The future of a $27 million parking garage and tennis court structure across the street from Berkeley High is up in the air after a year of steady pushback from a group of concerned community members, school board directors and city leaders.
Voters approved building the tennis court-topped parking garage on Milvia Street in November 2020; the project was spelled out in Measure G, a $380 million school construction bond that passed with 82% of the vote. At the time, the garage was a top priority, aiming to relieve the 200 or so Berkeley High teachers who facilities director John Calise said needed to move their cars every two hours to avoid ticketing on nearby residential streets.
Last March, the school board voted to tack on a new operations building to the garage for an additional $25 million after the district determined its current building was structurally and environmentally unsafe. But that decision was reversed in September because it would have been expensive to mitigate the environmental impact downtown.
Now construction, initially scheduled to start this November, could be delayed or canceled altogether as the parking garage structure continues to face opposition from transit advocates, several school board directors and city councilmembers and a faction of the bond oversight committee.
School board president Laura Babitt and director Ana Vasudeo have urged the district to consider alternatives, such as purchasing parking spaces from the city’s still-new Center Street garage. Another option could be the city giving residential parking permits to teachers and staff at Berkeley High.
Councilmembers Kate Harrison and Terry Taplin recently co-wrote a resolution supporting trip reduction alternatives for the project, which was discussed Thursday in a 2×2 meeting between representatives of the school district and the city council.
“Nobody wants the garage,” Calise, who helped craft the original plan, said at the meeting, summing up the sentiment from city and district leaders before outlining the years of work and public meetings under his belt for the garage and tennis court project.
Calise has explored other options but run into dead-ends. Purchasing parking spaces from the city is more expensive than anticipated and there are limits to city rules and limited capacity for additional residential parking permits.
“If we can solve this in another way, by dealing with street parking or possibly alternative methods, that’s a win for everybody,” he said.
At the Thursday meeting, about 10 people spoke against the garage during public comment, urging the district to move in a more climate and bike friendly direction and do “anything but building a garage on that site,” in the words of Phyllis Orrick, parent of a Berkeley High graduate-turned BUSD teacher. One person from Richmond spoke in favor.
“We’re in a situation where voters are really looking hard at how municipalities and school districts are spending their bond dollars,” said BUSD parent and San Francisco Deputy City Administrator Douglas Legg. “It would be a great thing if the city and the school district are going to work together to solve this parking problem and be able to use the bond dollars on other incredible needs the district faces to help the education of our children.”
City officials were careful not to chide district leaders at the meeting, instead asking questions about why the garage was identified as a need. Councilmembers Sophie Hahn and Taplin were clear that they remained committed to pursuing alternatives.
There appears to be a possible legal rationale for scrapping a project detailed in Measure G. The bond states that based on cost, some projects listed in the measure “may not be completed.”
“We know that you know the district is independent of the city. However, we are like siblings,” Taplin said. “I think it’s important to remind one another of our shared goals, our shared values, and encourage one another to move in alignment with those as much as we can.”
“It’s clear that this has been going forward for quite a while,” Hahn said. “I don’t think anybody here thinks a parking lot is the best use. But we want to solve the problem for your teachers and staff.”
The work to find other alternatives hinges on the collaboration of Calise and Farid Javandel, who runs the transportation department for the city.
Meanwhile, plans to build the parking garage are moving forward slowly.
The district has commissioned a new parking study and transportation survey to be completed by March. Both will provide key information on the parking needs of Berkeley High teachers and on the available parking near the high school.
The next meeting between the city and school board in March will feature a brief update on the project, while a second meeting devoted to discussing the garage is planned for April.