The Flint Ink building, part of the landmarked California Ink property in West Berkeley, which is set to be rehabbed as the HQ for engineering construction company PrōVen. Image: courtesy Trachtenberg Architects

PrōVen Management, a national engineering construction company that specializes in large-scale infrastructure projects, is moving its operations from San Francisco’s Jackson Square area to West Berkeley, and is turning the old Flint Ink factory into its new headquarters.

Berkeley architect David Trachtenberg is overseeing the transformation, and he said it’s one of the most exciting projects he’s worked on for some time. The plans for the site, at 1350 Fourth Street (at Gilman), include a contractor’s yard for storage of heavy equipment, a new 5,000 sq. ft equipment repair shed, and renovation of the existing 35,000 square feet of buildings for use as storage, offices, conference space, and a private art gallery. The project has received landmarks and zoning approvals and is currently in design development.

PrōVen founder Alan Varela said the company chose the Berkeley location for a number of reasons: much of the company’s large construction equipment is stored in nearby Oakland, the cost of the site was appealing compared to San Francisco (though he says Berkeley’s property taxes have proved a “surprise”), and Varela himself is now closer to his principal home in Lafayette. “I don’t have to cross the Bay Bridge,” he said.

The plans for the PrōVen site, at 1350 Fourth Street, include a contractor’s yard for storage of heavy equipment. Image courtesy Trachtenberg Architects

“It’s good to keep everything geographically close,” he said, adding that he likes the urban environment of West Berkeley, its mix of manufacturing and homes, the heavy industry of places such as Berkeley Forge, as well as the Fourth Street shopping district. “I like not being out in the boondocks,” he said. Varela also anticipates parking will not be as big an issue for PrōVen’s 40-strong staff in Berkeley as it was in San Francisco.

The Chilean native who is a trustee of the Oakland Museum of California and a collector of African and Oceanic art, also fell hard for the 1920s ink factory. “I like the combination of industrial concrete and big steel,” he said. “The first time I saw it I thought it would be the perfect marriage of industrial and office space.”

Once rehabilitated, the factory will include office space. Image: courtesy Trachtenberg Architects

The Flint Ink building was part of California Ink, and various buildings were put up on the site between 1906 and 1978. Although ink was made there until 1999, many of the buildings fell into disrepair during California Ink’s occupancy. (Today, California Ink is a division of the Flint Ink Company of Detroit, hence the name of the building. Read more about the history of the California Ink property on the Berkeley Architectural Heritage website.)

PrōVen bought part of the site from developer Eddie Orton for an undisclosed price a few years ago. Orton had already remodeled another portion of the California Ink property, which he bought in 2009. Encompassing one-and-a-half blocks at the time of purchase, the project was the largest undeveloped manufacturing parcel in Berkeley. One building is now a light-industrial space geared towards small manufacturers. Orton was also behind the refurbishment of the historic Ford Plant in Richmond.

The historical façade of the main building now owned by PrōVen, sometimes referred to as the carbon warehouse, gives directly onto the train tracks. A railroad spur that went directly into the factory was used to load vats of ink onto freight cars.

The factory’s cast-in-place concrete trusses and roofs will continue to be exposed in the refurbishment. Image: courtesy Trachtenberg Architects
The factory’s cast-in-place concrete trusses and roofs will continue to be exposed in the refurbishment. Image: courtesy Trachtenberg Architects

Trachtenberg said the factory’s unusual cast-in-place concrete trusses and roofs will be exposed and featured in the final design.

“We are going to celebrate the poetry of the old,” he said, adding that the main building has great light. Blueprints include a new foundation, seismic upgrades, a new entrance, space to show some of Varela’s art, and a green roof.

The Flink Ink building made headlines in 2012 when Varela, who had recently purchased it, invited the Endless Canvas underground artists’ group to paint graffiti art on all the structure’s interior. The building had already been adorned with many artworks by local street artists, and Varela saw an opportunity to celebrate the medium with the public before beginning the remodel.

The interior of the Flint Ink building when it was home to Special Delivery, a street-art show organized by Endless Canvas. Image: courtesy Trachtenberg Architects
The interior of the Flint Ink building when it was home to Special Delivery, a street-art show organized by Endless Canvas. Image: courtesy Trachtenberg Architects

Varela donated paint and secured permits for the below-the-radar artists to showcase their work. The Special Delivery exhibition was a hit, with huge numbers turning up for the weekend openings. The crowds were so big, in fact, that one evening’s event had to be shut down. A small number of frustrated visitors who didn’t get in tagged nearby buildings which, as Varela put it, wasn’t the best way to arrive in a neighborhood. However he offered to paint over all the tagging and several Endless Canvas artists volunteered to help with the clean-up.

Now almost all the original graffiti art is gone, though there’s talk of having some commissioned for the refurbished building as a memento.

PrōVen’s services — which span environmental restoration, transportation, geothermal and irrigation work as well as construction — are employed by a range of clients, including the California Department of Transportation, the Port of Oakland, and EBMUD. Close to home, its outsize equipment has recently been at work on the new Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive downtown, and at various UC Berkeley construction projects, including the retrofitting of Cal Memorial Stadium.

The PrōVen project has zoning approval, and Trachtenberg said he expects building permits for the plans will be submitted in about two months. All things going well, construction will begin later this year.

Endless Canvas delivers unique art experience to Berkeley (09.24.12)
Street art’s Endless Canvas makes good with community (09.17.12)
Berkeley buildings defaced after underground graffiti event (09.17.12)
Developer eyes Berkeley’s historic Post Office (01.08.12)

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Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...