$50M school district building approved in Downtown Berkeley

It’s part staff parking garage and part replacement for a South Berkeley operations building that closed in December after the district determined it was structurally and environmentally unsafe.

A Berkeley High staff parking lot on Milvia Street, between Bancroft Way and Durant Avenue, will turn into a $50 million building, with two levels of below-ground parking for high school staff and two levels above ground for school district plant operations. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli

A $50 million building with an underground parking garage for Berkeley Unified staff, a school district operations plant and rooftop tennis courts will face Berkeley High from across Milvia Street in three to five years.

Plans for the $25 million parking garage were already in the works, but the Berkeley school board decided Wednesday to move the garage underground and pitch in another $25 million to incorporate a new maintenance and operations building into the project.  

Funding for the project will come from Measure G, a $380 million school construction bond that passed in November 2020 with 82% of the vote. Plans for the staff parking garage and rooftop tennis court were spelled out in the bond. 

The addition of the operations plant comes after the district’s previous operations building, located at 1707 Russell St, was abruptly closed in December following investigations this fall that deemed the building unsafe. 

A basement in the old operations building with the water drained, showing previous water levels. Credit: Mark Moore

The reports found the building had elevated amounts of lead and mold, as well soil and groundwater contamination on the site. Its construction out of unreinforced brick and concrete had long raised red flags about whether it could survive a major earthquake, and years of basement flooding further compromised the integrity of its foundation.  

“The employees at plant operations have been in a subpar facility for decades,” Steve Collins, co-chair of Local 21, a union for school administrators, said at a school board meeting March 9.

The preliminary plan for the Milvia Street project is to put two stories of the 240-spot staff parking garage underground and an additional two stories for plant operations above ground. The ground floor would house district operations, a receiving dock and maintenance workshops. The upper floor would contain district equipment and parking spaces for district vehicles and plant operations staff.

Decades of seismic danger

The Russell Street operations building opened in 1915 as Edison Middle School, only to close in 1933 when it was identified as seismically unsafe. The building was turned into a curriculum development center and then the district’s operations headquarters.

Buildings constructed of unreinforced masonry — brick, stone or concrete, held together with mortar — withstand earthquakes poorly. Laws have been regulating the construction of such buildings for school use since the Field Act passed in 1933.

They are “known to pose a significant life safety hazard in the event of an earthquake and have a strong likelihood of failing,” Mark Moore, a structural engineer, wrote in a Jan. 18 report on the operations building

A 1986 California law required Berkeley to inventory its unreinforced masonry buildings, but the operations building was never included on the list, which Moore attributed to an “administrative oversight” dating back to the 1970s.

A sign at entrance of the plant operations building indicating that the building is not earthquake safe. Credit: Mark Moore

The district was aware of flooding in the basement for at least 17 years. A 2005 assessment of the building noted that “the basement is not used due to continual flooding from an unknown source.”

Over several years, plaster contaminated with lead was “routinely and significantly falling onto the BUSD staff, equipment, miscellaneous surfaces, and floor” in the building’s mechanical shops, according to a report published in January.

At the time it closed in December, there were about 70 employees from maintenance and operations, facilities, construction, technology, and nutrition services working at the building. They were notified of the environmental hazards and were asked to work virtually or were relocated to other district buildings.

“Our biggest concern, first and foremost, was really to get staff out of those working conditions,” John Calise, director of facilities at the school district, said at a Feb. 9 community meeting. 

‘A thoughtful approach to an unfortunate problem’  

The school board chose the site on Milvia Street over a few other options presented by Calise, which were more expensive and would have required more drawn-out construction schedules. 

One option was to rebuild the existing site, while another was to construct a building above the district’s transportation yard at the intersection of Sixth and Gilman streets in Northwest Berkeley. A third possibility was to share space with the city of Berkeley’s corporation yard near Strawberry Creek Park, but there was not enough space on the yard.

Calise told the school board the alternatives would cost double or triple as much and take two to seven additional years to complete. 

The school board directors and a leader of the district’s administrators union both recommended that the district move forward with the Milvia Street project.

“It’s not my ideal spot to put this kind of operation because it is downtown, and I’d rather see it light industrial, but when you look at the price tag and you look at the time, it seemed [to be] definitely one of the best options,” School Board Director Julie Sinai said. Ty Alper called it “a really creative and thoughtful approach to a really unfortunate problem.”

School board directors weighed in on plans for the parking garage, with Ana Vasudeo asking whether the garage will have bike parking (it will) and Anjuna Mascarenhas-Swan, the student director, asking whether students will have access to the garage (they won’t). 

“Many students face issues with having to pay hundreds of dollars a month for parking and leaving their classes to move their cars,” Mascarenhas-Swan said, adding that the burden falls on students who can’t afford to pay for parking garages. 

Ally Markovich covers education for Berkeleyside. Email: ally@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: allymarkovich.