts group in Berkeley, about potential designs for the new amphitheater, as well as amenities for performers.

Amphitheater at John Hinkel Park
New designs for this amphitheater at John Hinkel Park are under consideration. Photo: William Lundquist

Eva Bramwell, a frequent visitor to John Hinkel, comes to the park to do work on her laptop and enjoy the quiet solitude. Bramwell likes the “funky” atmosphere of the park.

“I kind of like that it’s a little bit old and I like that the steps aren’t perfect,” she said. “I do think that making things accessible to people is really important,” she added. “If I were in a wheelchair or needed a way to get around a little easier I would want that in a park.”

Ferris hopes that all the planned improvements for the park are not a matter of “if,” but “when.”

The bids we got were so far over our budget that we got the city manager and council approval to go out and negotiate,” Ferris said.