After long delay, North Berkeley Senior Center could finally reopen in March

City officials and the project’s contractor are pointing the finger at one another for problems with the $8.7 million renovation.

The North Berkeley Senior Center has been closed since the start of 2019 for what turned into a problem-plagued renovation, Jan. 4, 2022. Credit: Nico Savidge

Three years after the North Berkeley Senior Center shuttered for what was supposed to be a 12- to 18-month renovation, city officials say the finish line is finally in sight for the beleaguered project.

The center at 1901 Hearst Ave. is now expected to reopen this spring, with crews wrapping up an $8.7 million project that included seismic upgrades, roof repairs and updated electrical and plumbing systems over the next two months.

Squabbles between Berkeley and its contractor for the project, on the other hand, could be far from over.

“Our community has been so patient,” City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley said at a virtual town hall meeting last month where she was asked about the status of the senior center renovation, which began in January 2019. “We have had a number of problems, a number of setbacks — but the good news is that we’re looking at opening in March.”

The city and Hayward-based contractor DL Falk Construction are each pointing the finger at the other for a cascading set of problems that has more than doubled the project’s original schedule. While the pandemic has contributed to the delays, Williams-Ridley described COVID-19 as one of several reasons the project got bogged down.

The renovation’s problems continued into last fall, when Williams-Ridley said the atmospheric river that drenched the Bay Area in October caused flooding at the senior center.

In a phone interview, David Falk, the construction firm’s founder and president, blamed the flooding on problems with “the existing building and the new design not being adequate.”

Berkeley officials declined an interview request for this story, but in written responses to questions sent by email, Deputy Public Works Director Andrew Brozyna laid the flooding problem at Falk’s feet.

“The city’s consultants are still evaluating the cause(s) of the flooding,” Brozyna wrote, “but it appears from initial inspections that (the) contractor provided insufficient measures to protect the building.”

The project has also been dragged out by disagreements between the city and Falk over change orders submitted by the contractor, many of which have been rejected, Williams-Ridley said. Discussions about those change orders are continuing between legal teams for the city and DL Falk, she said.

“We are scrutinizing every change order that comes about, and it has created some issues,” Williams-Ridley said. “We’re going to continue to be very vigilant about that.”

According to Falk, his firm is seeking payment for “several hundred thousand dollars worth of additions added to the contract by the city” as a result of project changes and “deficient design.”

Brozyna did not respond to Falk’s claims, but city staff wrote in a memo last spring that they rejected “a substantial amount” of the contractor’s change order requests because they concluded Falk’s firm was seeking payment for work already covered by the original contract.

“Our interpretation of the contract documents may not be that of the city,” Falk said. “There are costs out there that we’re working on with the city.”

Berkeley’s City Council signed off last year on a $350,000 cost increase for the renovation, which paid for additional work that included resurfacing its parking lot and installing an announcement system and two electric car charging stations, among other changes.

The lion’s share of funding for the project, $6.8 million, came from Measure T1, which Berkeley voters approved in 2016. The Federal Emergency Management Agency provided the remaining $1.9 million, which funded seismic work meant to allow the center to serve as a shelter and care site in the aftermath of an earthquake.

Nico Savidge is Berkeleyside's senior reporter covering city hall. Email: nico@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: NSavidge.