Corporation Yard needs
more than just a makeover

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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.

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