A grey 7-story building in downtown Berkeley across the street from a green lawn.
UC Berkeley plans to build a new “innovation zone” on the site of University Hall and a few commercial businesses on University Avenue. Credit: Ally Markovich

UC Berkeley aims to build a major new “innovation zone” in downtown Berkeley with two large laboratory buildings for research development, including one for genome engineering.

The nearly two-acre project would take up half a city block west of campus and require demolishing multiple UC-owned buildings on University Avenue, including two buildings that were landmarked by the city in 2004 and are currently home to several small businesses, including a poke and Thai restaurant. 

The university announced Monday that it will prepare a report to study the project’s environmental impact. Because the properties are owned by the university, UC Berkeley does not need to seek the city’s approval. 

Construction could begin as soon as the end of 2024, but timeline and budget are still being determined.

The development is a major step in a series of recent projects that will expand Berkeley’s research footprint. Several new life sciences campuses are under construction or planned in West Berkeley, including a life sciences campus at the former site of the Pacific Steel Casting and a major expansion by pharmaceutical giant Bayer.

The project would construct two buildings with laboratories and a multi-story parking garage. The North Building, the larger of the two at eight stories and about 310,000 square feet, would be leased to a private developer and house the Innovative Genomics Institute, a partnership between UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco headed by Nobel laureate Jennifer Doudna. How the South Building, an approximately five-floor, 176,000-square-foot laboratory building, will be used has not been determined.

This site was earmarked for development in UC Berkeley’s long-range development plan and helps meet the university’s goals for more academic and research space. The university is in the process of completing major seismic retrofitting projects by 2030 and as of now doesn’t have enough academic space for researchers whose buildings will be closed during that process, according to Kyle Gibson, a spokesperson for UC Berkeley Capitol Strategies.

This development would require demolishing University Hall and its annex, home primarily to administrative offices, and two commercial buildings landmarked by the city of Berkeley. Across University Avenue, a 115-year-old rent-controlled building was demolished as part of UC Berkeley’s Anchor House project. In this case, the buildings are already owned by the university.

The 1915 Earnest A. Heron building, now home to Lucky House Thai Cuisine, a dental office and a copy shop, was designed by architect John Hudson Thomas and retains his signature geometric ornamentation. The Martha E. Sell building, which includes a poke shop and an electric business, was built in 1911-1912, was designed by architect  George Anderson and includes classical detailing. Both buildings were landmarked by the city in 2004. 

Gibson said the businesses were receiving relocation assistance from UC Berkeley.

City councilmember Rigel Robinson, who represents Berkeley’s student district, said adding laboratory space will help turn Berkeley into a hub for scientific research — and he would like the city to be able to create more research and development centers, too.

“The university shouldn’t be the only entity that’s able to create those opportunities and jobs for Berkeleyans,” said Robinson, who introduced a proposal that would rezone more areas of Berkeley to allow for the construction of research and development sites. Staff need to develop the proposal further before presenting it to the City Council for final approval.

“What we’re seeing right now is that with insufficient lab space in Berkeley, startups are looking to neighboring jurisdictions like Emeryville and Alameda to find space and are taking those jobs and opportunities,” Robinson said.

"*" indicates required fields

See an error that needs correcting? Have a tip, question or suggestion? Drop us a line.

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,...