The city has proposed an expansion to the clubhouse at Willard Park, a plan opponents say will encroach on green space. The City Council has thrown out an appeal of a ZAB approval that would allow the project to proceed. Image: City of Berkeley

An expansion at Willard Park’s clubhouse, a project proposed by the city’s Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Department, has cleared a major hurdle after the City Council threw out an appeal by a residents group that sought to block or at least reduce the scope of the renovation.

The council unanimously voted to reject the appeal, which the filers hoped would reverse the Zoning Adjustments Board’s April ruling that the expansion should go ahead.

Opponents of the expansion have cast it as an imposition on green space and a magnet for traffic, noise and large parties. But local PTA groups have entreated the city to go ahead with the expansion to make room for more children’s programming at the park.

The city’s parks department is working to expand the clubhouse at Willard Park, shown here in this July 25, 2023 photo. Image: Alex N. Gecan

The park sits a block off Telegraph Avenue, on a stretch of Derby Street between Regent Street and Hillegass Avenue. Besides the clubhouse in the southeast corner, there are tennis courts on its western edge, a playground near the southwest corner and a grassy area with large trees in much of the rest of the park.

More than 40 speakers, including several former city officials, signed up Monday to weigh in on the project in person and by Zoom, mostly in opposition to the size of the new building and the corresponding loss of some green space within the park. However, about a dozen neighbors and residents spoke in favor of the expansion, and a few expressed neutral reactions.

The price tag for the project is $7.5 million, according to city records. The first $7 million came from a seven-year-old bond issue. Another $500,000 will come from parks taxes from fiscal year 2024.

The current clubhouse plan is pared down from the original proposal thanks in part to rising construction costs. The proposed total building size, including 198 square feet of restrooms, is down to 3,499 square feet from 4,340, with program space reduced from 2,700 to 1,610 square feet, according to the parks department’s presentation. The plan also calls for another restroom at the north end of the playground near the tennis courts.

This comparison shows how the proposed expansion of the Willard Park clubhouse has been pared down. Image: City of Berkeley

The upgrades would also bring the facility into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to the parks department’s proposal.

The current clubhouse covers 1,050 square feet, including its covered patio, with a single bathroom, and can accommodate only 45 children at a time. The new design should accommodate 60, more in line with “existing demand,” according to the proposal.

The Zoning Adjustment Board voted 8-1 on April 27 to approve the parks department’s application. The appeal was filed May 23, with 101 signatories, 62 of whom lived within 100 yards of the project site, according to city records.

The tentative plan is for construction to take place this year and next and for the new clubhouse and restroom to open in 2025.

Vincent Casalaina, treasurer of the Willard Neighborhood Association, spoke for the appellants Monday. He acknowledged there should be a larger clubhouse but suggested 1,750 square feet as a new size.

“In addition, we would like to see a lower height for the building facade that is more in keeping with the visual impact the current clubhouse has on the remainder of Willard Park,” Casalaina said.

This photo shows how the Willard Park clubhouse once looked around 1980. Image: City of Berkeley

“Our concern is that the 3,300 square foot building was determined not based on the space needed for the 60 children, but rather on having new space large enough to host events and parties in the new facility,” Casalaina said.

The appellants had argued that the renovations would run afoul of a section of municipal code barring public parks and open space from being used as anything else. But city planners countered that regardless of any increase in the size of the clubhouse building, the park itself would remain a park.

Casalaina argued that opening the building to larger events, possibly with amplified music, would violate the California Environmental Quality Act, “especially as it relates to parking dropoff, pickup and automobile traffic in the neighborhood.” City planners, conversely, projected that the size, location and traffic impact did not conflict with the law’s guidelines.

The city’s plan calls for the removal of seven trees around the construction zone, but also the planting of 25 new ones around the park.

This map shows where the city has proposed removing trees and planting new ones at Willard Park. Image: City of Berkeley

Southeast Berkeley, where the park sits, has “the smallest amount of park facility space in the city,” said Scott Ferris, the city’s Director of Parks, Recreation and Waterfront, citing a 2015 study by the Parks and Recreation Commission.

The total usable open space lost to the renovation would be 2,820 square feet — approximately 2.4% of the park’s total 118,500 square foot area — according to the planners’ figures.

Ferris said the programming at the new center would likely be childcare for children up to age 5 in the mornings and early afternoons, followed by after-school programming later in the afternoon and evening programs like yoga.

Addressing concerns about large parties, Ferris said that “our community centers, we don’t allow alcohol, and so we don’t have many large celebrations … once in a while we have a birthday party, but those are far and few between, most of it is community activities, most of them are run by nonprofits who get to use our facilities for low cost or for free.”

Many neighbors and visitors to the park named a number of complaints against the expansion, from the size and 18-foot height of the building to the loss of some green space to the parking and noise issues they believed would come with the bigger facility. Proponents of the expansion urged the council to throw out the appeal, arguing that city children need more access to childcare and after-school programs.

This July 25, 2023 photo shows the single bathroom at Willard Park. The proposed expansion would involve new indoor bathrooms for the clubhouse and standalone facilities near the tennis courts. Credit: Alex N. Gecan

George Beier, a former president of the Willard Neighborhood Association, said that in his 15-year tenure, “the number of requests I got for an expanded clubhouse is exactly zero.”

Beier said he fielded a poll on a proposed new clubhouse, and of 347 responses, 70% opposed the proposed expansion, although the same percentage favored a more limited expansion.

Former Councilmember Lori Droste, who previously represented the district in which the park sits, said the proposed new building “strikes a delicate balance that respects a wide range of preferences.”

“This is the smallest the clubhouse can get and continue to serve its programmatic goals,” Droste said Monday. “The passionate voices of PTA presidents emphasize the need for a larger clubhouse to foster community engagement and offer more childcare opportunities addressing the hundreds of children currently on wait lists across Berkeley.”

The city began buying up parcels on what would become Willard Park in 1957, and the park was inaugurated in 1971, according to city records. It wasn’t named for Frances Willard, a suffragette, educator and temperance advocate, until 1982. Before its inauguration anti-Vietnam War activists temporarily referred to it as Ho Chi Minh Park.

The council and mayor voted 8-0 to reject the appeal Monday. Councilmember Kate Harrison was absent.

Alex N. Gecan joined Berkeleyside in 2023 as a senior reporter covering public safety. He has covered criminal justice, courts and breaking and local news for The Middletown Press, Stamford Advocate and...