A view of the Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park and the Berkeley Hills from the old Berkeley City Hall, Aug. 31, 2022. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight
A view of the Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park and the Berkeley Hills from the Maudelle Shirek Building, or old city hall. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight, Aug. 31, 2022.

The City Council approved a design concept to transform Berkeley’s forlorn Civic Center into the “heart of Berkeley’s community” at a special meeting this week. 

The design concept includes plans to renovate and repair the leaky Veterans Memorial Building and old city hall (now called the Maudelle Shirek Building), which need significant seismic upgrades, and integrate Center Street into Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park. It includes plans to spruce up the park and turn it into an “urban oasis for all of Berkeley,” installing the long-discussed Turtle Island Monument, widening pedestrian paths and adding cafe-style seating, planting areas, bioswales, more lighting and a new playground. 

The design also proposes turning Center Street into a pedestrian-priority shared street, eliminating 43 of the 59 paid parking spaces, and improving pedestrian safety on Martin Luther King Jr. Way by adding pedestrian bulb-outs at the street crossings and aligning the edge of the curb between Allston and Center to match the curb on the blocks to the north and south. The proposed change on Martin Luther King Jr. Way would remove eight parking spaces. 

City staff has also been directed to study the feasibility of daylighting a 300-foot-long stretch of Strawberry Creek, which currently flows underground in an aging concrete culvert. The daylighting scenario is listed as a potential alternate design concept. The city will also study the feasibility and cost of adding more arts and classroom spaces to the Veterans Memorial Building, which is planned to become a city-run community arts center with performance venues, teaching and exhibit space. 

“This is a really important milestone,” Mayor Jesse Arreguín said at Tuesday’s meeting. “I want to thank everyone who’s been involved in getting us to this point.”

Dancers from different Indigenous Nations perform the Grand Entry at the 2022 Berkeley Indigenous Day Powwow in Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park. The Maudelle Shirek Building, or old city hall, can be seen in the background. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

In crafting the design concept, city staff and consultants from Siegel & Strain Architects and Gehl Studios conducted more than 25 interviews with Civic Center stakeholders, including current tenants, representatives from the Berkeley Unified School District, planners of community events that occur in the park and arts organizations. Since 2020, they hosted several public workshops and held an online survey with nearly 700 responses. 

Funding for the previous phases of the project — creating a “Vision and Implementation Plan,” conducting surveys, and crafting the design concept — came out of T1 bond funds, the Public Works Fund and the city’s general fund. 

See the full design concept starting on Page 29 

A timeline in the staff report has permitting, bidding and construction beginning by 2027. 

But the city must first devise a way to fund its ambitious vision for the Civic Center. In November, Berkeley voters rejected Measure L, an expansive infrastructure bond measure that could have gone toward funding the project.

Construction is expected to cost between $125 million and $158 million. Before the shovel can even hit the ground, the city will have to conduct several technical studies and pass environmental reviews, estimated to take between two and three years and cost $15 million. 

The city has laid out two general funding strategies. The first would involve identifying multiple sources of funding that would go toward one large-scale project. Potential sources could include congressionally directed spending requests known as earmarks, federal infrastructure funding, FEMA grants, green infrastructure grants and city funding (such as a future tax measure). The second, which city staff deemed “more realistic,” would chop the project into individual components. The project would inch forward each time a component is awarded a grant. Due to economies of scale, the latter strategy would likely cost more.

The Berkeley City Council last held meetings in the old Berkeley City Hall building in 2019. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight
The Berkeley City Council last held meetings in the Maudelle Shirek Building, or old city hall, in 2019. According to a staff report, the three-story building is seismically deficient and could pose life safety hazards to building occupants, as the building may collapse in a major earthquake. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

“In some ways, I’m having a déjà vu because we’ve had plans before, and they just never got off the ground,” Councilmember Susan Wengraf said. “I’m hoping this won’t happen again and that finally we’ll be able to move forward with something in our Civic Center.”

Wengraf and Councilmember Mark Humbert stressed that the building repairs remain the city’s main priority, with Humbert adding that city funds should not go toward daylighting the creek.

Strawberry Creek daylighting remains on the table

Strawberry Creek on the UC Berkeley campus.
Strawberry Creek runs along UC Berkeley’s famous Eucalyptus grove across the southwest edge of campus, and enters an underground culvert when it reaches Oxford Street. Much of the creek was culverted between 1880 and 1920 to make way for urban development. Creek activists hope to restore the stretch that flows underneath Civic Center Park to its natural state. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Much of the discussion on Tuesday centered on whether the city would consider a full-flow, riparian restoration of Strawberry Creek instead of just a partial restoration. Both require closing off Center Street and relocating the Downtown Berkeley Farmers Market. 

The city had previously determined that there was not enough space in the park for a full restoration. A 1999 study of daylighting Strawberry Creek in the park found that a full-flow restoration — an 18-foot-deep creek with a 150-foot-wide creek bed — would require knocking down buildings. 

Several members of Restore Strawberry Creek, a group that’s been pushing for a daylighted creek in the park and has been applying for state and federal grants on behalf of the city, pointed out that the 24-year-old study is potentially outdated and that creek restoration technology has advanced since the ’90s, when the concept of daylighting creeks was still new. Leaving only a smaller, partial restoration on the table, they said, would inhibit their ability to secure grant funding for a feasibility study, which is estimated to cost between $360,000 and $500,000. 

Screenshot of a city council meeting. Berkeley city council watches as activists show them an extremely long sheet of paper with comments in favor of restoring Strawberry Creek in Civic Center Park.
The City Council watches as activists from Restore Strawberry Creek present them with a long list of comments in favor of daylighting a section of Strawberry Creek in Civic Center Park on July 25, 2023. Credit: City of Berkeley

Creek daylighting activist Erin Diehm, who read off a theatrically long sheet of paper of messages in support of creek daylighting during public comment, asked the City Council to allow for the study of a full-flow daylighting rather than a partial one. 

Christopher Kroll, formerly of the Coastal Conservancy (a state agency that has funded previous daylighting projects in Berkeley), said during public comment that preemptively limiting the city’s options to only a partial restoration is “not a smart way to get agency funding.” He recommended the city broaden the language in the design concept and indicate it would be open to a range of restoration options, not just a partial one.

A map showing the footprint required to do a full-flow or partial-flow restoration along Center Street. The city has ruled out a full-flow restoration.
An estimate of the footprint required to do a full-flow or partial-flow restoration along Center Street. Credit: Siegel and Strain Architects

The concept of “creek daylighting” originated in Berkeley and was coined by Berkeley environmental activist Carol Schemmerling Selz in the early 1980s, when the Urban Creeks Council pushed the city to surface a stretch of Strawberry Creek that had long been culverted under an abandoned rail yard. The exposed creek became the centerpiece of what’s now Strawberry Creek Park. Daylighting advocates say surfacing Strawberry Creek in the heart of the city is a way to honor that legacy and bring life back to the park. The Bay Area chapter of the Sierra Club has endorsed daylighting the creek, citing a host of benefits, including mitigating urban heat, providing flood control and enhancing biodiversity. 

About half of the 600 people queried in a city-sponsored survey supported daylighting, with detractors raising concerns about how to weigh the financial and opportunity costs of surfacing and maintaining a creek in the heart of downtown against other potential civic uses for the site, such as the Farmers Market. 

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Daniel McChesney-Young, the Farmers Market Program Manager at the Ecology Center, said that the center had thoroughly explored relocation of the market “many” times but could not find any other location downtown that would meet the needs of the market while complying with the city’s fire and ADA requirements. 

The design concept passed was a temporary compromise: The city will allow for the study of both a full and partial creek restoration while committing to maintaining a location for the Berkeley Farmers Market in Civic Center. Still, the creek activists are considering it a win. 

In an email sent to the City Council Friday, Restore Strawberry Creek activist and environmental consultant Juliet Lamont thanked them for making the change, writing that the “small change in wording allows for real potential in seeking and acquiring funding for a full, public (community-based) planning and design process to evaluate options for how we can best achieve a robust ecological restoration while meeting community needs.”

Iris Kwok covers the environment for Berkeleyside through a partnership with Report for America. A former music journalist, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, KQED, San Francisco Examiner...