Berkeley Public Works: Moving
into the Twenty-First Century
Script and Narration: L A Wood, December 1997
Across the country, millions of municipal employees come together
every day in an effort to maintain our cities and provide services.
Among these are the men and women of Public Works who clean the streets,
care for our parks, collect garbage, and more. Hello. We are here
in Berkeley to take a unique look at this municipal work force, and
to begin to understand some of the challenges facing Berkeley’s
Public Works as it moves into the twenty-first century.
Let’s begin our investigation by taking a step back in time
and reviewing the Public Works’ history of development. Our
story begins nearly 100 years ago when Public Works was little
more than horses and stables. This was a time of growth for the city
and the formative years for our municipal services.
Back then, Berkeley’s City Hall and the Public Works Corporation
Yard were located at Sacramento and University. In 1915, almost two
decades after the city hall was moved to the Civic Center, the stables
and equipment yard were situated away from the City’s main street,
further southwest to a new location on Allston Way. It was then that
Public Works began its steady move to modernize. By now, the work
force had risen to about 150, and was supported by a number of specialized
vehicles and equipment.
In the early 1920s, the municipal garbage collection was added to
the activities list of this “rock and gravel” yard. With
the increase in city vehicles, Public Works soon began to take on
a different look.
By the 1930s, the growth of the city’s fleet forced horse stalls
and storage areas to make way for shop space and vehicles. Fleet management
had finally emerged as a critical element of planning for Public Works’
future growth. The many changes which came with street construction
and city maintenance during this period also produced additional demands
for materials storage and processing of street oils and macadam and
The Public Works Department had entered an era of planning and design.
They were forced by the rapid changes in technology and increased
demands for services to look for better ways to operate.
In 1930, a new oil re claimer at the maintenance yard resulted in
a 40% decrease in oil costs that year for the fleet. That same year,
a new truck body design by the Public Works superintendent lowered
the sides of garbage trucks to just 56 inches from the ground which
not only made it easier to dump cans, but also saved two hours a day
for two workers. The war years limited much of the expansion that
occurred during the two preceding decades. However, the area’s
residential growth continued. By the 1950s, city planners began to
discuss the idea of moving the Public Works’ operations.
The Master Plan noted the yard’s nonconformance to zoning of
the surrounding area and indicated need for relocation. Yet, no plan
existed to accomplish this task. It was at this time that the maintenance
yard underwent its second capital renovation since its relocation
some 35 years earlier. The improvements were to the work and storage
The yard’s operations were shifting toward vehicle maintenance
and storage as more road materials were being purchased and shipped
directly to the job sites. Other activities like woodcutting, asphalt
processing and the use of the old boiler had all been phased out too.
For more than a half a century, Public Works had managed to keep abreast
of the growth in city services, its municipal work force and fleet
operations. However, it soon faced an undeniable reality. First, the
refuse or solid waste division could no longer be accommodated at
the Corporation Yard. And then there was the landfill crisis.
It was projected that the Marina landfill would reach capacity by
1978 and something must be done if the city were to remain in the
collection and disposal business. This meant that a collection center
was needed to sort, recycle and transport the remaining refuse to
a landfill outside the city.
In 1968, the Refuse and Disposal Fund started the process to acquire
an industrial property and made possible its construction in the early
1880s. Yet, even with changes which already occurred at the Corporation
Yard, the neighborhood began to organize and demand certain improvements
in the remaining operations.
Among these were further concerns about traffic mitigations, an accounting
of hazardous waste storage and disposal, and the relocation of some
traditional yard activities out of the residential area.
In addition, the community had called for the completion of the current
Master Plan for the corporation yard, which included additional onsite
parking, the removal of several buildings, and the unfulfilled promise
of a sound wall near the fueling station. Some of this project remains
These operations had sparked a public discussion which forced an evaluation
of the Corporation Yard’s operations. The report, completed
in 1993, identified the need for additional space for Public Works
and suggested that a further investigation be done in identifying
the project. This effort was never funded. An interesting point in
this report was the inclusion of the School District in a possible
joint vehicle maintenance facility.
It should be noted the Berkeley Unified School District has moved
its maintenance operations and bus storage several times, but still
has not solved its future maintenance yard and fueling needs. School
buses are currently fueling at the City’s second street Transfer
Station. As we have seen, the steady expansion of Public Works over
the last eighty years continues to leave a legacy of operational concerns.
Let’s examine these problems by focusing on fleet management
and land use.
One of the greatest growths seen in Public Works has been in the numbers
of vehicles and their maintenance. In 1952, the fleet consisted of
about 100 vehicles and specialized equipment. Today, this number has
grown by over 500 percent.
Earlier in 1991, there was some discussion regarding vehicle reduction
when Berkeley adopted the state-mandated Clean Air Act. The plan committed
the city to trip reduction of both city employee commuters and in
its maintenance activities.
Nevertheless, the corporation yard failed to affect the commuting
patterns of its 200 workers, citing poor public transit accessibility.
Instead, Public Works elected to mitigate this requirement by purchasing
several electric scooters for parking control housed at the south
Berkeley site. Since that time, the state requirements for large businesses
like the city’s fleet have lessened, and this has slowed Berkeley’s
clean air efforts. Two Years ago, a fleet audit affirmed that the
city efforts at fleet reduction had been unsuccessful. It also indicated
that a number of problems existed with data collection and monitoring
of fleet activities.
If an army moves on its stomach then surely Public Works moves on
its gasoline. This was certainly understood in 1929. Staff changed
the hand-operated gas pump at the Corporation Yard to an electric
one achieving a savings of three fueling hours a day. It was recognized
then, as today, that the cost of fueling is more than the current
price of gasoline, which incidentally was 12 cents wholesale, back
then. Where vehicles are stored, fueled, and driven can have an enormous
impact on productivity and the environment.
Traditionally, the fleet has used one centralized fueling station
at the corporation yard. There was a slight shift in this pattern
a decade ago, with the development of the Transfer Station and fueling.
Today, most of the large trucks stationed at the Corporation Yard
visit the Transfer Station each day and consequently have equal access
to either fueling site. Yet they fuel at the vehicle maintenance yard
as do other large trucks located outside the area.
Although there have been some attempts to understand the dynamics
of city fueling, there have never been any origin and destination
studies done. Where do city vehicles actually operate? Can a more
diversified fueling scheme, which includes public stations, enhance
the city’s operations and emergency preparedness?
Since the 1950s, the city has acknowledged the inappropriateness of
the Corporation Yard to the adjoining residential area. The R2 zoning
of this area certainly has influenced many changes that have occurred
in recent (years) at this industrial site.
In Berkeley’s early days, land use was less of a problem than
it is today. Now, with our understanding of the effects that chemicals,
traffic and noise can have on our lives and environment, issues of
land use are now more seriously considered.
The community awareness to the city chemicals and other stored materials
spans more than two decades. As was seen with fueling, the Corporation
Yard continues to function as the city’s primary storage location
for road materials and street chemicals.
Little more than a year ago, the community requested the Public Works
Department reconsider its hazardous waste activities at the Corporation
Yard. Concerned that the city’s plan was to centralize all its
waste storage activities at the Corporation Yard, citizens asked for
an evaluation and a new hazardous waste plan.
In addition, they requested that all street materials and the large
trucks associated with road repair activities be moved to the Transfer
Station. The waste plan, drafted by the city’s Toxics Management
Department supports less onsite storage of virgin materials, minimization
of generated waste, and a relocation of the emergency spill response
activities of the city. In recent years, the city has re-configured
some part of Public Works each budget period: shifting staff, moving
activities and budgets like playing cards, with not overall long-term
vision and with little understanding of how these changes impact the
This can be observed by looking at the alternate fueling station project
slated for next year at the City’s Transfer Station. No evaluation
has been done to consider the impact on traffic patterns, site operations,
and most importantly, other development plans. Next year, state requirements
will force the reconstruction of the 2nd Street fueling station. How
will these two projects affect each other? How big should each be?
Will an already crowded Transfer Station safely accommodate these
activities in the future? These are some of the questions and challenges
ahead as Berkeley’s Public Work’s plans to move into the
Berkeley Public Works: Moving
into the Twenty-First Century
Script and Narration: L A Wood, December 1997