Tuesday’s groundbreaking for the Berkeley Way project included (from right) Brad Wiblin of Bridge Housing, Berkeley City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley, Calleene Egan of Berkeley Food & Housing Project (BFHP), Councilmember Kate Harrison and BFHP’s Cara Granger. Photo: Jerome Paulos

An ambitious idea that arose during a two-day retreat in 2003 to create a large-scale service-rich homeless housing project in Berkeley reached a major milestone Tuesday morning with a ceremonial groundbreaking in a downtown parking lot.

The complex planned for 2012 Berkeley Way is actually two projects on one shared site. On one side, Berkeley Food & Housing Project (BFHP) will develop the Hope Center, featuring 53 units of permanent supportive housing for homeless and disabled men and women; 32 shelter beds for homeless men; and 12 transitional housing beds for homeless male veterans. There will be on-site medical and mental health services, as well as a communal dining room where residents and people who remain unsheltered can share meals and support.

The other portion of the site will have 89 units of affordable housing, at 50%-60% of the area median income, that will be available to the general public on a lottery basis. These units — studios as well as one- and two-bedrooms — will be owned and managed by San Francisco-based Bridge Housing. The entire project, which was designed by Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects, is slated to open in May 2022.

On Tuesday morning, with shovels in hand, five city leaders and project representatives, donning masks as a result of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, scooped dirt from small piles that had been placed in front of them in the Berkeley Way parking lot as attendees cheered them on. The event was broadcast live on Facebook at 11 a.m. Construction is set to begin at the site by Friday.

City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley said Berkeley Way would be the largest affordable and homeless housing project in the city’s history. She said it was also likely to be one of the most significant groundbreaking projects attendees at Tuesday’s event would ever see in their lifetimes.

The virtual event included a recorded statement from Terrie Light, former BFHP executive director, who was credited with having the vision for what would become the Hope Center. Light briefly described the BFHP board retreat when the germ of the idea for the project first arose “just to give an idea of what it takes to make something like this happen.” That retreat took place in 2003.

“OK, do the math,” she said. “It was a long time ago.”

The concept sparked a lot of conversation, Light said, particularly around where a large, service-rich permanent supportive housing project could even be located in the city.

“In Berkeley, there’s no land to do this,” she said, describing those early discussions. “And we’re not going to move to another county or state where there’d be plenty of land. So let’s think about: What’s realistic for Berkeley?”

Terrie Light talking about Berkeley Way
Terrie Light presenting about Berkeley Way in December 2018. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Fast forward to 2009, Light said, when then-council members Linda Maio, Kriss Worthington and Jesse Arreguín — who represented the downtown district before he became the city’s mayor — brought forward a proposal for a vision to create a service-enriched homeless housing project somewhere in Berkeley. Details were slim but the item made the city’s intentions clear.

In 2013, the City Council put out a request for proposals to seek ideas for an affordable housing project on the Berkeley Way parking lot. Light, who worked at BFHP for 20 years before retiring in 2019, said officials wanted to see a building with shelter beds, permanent housing and services such as mental health care.

“It was a list for everything,” Light said. “I got very excited because I said, ‘This is what we always wanted.’ We always wanted this building with integrated services, everything in one place. I said: We can do this.”

2012 Berkeley Way. Image: Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects

One central idea at the Hope Center is the importance of peer support, Light said. Those relationships will grow during communal meals when people “in many stages of being housed” can connect, she said.

The idea is that unsheltered people who may be leery about getting involved with the system or have concerns about moving inside will be able to overcome their qualms by seeing the program work for people they trust.

Brad Wiblin of Bridge Housing said Tuesday morning that the project’s positive impacts will be felt long before anyone is even housed on Berkeley Way. The development will create “hundreds of essential construction jobs,” he said, and serve as an “economic engine” for the city.

Wiblin said after publication that more than 500 jobs would be supported by the project, according to current estimates.

On Tuesday morning, Wiblin said it was Terrie Light who initially sold him on the vision for the partnership between Bridge, BFHP and the city.

“A short eight years later, here we are prepared to break ground,” Wiblin said.

Wiblin also lauded Mayor Arreguín for his “unwavering” support of the Berkeley Way project.

The mayor himself could not attend Tuesday’s groundbreaking but watched at least a portion of the event online. He has said previously that the Hope Center will allow Berkeley to “make significant progress to reduce homelessness in our city.”

About 2,000 people experience homelessness in Berkeley each year, according to a 2019 analysis by the city.

The Berkeley Way project was among the first in the city to win approval under SB35, a state law that allowed it to forge ahead in record time once its application for that program was submitted.

The Berkeley Way project is slated to cost approximately $120 million. The city has committed $27 million to the development, not including the land value of the parking lot, which it owns. According to the BFHP website, “Other funding sources include Alameda County Affordable Housing Bond Measure A1, State programs such as No Place Like Home (NPLH) and Affordable Housing Sustainable Communities (AHSC), as well as tax credit equity and the proceeds from a private capital campaign.”

Williams-Ridley said the city’s 2018 Affordable Housing Bond, Measure O, made the project possible: “Without it, we would not be standing here today.” The city also used the bulk of its Affordable Housing Trust Fund to support the effort.

On Tuesday morning, Councilmember Kate Harrison — who now represents District 4, the downtown council district — said the project also would not have been possible without “climate funds” such as the state’s cap-and-trade program. She said Berkeley Way would be a “transit-first” project, noting that it is just two blocks from the downtown Berkeley BART station.

Harrison thanked District 4 residents in particular for their support of the project.

“As my husband dropped me off, he said, ‘That’s the last time I’m going to be able to park in this parking lot,'” Harrison said. “And, yeah, that’s true. It is hard on all of us that live nearby. But let me just say: This is the greater good that we’re engaged in.”

She continued: “I think, as residents, we’re going to find that the streets will be in better shape because we have a place for people to be housed.”

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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...