Outside the new West Berkeley Kaiser Medical Offices on 10th Street, March 23, 2021 Photo: Pete Rosos
The new three-story, 66,000-sq-ft Kaiser Permanente Berkeley Medical Office Building is at 2621 Tenth Street (at Parker Street). Photo: Pete Rosos

For many Berkeley Kaiser members who currently need to travel several miles for in-person medical care, a doctor’s appointment is about to get a lot more convenient with Kaiser set to open a new $98-million medical center in the city in May.

The three-story, 66,000-sq-ft Kaiser Permanente Berkeley Medical Office Building sits at 2621 Tenth Street (at Parker Street). It overlooks both Covenant Church and cherished dive bar Missouri Lounge on San Pablo Avenue. In mid-March, its gleaming metal and shaded-glass exterior was complete and crews were working on finishing up approximately 70 exam rooms inside. Parking for visitors will be tucked under the building.

“The building represents a ‘next-generation type of medical office.'”— Ed Chan, Kaiser

The center will focus on three primary areas of care: adult and family medicine, OBGYN and pediatrics, and will include a mental-health office, pharmacy and injection clinic for those needing regular shots, vaccinations or IV medications.

The building represents a “next-generation type of medical office,” said Ed Chan, a Kaiser senior vice president and area manager for its East Bay service area.

“Members will have the option, for instance, to do an express check-in for their visit from home or even their mobile device,” he said. “There will be self-service kiosks within the medical office, so that members can perform any of the functions almost as if you could within a retail setting.”

Despite Berkeley having about 58,000 Kaiser members — about half the city’s population — this is the first major foray into Berkeley for the healthcare giant, which, along with its Oakland headquarters, has operations in Alameda, Richmond and Pinole. The idea is to give locals a place to get care without having to fight highway traffic or bus delays.

“If there’s something that’s a need of yours that is relatively minor – you’re picking up a prescription or have a routine visit with one of your physicians – a lot of times that care is most convenient if it’s close to where you live,” said Chan.

Kaiser doctors who plan to move to the Berkeley location have already alerted their patients who have the choice to follow them there, or choose a new physician.

Given its location, the center might be particularly useful to Kaiser members in West Berkeley, an area with its own set of health challenges.

“The new facility will bring much-needed medical resources and jobs to a district historically long- afflicted by health disparities and in dire need of gainful employment.” — Terry Taplin

“West Berkeley is a generally working-class, often lower-socioeconomic group of people. There is a large group of Latinx people as well as African Americans,” said Katy Roemer, a registered nurse at Kaiser. “When you combine those things, you often have people who need some extra healthcare in the arena of blood-pressure control, access to regular care in terms of diabetes, health education, prenatal care, lactation and wound care.”

Terry Taplin, council member for Berkeleyʼs District 2 in which the new medical facility is located, said he hopes the center will benefit the neighborhood population.

“The new facility will bring much-needed medical resources and jobs to a district historically long- afflicted by health disparities and in dire need of gainful employment,” Taplin said. “My hope is that this will herald a new era of health justice and workforce development for a new generation of innovators raised and educated in West Berkeley, while providing high-quality medical services to Berkeleyans of all ages.”

Center will employ about 90 staffers

When it opens at a yet-to-be-determine date in May the center will employ approximately 90 staffers, below the 136-plus it projected to the city in 2019. Roemer, who serves as Oakland’s chief nurse rep for the California Nurses Association, said there’s ongoing bargaining about just who should work in the clinics. The association would prefer it to be nurses with backgrounds in each clinic’s particular specialty. For example, one of the services provided to pregnant women is a test that shows if their baby is doing well or is in any distress.

“That particular test needs to be administered by a registered nurse who is an OBGYN, usually with experience in labor and delivery, so they can look at it and know immediately what needs to be done if that infant is in danger,” Roemer said. “You don’t want to have a nurse who doesn’t have that specialty administering that test.”

This staffing model is pretty standard but “Kaiser for whatever reason is hesitating in this case,” she said. “We think they don’t want to pay for it.”

When asked about nursing staffing, Chan said: “We are committed to providing safe, high-quality care, with the appropriate levels and types of staffing. We are meeting with union representatives to resolve any outstanding issues.”

Architecture designed to engage the neighborhood

Outside the new West Berkeley Kaiser Medical Offices on 10th Street, March 23, 2021 Photo: Pete Rosos
The medical center was designed by San Francisco architecture firm Gould Evans. Photo: Pete Rosos

San Francisco architecture firm Gould Evans designed the new center. It has retail spaces on the ground floor, 46 bicycle parking spots, and is “designed to engage its Berkeley neighborhood from all directions,” said principal Bob Baum in an emailed statement.

“The L-shaped building massing is rotated on each level to create a sculptural presence and form green-roof patios on the second level. Two public pocket parks – one on San Pablo Avenue and another at the corner of Parker Street and Tenth Street – invite pedestrians and manage stormwater runoff via permeable paving.

“The transparent double-height lobby on Tenth Street creates a welcoming entry experience that blurs the line between interior and exterior, while along San Pablo Avenue a double-height retail facade, sculptural screen, and bold signage activate this major thoroughfare,” wrote Baum.

A mural with a healing theme

On a recent weekday, Steve Divine stood looking through a fence at a sprawling, half-finished mural in a parking lot at Tenth and Carleton streets. “Ain’t that neat?” said Divine, who lives nearby. “Got all kinds of things in there. Even have a rooster.”

Kaiser commissioned the artwork from Desi Mundo, founder and director of the Community Rejuvenation Project, which has spread murals far and wide over the Bay Area, including a 90-foot-tall wonder last year in downtown Oakland.

“They wanted to represent all the diverse communities in Berkeley and be as inclusive as possible,” Mundo said. “So where do all these communities connect? It’s in healing… The connective tissue for the entire mural is healing.”

Passersby can pick out an Ohlone dancer, a woman doing yoga, legendary UC Berkeley drummer and African culture-keeper C. K. Ladzekpo and a hummingbird singing into an ear pricked with needles.

“There are some acupuncture practitioners whose entire practice is done on the ear,” explained Mundo.

Scattered throughout are references to the pandemic, symbolic or otherwise, which has claimed beloved elders in Mundo’s community. A woman and her daughter blow together on a cup of soup.

“Imagine at this time how a simple act like that is a blessing, to share breath with a family member,” he said.

And in a nod to the coronavirus front lines, a doctor holds a stethoscope and a nurse wears a mask.

“In the beginning people were clapping, and over time that appreciation hasn’t been as visible. Those folks are still going in and facing all types of scenarios and catching sicknesses, so I wanted to do something to acknowledge that.”

John Metcalfe is an Oakland-based freelance reporter who's written for Berkeleyside, The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Atlantic. He enjoys covering science, climate and weather, and urban...