The Center Street garage is nearly done: seen here from the north, on Addison Street. Photo: Citizen reporter

Update, Sept. 25: The city now reports that the new Center Street garage “should be done by mid-October. The last major item is for the state to come in and inspect the elevators. It’s routine, and we have requested the inspection of completed work, but that could take up to three weeks.”

Original story, July 27: A fully rebuilt parking garage on Center Street in downtown Berkeley is set to reopen in the next four to five weeks, now stacked with sustainable features, city staff said Tuesday.

The municipal parking garage at 2025 Center St. closed two years ago as part of the nearly $40 million project to tear down the 70-year-old garage and put up a new one. The dingy, cramped five-story garage with 420 parking spots has been replaced by an eight-story garage with 720 parking stalls, hundreds of secure bike parking spots, rooftop solar, electric-vehicle charging stations and dedicated spots for car-share vehicles, rainwater capture and water treatment features, and more. The garage has access mid-block on both Center and Addison streets.

Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín drew some scorn Tuesday night on Twitter when he called the Center Street project “probably the greenest parking garage in California” — but he may be right. City staff plans to seek the parking garage equivalent of a LEED Silver or Gold rating after the structure opens; as far as staff knows, the highest rating other garages in the state have gotten is equivalent to LEED Bronze.

City transportation manager Farid Javandel said PG&E was on site Thursday to turn on the power for the garage. The city is also working with the East Bay Municipal Utility District to lock in a date for water service. Without that final major hurdle, “a lot of our construction could just grind to a halt,” he said. An August completion date is “really going to hinge on making sure we have water.”

Javandel said a new art space at the garage will be ready soon for an installation chosen by the city’s Civic Arts Commission. And the city is actively seeking a tenant for a new retail space, which could be a simple café or some other small commercial use. BART’s downtown Berkeley bike station, at 2208 Shattuck Ave., is set to move into the new garage in September, a staffer there told Berkeleyside on Thursday.

Javandel said the city plans to park some of its fleet vehicles on the roof of the garage, half of which will be covered by solar panels. City code limits the garage to 50% rooftop solar coverage, Javandel said, though it’s possible an exemption or code change could lead to more solar panels in the future.

The city is also in talks with Berkeley City College about whether the school wants to lease any parking spaces, but the bulk of the garage is to be used by the general public, said Javandel.

Initially, the city had hoped to set up a microgrid at the garage to provide power during emergencies, but Javandel said it turned out that state regulations made costs for that system prohibitive — despite best efforts by city staff and PG&E to find a way to make it work. But he said it’s possible changes to those regulations in the future could allow the city to reconsider that idea later.

Javandel said the “Parksmart” certification for sustainability will consider garage infrastructure and also operations. The solar panels, EV chargers, rain cisterns and “flow-through” planters for stormwater run-off will be among the elements reviewed, as will the navigation system to help drivers find spots, cleaning products used to maintain the structure, and recycled materials used in construction.

“It considers how the building operates, not just how we built it,” he said, adding that — however the certification shakes out — the garage itself was built to be as consistent as possible with Berkeley’s sustainability goals.

Tuesday night, city staff asked the Berkeley City Council to put $1.5 million into the project’s contingency fund to make sure the last of the work can be done during the council’s summer recess in August. Staff said any extra money will be returned to city coffers. It was the second time the project asked for a budget increase; the first, for $3.5 million, was in February 2017. The current projection for the budget is about $38.5 million.

Staff and Councilman Kriss Worthington explained Tuesday night that the city had been following the guidance of its geotechnical and financial advisors when it accepted the original contract bid of about $33.5 million. The city was told it might need to do shoring work, to bolster the foundations of neighboring buildings during construction. But the extent of that work was unknown, so the city was advised to wait to increase the budget until after the old garage had been demolished.

“If it had turned out that we didn’t need to do the shoring work, we wouldn’t want to … have millions of extra dollars of the taxpayers’ money being committed,” Worthington said.

Center Street Garage, Center Street view, July 26, 2018. Photo: Meredith Metz/Downtown Berkeley Association
The Center Street garage (view from Addison Street) is nearly done. Photo: Citizen reporter

John Caner, who runs the Downtown Berkeley Association, said he took a hardhat tour of the garage not long ago and was impressed by the double-helix design, which makes the inside more spacious, as well as the exterior of the building, which has a unique “skin.” He said he and some of the other people on the tour were amused when they realized that one of the most beautiful new buildings to come to downtown Berkeley may well be its parking garage.

“In the evening light, it’s just stunning,” Caner said.

He said it would be good for downtown to have the garage open, and the renovated downtown Berkeley BART plaza complete. The projects are supposed to wrap up around the same time.

“As a gateway to a revitalized downtown, it’s really an impressive transformation,” Caner said. “These are the first and last impressions as people arrive and depart from the downtown.”

At the time of last report, the BART plaza was set to be done by mid-August, after lengthy delays, BART said. But there are indications it won’t make that deadline. A summer opening is still expected, according to the project website. (Stay tuned to Berkeleyside for further details.)

Center Street Garage. Photo: Craig Bosman

Susie Medak, executive director of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre — just north of the new garage, across Addison Street — agreed Thursday with Caner’s assessment that the garage will be a significant aesthetic addition to the neighborhood, noting the irony that “one of the most interesting new buildings downtown in 40 years is a parking lot.”

She said the secure bike parking, street-level retail and improved lighting would all be welcome, and added that construction has definitely been a challenge for some theatergoers who come from farther away or have limited access to public transit.

“The good news is, because of car services and bicycle services, there are a lot of ways for people to interact with the downtown,” Medak said, “but this was a real hardship for a swath of people who need to access us by car.”

There are a lot of big changes happening downtown these days: A 16-story hotel is under construction to the east of the garage, across Shattuck on Center Street. And Shattuck Avenue itself is also up for a major reconfiguration in 2019. The city says the design is complete, with construction to begin next year.

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...