Berkeley parks

Look inside the abandoned Berkeley Civic Center

August 31 - Local groups want to repair Berkeley Civic Center / Old City Hall
The Berkeley City Council held its last meetings in the old Berkeley City Hall building in 2019. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

The next few months could prove decisive for the future of the abandoned Berkeley Civic Center.

City officials are launching a public process this fall that aims to gather community input on what residents want to see in a revitalization of Civic Center Parkthe Veterans Memorial Building and the old City Hall now called the Maudelle Shirek Building.

And in November, voters will decide on Measure L, a $650 million bond to fund a series of public works projects — hopefully including work at the Civic Center.

Berkeleyside got a glimpse of the current state of the region last week during a tour organized by Community for a Cultural Civic Centera coalition of local groups working to advance a vision in which the park and buildings are “the privileged space for civic life, culture and the arts”.

“It can be a much, much more vibrant neighborhood,” said Downtown Berkeley Association CEO and coalition member John Caner.

Defenders fear Former Beaux-Arts Town Hallwhich opened in 1909, and Veterans Memorial Buildingbuilt in 1928, are at risk of being “negligently demolished”.

Steps lead to the second floor of the old Berkeley City Hall, now called the Maudelle Shirek Building, August 31, 2022. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Both buildings are in need of major seismic upgrades, although each is still in use. The public access terminal Berkeley Community Media operates out of Old City Hall, which also serves as an emergency shelter for the homeless; the Veterans Building houses the Dorothy Day House shelter and the Berkeley Historical Society, among other organizations.

The Community for a Cultural Civic Center envisions a “cultural hive” in the Veterans Building, where local organizations could take advantage of its auditorium, and a museum of Berkeley history and culture in the Maudelle Shirek Building, as well only improvements to the park.

The city’s process, which will continue in the spring, aims to identify a “preferred design concept” for the park and buildings. Residents will have the opportunity to share their thoughts at a meeting on September 29; another public meeting will be held in January, and city officials also plan to launch an online survey.

The objective is to choose a concept next summer, then to get to work on the design of the project; a schedule established in a memo to city council calls for construction to begin in 2026.

It’s not yet known how much the upgrades to the Civic Center would cost. Caner said it would likely take “several million” dollars to complete the design work and get the project ready. From there, improvements to the park could cost $7-9 million, while a recent technical study revealed seismic work on the two buildings could cost around $50 million, which is less than expected.

But funding for the effort is far from certain.

This hallway from Old Berkeley City Hall leads to the former offices of the Berkeley Unified School District, Aug. 31, 2022. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

The first question mark is Measure L – the biggest bond in Berkeley history needs to win the support of two-thirds of voters to pass, which could be difficult for a measure that would increase property tax bills hundreds of dollars a year.

If the measure fails, Caner said the civic center project would have to find funding from another source yet to be determined.

If the L measure passes, the next question is how much money could go to the project. Most of the bond measure is already being talked about – city officials have pledged to spend $300 million to improve local streets, another $200 million to fund affordable housing projects and $50 million for work to relocate power lines underground along forest fire escape routes.

That leaves $100 million for a long list of local infrastructure needs, putting the Civic Center in competition with upgrades to stormwater systems, improvements to the Berkeley Marina and work at other parks and city ​​buildings.

The second floor of the Old City Hall in Berkeley, August 31, 2022. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight
The city council chambers in the old Berkeley City Hall building, August 31, 2022. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight
A map of the city of Berkeley on the dais of the Old Chambers of Berkeley City Hall, August 31, 2022. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight
The attic of Old Berkeley City Hall is used for storage, Aug. 31, 2022. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight
The old Berkeley City Hall building serves as an emergency shelter for the homeless, Aug. 31, 2022. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight
Berkeley’s Old City Hall is home to the Berkeley Community Media Public Access Station, August 31, 2022. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight
A view of Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park and the Berkeley Hills from Old Berkeley City Hall, Aug. 31, 2022. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight