The entrance to Oxford Elementary school. The courtyard is empty.
The old Oxford Elementary School in North Berkeley was vacated in 2020 due to risks posed by earthquake. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

Three years after students were moved from the old Oxford Elementary School due to risk of major earthquake damage, the Berkeley school district has yet to make a decision about what to do with the building.

Sell the North Berkeley property? Demolish the building and build on top of it? Develop it into workforce housing? All these options are still on the table after school board directors discussed what to do with the old schoolhouse on Wednesday during the first school board meeting of the year.

In September 2019, a report found that a major earthquake could seriously endanger students and staff at the old elementary school at 1130 Oxford St. An earthquake could move the school up to 20 feet, ignite utility lines and make roads impassable. Even if the school was rebuilt, students could still be stranded from help, according to the report.

A blue line shows the Oxford Elementary School within the boundaries of the Keith Avenue Landslide Zone.
A report by Alan Kropp & Associates maps the location of the old Oxford Elementary School within the Keith Avenue landslide zone. Credit: BUSD

Students stayed at the school for the remainder of the year, though a handful of families left for other schools in the district, fearing the worst-case scenario. Fall 2020 was held online due to the pandemic, but when students returned in March, it was to a new building near West Campus in West Berkeley, which remains the site of the school.

Since then, the Oxford Street building has sat vacant as a district committee has weighed its options. Recently, neighbors complained that people were vandalizing the property, and facilities director John Calise said the district spent $23,000 on a new fire alarm system after someone ripped out the old one. The district also replaced and boarded up broken windows.

In January, six members of the committee recommended that the district sell the property. When the district had the property appraised, it was valued at $2 million, a number that Calise said may seem low because of the different way public school property is valued.

Three members of the committee wanted BUSD to develop workforce housing. They noted that the appraisal determined that the “highest and best use” — the most profitable and legally permissible use —  for the property was housing development.

“[T]he 1130 Oxford site has been public land for over a century, and it’s now in the hands of BUSD and COB to figure out how this land can best serve the public going forward,” Phyllis Orrick, a member of the committee, wrote in a letter to Berkeley Assemblymember Buffy Wicks and Senator Nancy Skinner.

“Will it be sold to a private developer who may construct ten McMansion, or will there be +/-40 affordable housing units in a high resource area, delivering on the promise of affirmatively furthering fair housing?” Orrick asked.

On Wednesday, the school board did not decide what to do with the property, asking facilities for more information before making a decision. What would the cost of demolition be, and how much would it raise the property value? School Board president Laura Babitt asked the district for more information on staff interest in workforce housing, while others cautioned against building housing on the site.

A 110-unit affordable housing project is already planned for BUSD staff in the parking lot of the Berkeley Adult School. A 2017 survey found that half of staff who responded said they would be interested in living in BUSD employee housing.

“The board has publicly acknowledged that it was not safe to keep students and staff,” Calise said. “So when we say that to then potentially move our workforce, or any workforce up there, and put them potentially in the same condition, that can prove to be problematic.”

The problem wasn’t with the buildings, which have held up well over time, Calise emphasized, but with the risk of being cut off from help by emergency vehicles in that part of the Berkeley Hills in general.

“A place doesn’t just become safe if we decide to put adults rather than children on the campus,” Director Ka’Dijah Brown said. 

The area’s neighbors also weighed in at the meeting, one dreaming up a community recreation center, while others reiterated their desire to be involved with the process as it unfolds and asked for better communication.

Neighbor Eileen Killory lives around the corner from the vacant school building and her son lives downhill from it, in the landslide zone. “When you hear about a landslide that’s got gigantic boulders coming down with a quake happening, and you’re reading this report, it seems to be more personal,” Killory said.

For now, the district will continue to maintain the vacant property. “Our real financial obligation right now is just to maintain a vacant property, to keep it safe and keep it from being vandalized,” Babitt said.

The timeline for next steps isn’t clear. Facilities will respond to questions from the board, which will eventually make a decision about the property.

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...