The Berkeley Unified School District has decided not to append a district operations plant to a planned parking garage project across the street from Berkeley High.
A three-story staff parking garage, with a rooftop tennis court, will be built on Milvia Street between Bancroft Way and Durant Avenue, and the district need to find a new location for its maintenance and operations staff to work. The previous district operations building in South Berkeley was deemed unsafe and abruptly closed last fall.
Plans for the parking garage and tennis court had been spelled out in Measure G, a $380 million school construction bond that passed in November 2020. The board voted in March to spend another $25 million in discretionary funds from the measure, adding the plant operations building onto the $25 million parking garage project. The proposal would have moved the garage underground, below plant operations.
On Wednesday evening, the school board voted to reverse its March decision.
Facilities director John Calise said he recommended taking the operations building off the table after the planning process and additional studies showed it would be expensive to mitigate the environmental impact on downtown — including noise, light and air pollution — of an operations building and its vehicles.
“Mitigation strategies would reduce cost effectiveness and impede on the overall maintenance program, as well as the warehouse program for the district,” Calise said at the board meeting.
The district has not yet found another site to house its operations department. Most office work is currently happening out of a rented office building in Berkeley, while the operations work is now housed in Richmond, which Calise described as the closest facility the district could find that was large enough to accommodate operations.
Calise said the facilities department has been working on finding a new site for four years, but limited space in Berkeley has made this challenging.
The board also approved an additional $2.6 million for the staff parking garage and tennis courts, bringing the total cost of the project to $27.5 million.
There are a few reasons for the increased costs, including rising costs of supplies and labor and a pricier system needed to mitigate the sound of vibrations coming from the garage. Plus, due to a clerical error, the original plan listed only 144 parking spaces, fewer than the intended number of spaces. The extra funds will pay for roughly 70 more parking spaces for a total of about 220 staff spots.
Parking garage remains contentious
Despite the fact that plans for a tennis court-topped parking garage had been spelled out in Measure G, which passed with 82% of the vote, the project has received pushback from some community members and school board directors, including Ana Vasudeo and Laura Babitt.
During the board meeting, Babitt suggested that Calise explore purchasing parking spaces for the city from Berkeley’s Center Street garage, a solution that others — including members of the Measure G Oversight Committee — have also proposed.
“You spend all this money and build this now, but we can actually use these funds and start actually providing parking for our teachers sooner,” Babitt said.
Calise explained that purchasing parking spaces is not as straightforward, nor as inexpensive, a solution as it may seem.
There are additional operations and maintenance costs BUSD would have to pay the city annually out of its general fund due to limitations on how bond money can be spent, he said. Plus, as downtown’s recovery continues, the parking garage has become busier, and the garage may start to fill up again.
School board director Ty Alper defended the project, which was identified as a top priority for the Berkeley High community years ago in the process of planning for Measure G.
Calise said he would continue conversations about the possibility of purchasing parking garage spots from the city.
Construction on the garage is expected to begin November 2023 and conclude 18 months later.