The next few months could prove pivotal for the future of Berkeley’s forlorn Civic Center.
City officials are launching a public process this fall that aims to gather community input on what residents want to see in a revitalization of Civic Center Park, the Veterans Memorial Building and the former city hall now called the Maudelle Shirek Building.
And in November, voters will decide on Measure L, a $650 million bond to fund a range of public works projects — including, boosters hope, the work at the Civic Center.
Berkeleyside got a look at the area’s current condition last week in a tour organized by Community for a Cultural Civic Center, a coalition of local groups working to advance a vision in which the park and buildings are “the prime space for civic life, culture and the arts.”
“This can be a much, much more vibrant area,” said John Caner, CEO of the Downtown Berkeley Association and a member of the coalition.
Advocates fear the Beaux Arts old city hall, which opened in 1909, and Veterans Memorial Building, built in 1928, are at risk of “demolition by neglect.”
Both buildings need extensive seismic upgrades, though each is still in use. The public access station Berkeley Community Media operates out of old city hall, which also serves as an emergency shelter for the homeless; the veterans building hosts the Dorothy Day House shelter and Berkeley Historical Society, among other organizations.
The Community for a Cultural Civic Center envisions a “cultural hive” at the veterans building, where local organizations could take advantage of its auditorium, and a museum of Berkeley history and culture at the Maudelle Shirek Building, as well as improvements at the park.
The city process, which will continue through the spring, aims to identify a “preferred design concept” for the park and buildings. Residents will have an opportunity to share their thoughts at a meeting on Sept. 29; another public meeting will be held in January, and city officials also plan to roll out an online survey.
The goal is to pick a concept next summer, then get to work on designing the project; a timeline laid out in a memo to the City Council calls for construction to start in 2026.
It’s not yet clear how much the Civic Center improvements would cost. Caner said it would likely take “several million” dollars to finish design work and get the project shovel-ready. From there, improvements at the park could cost $7 million to $9 million, while a recent engineering study found seismic work on the two buildings could take about $50 million, which is less expensive than previously estimated.
But funding for the effort is far from certain.
The first question mark is Measure L — the largest bond in Berkeley’s history needs to get support from two-thirds of voters to pass, which could be difficult for a measure that would increase property tax bills by hundreds of dollars per year.
If the measure falls short, Caner said the Civic Center project would have to find funding from some other yet-to-be-determined source.
If Measure L passes, the next question is how much money could go to the project. Most of the bond measure is already spoken for — city officials have pledged to spend $300 million on improving local streets, another $200 million to fund affordable housing projects and $50 million for work to move utility wires underground along wildfire evacuation routes.
That leaves $100 million for a long list of local infrastructure needs, putting the Civic Center in competition with upgrades to stormwater systems, improvements to the Berkeley Marina and work at other city parks and buildings.