Corporation Yard needs more than just a makeover
L A Wood, Berkeley
Daily Planet February 21, 2002
In 1916, Berkeley's Public Works Department
completed construction of its new corporation yard on Allston Way. This
early city project moved the existing maintenance yard, which at that
time was little more than horse stables, from the north corner of University
Avenue and Sacramento to its current site. The Public Works commissioner
stated at the opening of the new yard, "We have made a beginning
of which to be proud, and when completed, may well serve as a model
for other cities." Almost ninety years later, even after several
major renovations in the early 30's, the 50's, and again in the late
1980's, those words and that vision have all faded away.
Today, the yard is boxed in by residential neighborhoods, and is at
capacity for operations and storage. Many of the yard's problems won't
be corrected with just another makeover. Like a Trojan horse, the imminent
upgrade of the corporation yard promises to open the door to a budgetary
boondoggle, with millions of taxpayer dollars at stake, and more.
Last Friday, the Public Works Department applied for a
use permit to relocate the yard's staff out of the old, single story
structures and into portable office trailers. This move signals the
beginning of the seismic upgrade of the site's unreinforced masonry
buildings. The cost to move the yard's staff and to plug in the trailers
is expected to reach half a million dollars, or more. However, no overall
cost analysis for this retrofit has been made public. The city knows
the seismic project is more than a simple posting up of the buildings
so as to keep them from falling down on city employees. In the past,
each of the yard's major renovations has both added structures and expanded
operations in order to meet the needs of the department. And today,
that need has never been more pressing.
The option to expand is being challenged by the area's
R2 zoning and the fact that the maintenance yard has become the largest
non-conforming land use in Berkeley. Both the city's General Plan and
the yard's Master Plan acknowledge the need to relocate, and not to
expand at the Allston location. This message also has been echoed by
residents who have publicly requested reductions in the yard's activities,
and specifically that the rock and gravel storage areas, as well as
the yard's fueling station, be moved to a more appropriately zoned site.
All council reports evaluating the corporation yard in the last decade
have reflected this same reality. The Public Works Department operations
have simply outgrown the present site.
Another serious barrier to the future expansion of the
corporation yard is concern over landmark preservation. The centerpiece
structure, the oldest on the five-acre site, was designed by Walter
Ratcliff, the city's architect at the time. Unbelievably, it has never
has been listed in any local or state Historic Resources Inventory.
However, there is no question that the main administration building
has need for landmark protection. The brick detail, wooden floors, and
barn-like shop areas bring back the memory of those first days when
a staff of 150 worked out of the yard, including a blacksmith.
Some of the details of this rich history have already been destroyed
by smaller capital projects at the yard, leaving only the Ratcliff structure.
Certainly any yard expansion should be limited because of this building's
landmark importance. It also physically partitions the site. Undoubtedly,
this building will continue to be an obstacle to the yard's modernization.
Fix it, expand it, or move it. Those are the options,
and each has its special cost for the Public Works Department, Berkeley
taxpayers, and the surrounding neighborhoods. Though staff is reluctant
to lay out the entire plan, our past experiences with cost overruns
for seismic work done at the library, the public safety building, and
the civic center, all confirm one thing. The corporation yard upgrade
will ultimately cost two to three times more than originally estimated.
Even a minimum investment in the site's structures will cost several
million dollars. A full-blown expansion will run six million dollars
or more. If the city's management of the project is factored in, the
costs for the yard could reach up to fifteen million dollars, the projected
cost of an entirely new facility. And with all costs being fairly equal,
only a new location will meet the future operational needs of the department
and the city.
Moreover, Berkeley owns an ideal site at Harrison and
Fifth streets where the city has begun construction of a park. With
relativity little invested to date, the corporation yard should simply
trade locations with the soccer fields and proposed transitional housing.
This would put an end to all existing zoning conflicts at both sites.
More importantly, it would give the Public Works Department a long overdue
professional yard, something that will never be achieved at the yard's
current location, no matter how much money is poured into it. We can
no longer afford to ignore the necessity of moving the corporation yard.
Once again, hoping to fly under the radar of both neighbors
and taxpayers, the yard's renovation is being offered up in a piecemeal
style. Public Works is now saying that it is merely fixing the yard
while actually preparing the site for another expansion. The first phase
of the capital project, in addition to the modular trailers, involves
the removal of several sheds and buildings. Phase two of the seismic
retrofit will involve new construction. This stealth project, like the
last one offered to residents in 1987, needs to be revealed for what
it really is.
In '87, a "fix it" plan was packaged to disguise the facility's
second phase construction of a fueling station from the area's residents.
Imagine the neighbors' surprise upon waking up one morning to find that
the city had relocated its fueling station within 60 feet from their
homes on Bancroft Way. Certainly the neighbors of the city's most recent
project, the communication tower on the new public safety building,
understand this reality.
Historically at the corporation yard, the city,
as developer, has always played the bully. The Public Works Department
has avoided the scrutiny of permits, honest environmental reviews, and
a fair public process. For the benefit of area neighbors and local taxpayers,
let's have all the cards on the table! With so much at stake, Berkeley
can not afford to miscalculate the needs of Public Works or the impacts
of the corporation yard on the surrounding community.