two toddler boys painting
Play is at the center of Habitot’s exhibits. Here two toddler boys enjoy painting. Photo: Sara Kassabian

For the past 22 years, families from Berkeley and the wider Bay Area have been walking through the unassuming basement entrance of a historic building to visit Habitot Children’s’ Museum – an immersive space where you won’t find any “no touching, please” signs. Instead, toddlers and children are encouraged to touch, draw, and even climb on the exhibits.

Gina Moreland started the toddler-oriented museum in the mid-1990s when she was looking for creative educational spaces to bring her 18-month old son and realized her options were essentially limited to Chuck E. Cheese. The museum she founded aims to help parents, caregivers and children under five use play as a vehicle for learning, socializing and connecting.

“What I believe is that we need to invest in children’s curiosity, creativity, and confidence,” said Moreland, who serves as executive director of Habitot.

At Habitot, children chatter and squeal with delight as they explore the exhibits. Walk past the front desk and find everything from a brand-new space station and mission control, complete with astronaut gear for dress-up, to a grocery store that is always stocked with culturally relevant goods (e.g., grape juice on Bastille Day, pesos in the cash register for Día de Muertos). But the most popular exhibit with Habitot’s petite patrons is tucked away in the back, a multi-level waterworks display that mimics the creeks Moreland played at in her childhood.

“It’s such a magical place for kids,” said Lin Gao, who has been bringing her children, Danica Ding, 5, and Clara Ding, 1, to Habitot since Danica was a toddler. They visit the museum at 2065 Kittredge St. at least three times a week. “If it wasn’t for Habitot, we’d only have YMCA Kindergym and the local parks. It’s such a big enrichment opportunity for them.”

Toddler playing astronaut at Habitot. Photo: Sara Kassabian

But for the last eight years, Habitot’s future has been laced with uncertainty. In 2012, Hill Street Realty, a Los Angeles development firm owned by Joseph Penner, announced it had acquired Habitot’s building and intended to construct a 302-unit, 18-story apartment complex there. The proposed project with an address of 2211 Harold Way would wrap around Hotel Shattuck Plaza.

A number of Berkeley residents fought back against the project, which was approved by the City Council in December 2015. Fearing a lawsuit, Penner offered to donate $250,000 to Habitot right then and there if the project’s opponents agreed not to file a lawsuit. (Moreland said Habitot was never opposed to the project and never threatened legal action; she just pushed to get compensation for being evicted).

The Berkeley City Council had ordered Penner to pay $250,000 to Habitot as part of the developer’s community benefits package, but the money would not be released until the project filed for a building permit, which was many years away.

Two project opponents (not Habitot) filed a lawsuit. A judge dismissed the court case in October 2016, almost a year after the project had been approved.

Faced with the loss of its longtime home in the heart of downtown Berkeley, Habitot looked for and found a new location. Steve Oliver, a developer and arts patron, purchased a building at 3271 Adeline St., near Alcatraz Avenue, in 2014 and offered it to Moreland for Habitot. He intended for Habitot to move in and eventually purchase the property outright.

Moreland jumped at the chance and in April 2015, Habitot started paying rent on the new property. Currently, subtenants are renting the space in the building while Habitot raises money to help pay for the upgrades that are required to bring the building up to code. Estimates to build out the museum hover around $2 million — a large sum for a small non-profit.

So for the last five years, Habitot has been paying for two spaces and dealing with the distinct issues that have arisen.

HSR Berkeley Investments, the LLC Hill Street Realty formed to develop the 18-story project, has been an absent landlord as it prepared to build its highrise, said Moreland.

“The owners of the building who were trying to make it pencil out as a project, guess how many dollars they invested in this building in the last five years?” said Moreland. “Zero. The lift doesn’t work. The carpets have not been replaced. The tread on the stairs is worn out. There is garbage in all the planters.”

On top of landlord neglect, Habitot sits near a stretch of Shattuck Avenue that is a major gathering place for panhandlers who set up blankets or boxes to sell trinkets or ask for money. The street has its fair share of crime, too, which impact the Habitot experience,

Joey Cook, who lives in Berkeley, said that his family celebrated his daughter Sloane’s third birthday party at Habitot in November. The party was a hit but on the morning of the birthday party there was police activity outside where a man was arrested, he said.

The entrance to Habitot is through a long tunnel. The new museum will be more modern and inviting. Photo: Sara Kassabian

The museum also occupies a basement space with little room to expand.

“You can probably see all the deficits, right?” said Moreland. “And those deficits have been well known for 22 years. We’ve done focus group after focus group. We’ve got Yelp reviews up the wazoo,” said Moreland. “We know what people don’t like about Habitot, right? It’s small, it’s crowded, there’s no fresh air or natural light.”

“It’s a great place, but they could definitely use a new space,” said Nicole Cook, Berkeley resident, and Sloane’s mother.

Habitot spared eviction from Harold Way development project

As recently as October, Hill Street Realty, the managers for HSR Berkeley Investments, told Habitot to prepare to move out in the first quarter of 2020, said Moreland.

“We’ve been on tenterhooks trying to plan around our departure here,” said Moreland. “What we’re doing with our membership, how much we’re renting out birthday party rentals, how much planning we’re doing for the future. We were rushing to get this exhibit in because you know, we need to fulfill the grant and give deliverables, but we need time to do that before we get kicked out.”

But in December, HSR did not pay around $1 million in plan check fees to Berkeley and unexpectedly pulled out of the project despite sinking millions of dollars into entitlement and design fees. Penner has not spoken publically about the decision but hinted to city officials that complying with the community benefits requirements, which also included rebuilding the Landmark Shattuck Theatres, was too expensive. An attorney for Penner said the project did not pencil out and no lender was willing to finance the complex.

Penner has not announced what he will do with the building, which he owns. A number of storefronts along the stretch of Shattuck Avenue between Kittredge Street and Allston Way are vacant. John’s Ice Cream, Tea Fever, GameStop and others have shuttered, some in anticipation of the construction.

Now that the Harold Way project has fallen through, the pressure of eviction is off for Habitot, but the $250,000 in community benefits that were promised to help with moving Habitot to their new location in South Berkeley has dissolved, too.

“This neighborhood and family treasure, this inherent community benefit was made a victim of this combination of business, finance, and government,” said Councilman Ben Bartlett, who represents District Three in South Berkeley.

The challenge of raising sufficient funds to remodel and move into the South Berkeley building remains.

“We’ve already put $400,000 in, but ultimately it’s going to be more than a million dollars,” said Moreland. “That is a big stretch for a little organization and it’s a big stretch when you just lost a quarter-million dollars that was going to help you move. The only good news that’s coming out of this is we’re not going to be kicked out.”

Moreland said Habitot just got the first in a series of permits from the city in February, which will allow for construction to begin on the building, but there is still a lot of fundraising to do before this can happen. She hopes that a $240,000 FEMA grant will be approved which will cover expenses like seismic work, plumbing, HVAC, fire safety installations and will bring the building from a “cold shell” to a “warm shell”.

The expenses associated with construction on the new building are a substantial hurdle for Habitot, but this initial $1 million is just the beginning. Moreland estimates it will cost anywhere from $400,000 to $900,000 to install the exhibits and roughly $300,000 to build the outdoor climbing exhibit. She estimates it will cost up to or more than $2 million to complete the museum and secure the occupancy permit.

Once construction is complete, Moreland can apply for an occupancy permit which means Habitot can move-in and start operating a children’s museum in the building.

“The plan is if we had all the money in hand right now, we could be open in 2021,” said Moreland. “That would be the best-case scenario.”

Habitot to anchor the new Adeline Corridor

The city has big plans to overhaul the Adeline corridor in South Berkeley and Habitot is projected to be an anchor tenant once it moves to its new location at the intersection of Adeline and Alcatraz.

“I look forward to helping [Habitot] prosper in South Berkeley and as a new parent, I look forward to having my daughter go play there,” said Bartlett.

Bartlett said the city aims to make the Adeline corridor a family-friendly space, noting that Habitot will be joining the Rec Room, a kids play space already open on Adeline Street.

“I think with the two of those places and a greenway park, which is a place of recreation where kids can play and parents can ride bikes and have an overall enjoyable experience as a family,” said Bartlett. “I think it’s all-important for the expansion of the good life in South Berkeley.”

kids tunnel of love
One of the exhibits at Habitot is a “Tunnel of Love.” Photo: Sara Kassabian

The new location also fits in well with Habitot’s mission that recognizes that opportunities for play, which the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child recognizes as a fundamental human right, are not distributed equally to all families. The nonprofit museum offers discounted admission for low-income families and special programming for teen parents, foster families, homeless families, children with special needs, and parents who were formerly incarcerated.

“There are all kinds of ways that, because we’re nonprofit, we have a mission. It’s beyond just serving the public. It’s serving the big public with a capital P,” said Moreland. “So the families who can afford to buy memberships and afford to pay for a birthday party, they sustain us.”

Moreland has already been instrumental in beautifying the South Berkeley community on behalf of Habitot, according to Kieron Slaughter, community development project coordinator at Berkeley’s office of economic development. Slaughter, who works with Moreland on the Lorin Business Association (LBA), said that she helped commission the new mural celebrating the Lorin neighborhood, which backs up against the parking lot to Habitot’s future location.

“By nature of [Habitot] being there, they will become an anchor, a regional draw, like other well-known family organizations, are, like the Lawrence Hall of Science, the Sticky Art Lab, I can name quite a few that are a draw,” said Slaughter.

Slaughter said that family-friendly organizations such as Habitot are big economic draws because families are likely to stick around and visit nearby businesses, and the research supports it.

A study by the Association of Children’s Museums indicates that for the $1.5 billion spent on children’s museums nationally in 2016, $5.5 billion was reinvested in the United States economy.

Habitot has a long history of attracting visitors from all over. In 2018, 67% of visitors came from Oakland and Berkeley, 17% from Contra Costa County, and 12% from other Bay Area towns.

Lori KovenChambers of San Leandro, and Cassidy Trott and her son, Nolan Wilson, of Hayward, took BART to visit Habitot in downtown Berkeley for the first time. Nolan, almost two, wandered from the fire engine at the entrance over to the trains, where he stayed playing for a while.

Trott and KovenChambers said that Habitot feels unique and that there really isn’t really a lot of places like it in the Bay Area. Trott said that Nolan loves water and she is looking forward to exploring the art studio and waterworks display a little bit later.

“[Habitot] is more of an explore-the-world type thing,” Trott said. “I’d prefer he’d get a little messy if he has to.”

Learn more about Habitot’s plans for its new South Berkeley site.

This article was updated after publication to clarify that the developer, Joseph Penner, offered to give Habitot $250,000 as a way to convince the project’s opponents not to file a lawsuit. Penner and Moreland never entered into direct discussions. Habitot never considered suing to stop the project, said Moreland.