Oxford Elementary could sustain significant structural damage during an earthquake, a new report found. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Oxford Elementary School would be seriously vulnerable in an earthquake, according to a new geotechnical analysis of the North Berkeley campus.

While it’s no secret that the small school is located within a hilly landslide zone, the report revealed “an elevated risk,” said Berkeley Unified spokeswoman Trish McDermott.

In a statement about the new findings, the school district said it plans to keep students at the site (at 1130 Oxford St., between Eunice Street and Los Angeles Avenue) for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year. The buildings still meet the state’s seismic standards, according to the district. What will happen to the campus and its community after that is unclear.

The new 444-page report, by Alan Kropp & Associates, was commissioned by the Berkeley School Board in 2018 as the district prepared to modernize the school’s facilities. That project was originally slated to begin 2018-19 but the district postponed the renovations a year — also upping the cost of the Measure I project from $10 million to $27 million — then postponed them again, citing the need for more engineering work and analysis. The likely plan has always been to relocate the school to the West Campus at 2020 Bonar St. during the upgrades, but that site is still under construction itself.

The Sept. 12 report, distributed to the public Friday, confirmed that Oxford is located within the Keith Avenue Landslide area, which moves at an average of an inch per year. Engineers found that the school could move up to 20 feet during an earthquake. Significant remedial work is typically considered necessary at a risk of three feet or more of movement, according to the report.

“Without major site reconstruction, a high safety hazard would result at the school site,” the engineers wrote in a letter to the district.

The conditions in the surrounding neighborhood could further threaten the school in the case of an earthquake, according to the report.

Oxford’s current North Berkeley facilities were built in the 1960s. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Oxford’s current North Berkeley facilities were built in the 1960s. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

“This may preclude emergency vehicles from accessing the neighborhood and school and may prevent the evacuation of children,” the district said in a statement on the report sent to Berkeleyside on Thursday. “This could lead to an extended period of isolation. This is already made worse by the narrow streets in that neighborhood.”

Because of the location within the landslide boundaries, even significant seismic improvements would not protect the school from these external earthquake risks, including debris coming in from the surroundings, according to the report.

“It will be important to consider this broader context when considering the reasonableness of reconstructing the Oxford site for a new school,” the report authors wrote.

However, the engineers found that the more than 60-year-old school facilities have fared decently well up to this point.

“The buildings, pavement areas, and the existing retaining wall do not appear to have been significantly distressed by landslide movement,” the report said.

A couple of Oxford parents told Berkeleyside they are deeply concerned about their children’s wellbeing and the district’s decision to keep the school open in its current state the rest of the year. They questioned why it has taken so long for the West Campus site to be readied for students.

Others said the overarching sentiment as parents absorb the news is concern about Oxford’s future.

“The first thing people were saying when I told them at the bus stop this morning was, ‘I hope they don’t shut us down,’” said Amanda Posner, a parent of a first grader. “Our principal Beth Rhine has built an amazing community and we all really love it there. Oxford is one of those old schools — I meet people all over the place that went there 30 years ago. There’s a little bit of shock and sadness.”

Alan Kropp & Associates found that a simple retrofit likely wouldn’t address all the seismic needs at the site.

“Reconstruction of the school site may be necessary,” engineers said in the report. Building a thick foundation would likely prevent “serious structure damage” in the event of an earthquake, but wouldn’t protect against other destruction.

Group of about 20 kids with a couple adults in the back. Posed photo. Holding signs that say "reuse" and "rethink."
Oxford has gotten attention in recent years for the “Zero Waste” environmental work happening in some classrooms. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Oxford has gotten attention in recent years for the “Zero Waste” environmental work happening in some classrooms. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

For now, McDermott said, the district is looking into relocating the school to West Campus for 2020-21.

After that, “at this point everything is on the table, because we are sharing information and gathering information,” she said. “We’re moving very quickly — we only got the very long report about two weeks ago. We’re working in the next couple weeks to share that and to engage the community and staff.”

According to Berkeleyside’s reporting, the district has not ruled out the possibility of fully abandoning the site.

BUSD held an initial, sparsely attended meeting for parents Thursday night, and another is scheduled for Oct. 15. The matter will also come up at the Oct. 23 School Board meeting. In addition to a webpage that will be continually updated, the district has set up an email address specifically for input on the project: oxfordfeedback@berkeley.net.

“The superintendent wanted to immediately provide a fair and transparent representation of how we’re thinking about this,” McDermott said.

One parent said she has long been aware of the earthquake risk at the school, and isn’t rattled by the new findings.

“It sounds consistent with previous updates that this is all part of a careful planning process for major upgrades,” said Gabriella Raymond, Oxford parent and PTA secretary.

Raymond said she herself went to Cragmont Elementary in the Berkeley Hills, and was among those who pushed for the seismic upgrades there.

“These schools have withstood at least the 1989 earthquake,” she said. “It’s Oxford’s turn to be modernized and that’s a good thing,” but the process of potentially relocating kids must not be done “in a hasty way,” she said.

“It has been good that with each study we’ve been told that the current structure is not unsafe for our children,” she said.

Posner said Oxford parents are also facing the decision of whether and how to talk to their children about the safety hazards and uncertain future for the campus.

“We’ll have a little more work to do to keep our community strong,” she said.

Ed. note: A quote by Gabriella Raymond was corrected and clarified after publication. 

Avatar photo

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,...