The North Berkeley Senior Center on MLK Jr. Way will close for 12-18 months starting in January to allow for major seismic improvements and other renovations. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The North Berkeley Senior Center is set to close for construction for all of 2019, as the facility undergoes a major seismic retrofit and other improvements.

The center, on Martin Luther King Jr. Way (at Hearst), will shut its doors Jan. 2, and should reopen in 12-18 months, said Tanya Bustamante, Berkeley’s Aging Services manager.

Work completed during the closure will include a “seismic retrofit, deferred maintenance upgrades, and programming improvements to upgrade the center as a care and shelter facility and enable improved programming for the senior/older adult community,” Bustamante said in an email.

The project will use $6.8 million in funds from T1, the $100 million infrastructure bond measure approved by voters in 2016, as well as a $1.8 million FEMA grant. The North Berkeley Senior Center project was on the initial list of staff recommendations for T1 funds.

During construction, much of the programming at the center will be relocated to the West Berkeley senior center branch on Sixth Street.

Currently about 200 people use the North Berkeley center each day, according to the city, and some of them told Berkeleyside the closure will affect their daily routines and social lives. Many are low-income or homeless.

“I wish it were 10 years in the future,” said a lunch customer Monday, as groups of seniors sat around tables in the cafeteria eating their $3 meals. Others participated in a dance class across the room.

“If you’ve seen West Berkeley, you know how small [the center] is,” said the customer, Laurence, who declined to give his last name. Laurence said he teaches a piano duet class at the North Berkeley site and serves on the advisory council, as well as attending lunch there daily. “For me, it will be two buses” to West Berkeley, he said. “I will be less participatory.”

Along with lunch, the center provides transportation to local grocery and drugstores, and field trips to concerts, museums and shopping centers. On site, there are language and meditation classes, support groups and counseling on insurance enrollment and healthy living.

The staff, lunch service and most of the other programming will be retained during the move to West Berkeley, Bustamante said at the center Monday, but some classes and resources will be temporarily cut. The three pianos and the full computer lab simply won’t fit at the new site, she said.

Seniors finish their $3 lunches at the North Berkeley center, one of the locations of the Tri City Café, also held in Albany and Emeryville. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The West Berkeley center “is significantly smaller,” but once North Berkeley reopens, “it should be a nice new facility for our seniors,” Bustamante said.

Last year the South Berkeley Senior Center, at 2939 Ellis St., closed for renovations too, but that work was less extensive and only took about six months. In North Berkeley, crews will retrofit the entire facility, replacing all the walls with shear wall — a more serious undertaking, Bustamante said.

The North Berkeley Senior Center has also served as a temporary nighttime homeless shelter site during some winters. The Berkeley Emergency Storm Shelter was located at the center for two weeks this fall, before it settled into a longer term home at the Veterans Building on Center Street.

The process of establishing an ongoing site for the emergency shelter highlighted the scarcity of flexible public facilities in Berkeley. The West Berkeley Senior Center had been floated as a potential permanent site for the shelter, but the facility has long been reserved to support the North Berkeley customers during construction.

The upcoming renovations are intended to equip the center to better fill multiple roles in the future, including supporting residents displaced by an earthquake or another major disaster, city staff has said in the past.

Bustamante said the city website will soon be updated with details on the North Berkeley Senior Center closure and relocated programs.

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Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...