The animal shelter's grand opening celebration takes place at 1 Bolivar Drive on Saturday. Scroll to the bottom of the story for details. Photo: Emilie Raguso
The animal shelter’s grand opening celebration takes place at 1 Bolivar Drive on Saturday from noon to 2:30 p.m. Scroll to the bottom of the story for additional details. Photo: Emilie Raguso

More than 10 years after Berkeley voters approved a $7.2 million bond to build a new home to care for abandoned and sick animals, the Dona Spring Municipal Animal Shelter will hold its grand opening Saturday — costing $5 million more than the original budget and in a smaller space than city officials originally envisioned.

The shelter, which is projected to cost nearly $12.4 million when all is said and done, opened in November after more than a decade in development, as an appropriate site proved elusive, and the venue that ultimately was selected posed a range of challenges during design and construction.

The new shelter features a $272,000 medical suite to handle lab work and on-­site spay and neuter procedures, as well as everything from teeth cleaning and laceration repairs to eye and limb removal. There are habitat rooms where cats can socialize with a view of Aquatic Park; fenced­ animal play areas; and indoor­-outdoor kennels. It’s decked out in Crate and Barrel furniture — the company donated $24,000 worth thanks to volunteer efforts — and includes a volunteer lounge, community training room, public restrooms, laundry room and kitchens with sanitizing dishwashers.

The shelter is named for former Councilwoman Dona Spring, who fought for changes in the city’s approach to animal services, worked to improve spay and neuter laws and resources, and “demanded that Berkeley’s adoptable animals not be euthanized.” Spring died in 2008 after battling rheumatoid arthritis for decades.

The new two-story building is about 11,700 square feet — compared to 10,000 square feet at the old shelter — and has fewer kennels: 43 square-shaped kennels, as compared to the old shelter’s 60 rectangular ones.

The building replaced an aging and dilapidated shelter, at 2013 Second St., that was built in 1940. The old space was “in poor condition, seismically unsafe, suboptimal for the maintaining healthy animals, and not conducive for promoting animal adoptions or attracting members of the public to visit,” according to a 2008 city staff report about the purchase of the new site.

The triangular shape of the lot on Bolivar Drive near Aquatic Park, along with several problematic geographical features, presented challenges to designers and architects. But the Bolivar site garnered “widespread agreement” due to its proximity to Aquatic Park, as well as its distance from residences (where neighbors might be disturbed by noise and site activities). In 2010, the City Council voted to allocate an additional $5.5 million to the project, in part to compensate for increased construction costs and also to cover the price of the new lot, which sold for more than the city originally had planned to spend.

Kate O'Connor, who runs Berkeley Animal Control Services, says the quiet atmosphere, airy and light spaces and new lab facilites are among the highlights at the new site. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Kate O’Connor, who runs Berkeley Animal Care Services, says the quiet atmosphere, airy and light spaces and new lab facilites are among the many highlights at the new site. She is pictured here with Oscar, a shepherd mix, who later was adopted. Photo: Emilie Raguso

The new shelter also has environmental features such as a green roof to make the building more energy efficient and solar hot water heating to reduce energy costs. The building was constructed to meet LEED Silver standards. To prevent flooding, which city staff described as a “chronic problem at the old site,” the shelter was built three feet above grade.

In addition to saving the city money, said Kate O’Connor, Berkeley Animal Care Services manager, having a lab in-house cuts down on stress animals used to experience during transport for medical care. It also frees up animal control officers for other duties. (The lab was funded in part by a grant from Maddie’s Fund.)

O’Connor also pointed to an advanced air filtration system to keep to a minimum the spread of illnesses, such as kennel cough and upper respiratory infections, and improve overall air quality; a much cleaner, quieter environment due to soundproof kennels and high-end building materials, such as Corian; and improved “flow” throughout the building for volunteers and visitors alike.

None of this was possible in the old space, said O’Connor, who has worked for the city for more than 12 years.

And though there are fewer kennels in the new space, O’Connor said, the shelter has a similar holding capacity, as well as greater flexibility due to kennel layout and design, and the potential for connections between the spaces. Some of the new kennels are also double- or triple-sized, she added.

Jim Hynes, assistant to Berkeley’s city manager, described the atmosphere in the new facility as “all very mellow.” The old space was “a cacophony,” he said. “The whole environment was loud. Now it’s peaceful.”

A view down an aisle through the chain-link kennels at the old animal shelter on moving day in November 2012. See more photographs from the move. Photo: Nancy Rubin
A view down an aisle through the chain-link kennels at the old animal shelter on moving day in November 2012. See more photographs from the move. Photo: Nancy Rubin

Old shelter was “outdated, overcrowded, unsafe”

In 2002, Berkeley residents approved by a 68% majority Measure I, a $7.2 million bond measure, to fund the construction of a new animal shelter. Conditions at the old shelter were described as “outdated, overcrowded and unsafe.”

Emily King Colwell, who volunteered at the old shelter and for a time ran its outreach program as a city employee, said the old shelter was cramped and noisy for animals and people. It was a concrete cinderblock construction with chain-link kennels and no airflow.

“Cats were facing other cats, dogs were facing each other. It was stressful. They were staring at each other all the time,” said Colwell, who has shifted back into a volunteer role at the new facility. “It was not a shelter designed for a progressive model. It was a shelter designed for dog catchers and rabies control. Those were its only functions when it was built.”

The new space, on the other hand, “lets people use the services without feeling like they’re coming to a prison barracks,” she said.

A 2002 campaign flier to encourage Berkeley residents to support a bond measure for a new animal shelter. Source: Berkeley Animal Welfare Fund
A 2002 campaign flier to ask Berkeley residents to support a bond measure for a new animal shelter. Source: Berkeley Animal Welfare Fund

According to a history of the shelter compiled by the Berkeley Animal Welfare Fund, as of 1988, the shelter was euthanizing 75% of its cats and dogs. In 1996, Dona Spring called for a new shelter with better conditions. In 1998, Paws for Thought — founded by Jill Posener — mounted a media campaign to raise awareness about shelter conditions; 65% of animals were still being euthanized.

A mayoral task force was created in 1999 to examine conditions, and in 2000 the group called for “profound policy changes” at the shelter, according to the Welfare Fund, “including removing the Shelter from under the control of the Police Department, the creation of a volunteer program, employment of a volunteer coordinator and city support for a local animal rescue group Home At Last.” Animal activists called for a new city philosophy, demanding that “no animal is killed for space and that every animal be assessed thoroughly for medical and behaviour rehabilitation before euthanasia is considered as an option.”

Measure I passed in 2002, and the city created a joint Humane Commission and council subcommittee to search for a site, which led to “six frustrating years” of exploration and discussion.

As the city described it in 2008, “Various sites were identified and their feasibility explored but for various reasons such as cost, size and location, the Council subcommittee… rejected all sites.” The city noted five west Berkeley sites that had been considered, and outlined what it would take to build a new facility at the old Second Street site, including raising the foundation several feet, and spending $500,000 to house the animals during demolition and construction.

Then-City Manager Phil Kamlarz asked for approval at that time for construction of a new shelter up to 16,000 sq ft, noting that its size could change depending on a range of variables.

In 2008, the group chose the Aquatic Park site on Bolivar Drive. (Had council members not approved the Bolivar location, the city was seemingly out of options. Staff wrote that there was “a very high likelihood” the shelter would have had to remain, albeit rebuilt, at its Second Street location.)

By then, “After 8 years of civilian control under the City Managers office and the direct supervision of Kate O’Connor, and with greater involvement of the community, the facility became “the municipal shelter with the lowest euthanasia rate in California — under 15%.”

As of November, that number was down to 10%, said shelter director O’Connor. And unadopted animals can remain at the shelter as long as it suits them.

“As long as they’re coping, they’re good,” she said.

An aerial view of what the animal shelter used to look like. Image source: Google Maps
An aerial view of what the animal shelter site used to look like. The site used to house a building that had served as a mental health center and a catering kitchen over the years. The building started out in 1961 as a private club for the Berkeley Firefighter’s Association and was used as a gathering place for its members and by other groups for events. “City records indicate that over the years a brewpub, nightclub and private school have also occupied the building,” according to a 2008 city staff report. Image source: Google Maps

Site causes construction complications

Construction began in August 2010 and was completed, after multiple delays, in late October 2012. Parking requirements and budgetary constraints largely dictated the capacity of the final building, including the decision not to include a third story in the design, said city staffer Nicole Kelly, assistant to the deputy city manager, via email.

Design and construction weren’t without their challenges. Due to the shape of the site, design “did take some architectural brilliance to pull off,” said manager O’Connor. (Burks Toma Architects designed the shelter. The project’s Zoning Adjustments Board history is available here.)

To strengthen the structure in light of liquefaction and seismic concerns at the site, workers installed hundreds of “geo piers” deep into the ground. The piers “are compacted rock columns that are placed in the ground through a process based on high frequency vibration.”

The presence of an existing 66-inch-diameter East Bay MUD sanitary interceptor pipeline, within a 25-foot easement, added to the complications, and required vibration monitoring throughout construction to ensure vibrations didn’t exceed reverberation levels.

“As a result of the vibration tests, the piers had to be re-designed and the method of installation changed,” said Kelly. “The City was also required to conduct an internal inspection of the line before, during and after placement of the geo piers. The overall cost increase was about $170,000,” from an estimated $228,000 to around $400,000.

The site is also located within a federally designated flood zone; a 25-foot-wide floodway easement runs along the east side of the lot, according to a 2009 city staff report. As a result, the building had to be constructed outside the floodway and at an elevation at least 1.5 feet above grade.

According to a project overview from October 2012, the revised project budget is estimated to run about $12.4 million, most of which has been spent.

In addition to the original $7.2 million bond measure, in 2010 city officials approved $5.5 million in additional financing due to increased costs. The city needed the extra money, in part, because site selection took so long, which led to increased construction costs; and there was a higher-than-expected price to buy the new site, according to a city staff report.

The city's October report about the animal shelter project estimated the budget at nearly $12.4 million.
The city’s October report about the animal shelter project estimated the budget at nearly $12.4 million.

The city originally said debt service payments would average about $350,000 per year for 30 years. In December, Kelly said the financing was for $5 million on a 30-year note “at 4.5%, which comes out to a debt service of about $400,000 per year.”

Selling the old property, for an estimated $800,000 to $1.3 million, is expected to assist in repayment.

(See full documentation about the additional financing here, along with a 2010 budget worksheet with a line-by-line financial breakdown. A more recent breakdown has not been available from the city.)

Activists rue absence of public animal care clinic

Two of the commissioners who helped with site selection and shelter planning said they’re satisfied that the city has completed the project. But both said they had hoped to see a public animal care clinic as part of the final design.

“It was a long and sometimes difficult process, but the fact that it’s new is fantastic,” said Anne Wagley of the Berkeley Animal Care Commission. “It’s going to make life so much easier for the animals. But I think, in terms of the community, we really need a low-cost clinic that’s open to our low-income residents.”

Without this kind of clinic, she continued, “we’re not solving the root of the problem,” as animals will continue to be abandoned when owners can’t afford care.

The original ballot language in support of Measure I stated that bond advocates wanted to include “a vet clinic to provide low income residents, seniors and the disabled affordable medical care for their animals.” The statement was signed by county Supervisor Keith Carson, then-Mayor Shirley Dean and current Mayor Tom Bates, among others. But the bond language itself never included plans for a clinic, said city staff.

Shelter manager O’Connor said the new facility can’t afford to provide these services in its lab, but that care is available through the Berkeley Humane Society and the East Bay SPCA. Those agencies, she added, receive “a lot of donor money” to provide such services, money the Berkeley shelter doesn’t get.

“In an ideal world, I would love it,” O’Connor said, adding that the public clinic had always been a resource the activists wanted, rather than part of the written plan. “Money doesn’t come to us for that sort of thing.”

O’Connor also pointed to the spay/neuter clinic in Martinez, and local organization Paw Fund, which is run by local photographer Jill Posener, as other useful resources.

Posener, a former Animal Care commissioner, said she too saw the lack of a clinic as “a missed opportunity to do something amazingly progressive for this region and its community of pet owners. That’s what we promised in the ballot language, and what we thought we were going to get.”

Still, she said, she was proud to have helped develop the project over the years.

In a 2009 column for the Berkeley Daily Planet, Posener noted concerns about the decrease in the number of kennels at the new shelter; the failure to include a public animal care clinic; and the various spatial and seismic problems with the Bolivar Drive site.

In the column, she also pointed out potential traffic hazards on the busy site as “inevitable” and, while lauding its proximity to Aquatic Park as an exercise area, went on to write that “there is just one small triangular shaped dog run attached to the new building. The partially open air kennels back on to the freeway so that the noise, smell and debris from the freeway will intrude all the time.”

A shelter staffer giving a kiss to one of the dogs. Photo: Nancy Rubin
A shelter staffer giving a kiss to one of the dogs. Photo: Nancy Rubin

Others familiar with the shelter said they see it as a place where the city’s animal services will continue to grow. Eleni Sotos is the president of the Friends of Berkeley Animal Services, an all-volunteer organization formed in 2011 to help continue to raise money for shelter needs that weren’t covered by the bond, such as furnishings, and medical equipment for the lab.

Sotos said the cat habitat rooms and pods, and the general stress-free atmosphere, are among the most dramatic changes in the new shelter. She also spoke positively about the new volunteer and community rooms, which she said will help build connections among the people who work in and donate their time to the shelter, and which were sorely lacking in the old space.

“It would have been fantastic to have a larger footprint of a shelter, but you have to work with the space you have,” she said. “It’s cleaner, healthier and calmer for the animals, and a better experience for users, too. We just hope people aren’t shy about coming and visiting. They don’t have to be looking for an animal. It’s partly their shelter; it was funded by the community. We’re there to serve the city.”

Dona Spring, via the city of Berkeley. (Click the image to learn more.)
Dona Spring, via the city of Berkeley. (Click the image to learn more.)

Dona Spring’s partner and caretaker of more than 27 years, Dennis Walton, said Spring didn’t know the shelter would be named for her. He described Spring as incredibly diligent and conscientious, as well as self-effacing and humble.

“In a way, Dona might feel she wasn’t even the most deserving (of the name). It’s a testimony of her work not just on animal issues, but for everything she did on the council,” he said Wednesday night. “I’m pleased that it’s named after her and in her honor. And I’m sure that she finds some satisfaction in it.”

Walton said, so far, he’s only seen the shelter from the outside. He has been asked to speak in Spring’s honor Saturday at the grand opening celebration, and said he plans to read a poem he wrote.

“I’m sure Dona’s pleased,” he said, about the new facility. “I’m sure she’ll be overseeing it in spirit.”

Grand opening details

The grand opening is scheduled to take place Saturday, Feb. 2, from noon to 2:30 p.m. at 1 Bolivar Drive at the Dona Spring Municipal Animal Shelter. Tours and refreshments will be provided, and adoption services will be up and running even during the event. The city recommends that visitors park on the west side of Interstate 80 due to parking limitations on-site. Visitors can walk to the shelter via The East Touchdown Plaza, the pedestrian and bicycle bridge that crosses the freeway. According to the city, several non­-profit animal welfare organizations will be present to share information about their services.

Learn about volunteering at the Berkeley animal shelter. (See the volunteer blog here.) Connect with Berkeley Animal Care Services on Facebook. Learn more about Dona Spring.

New Berkeley animal shelter is finally rising [08.12.11]
Free adoptions at Berkeley Animal Shelter this weekend [06.03.11]
Pets of the homeless to get help at People’s Park clinic [05.19.11]
Aquatic Park cleans up, tackles brackish reputation [08.09.10]

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...