Hillside School, on its site of a little less than three acres, was built in 1928 after the 1923 Berkeley fire. Designed by Walter Ratcliff, it served as an elementary school until 1983, when the School District closed it for demographic reasons. Both the City of Berkeley and the Federal Government have declared the architecturally distinguished structure a historical landmark.
No one knows the Hayward fault's exact position, but the schools's proximity has always been a concern. In the early 1990's, after exploratory trenching operations, the State of California declared, on seismic grounds, that Hillside School could no longer be a public school. This left Hillside in an awkward situation. The Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) could not use it for educational work and, according to law, could not sell it, and could not lease it for terms longer than month-to-month. However, month-to-month tenants have used the building for many activities—art studios, private teaching, offices, and private schools. Several tenants, such as artists' studios and the Berkeley Montessori School, rented under the month-to-month restriction for many years. BUSD has neglected the building, and it suffers from severe deterioration. Neighbors have followed BUSD's handling of it with concern for a couple of decades.
In 2007, BUSD began the public process required to declare the property surplus to their educational mission. In early 2008, with advice from a public committee, BUSD officially assigned Hillside surplus, which lets them legally lease space in it for multi-year terms, or sell it.
California's Naylor Act requires that before school districts sell a property on the open market, they must offer it to certain public entities at a considerable discount. In the latter part of 2008 and winter and spring of 2009, the neighborhood association worked with the City of Berkeley to mount a bid for the City's purchase of the Hillside Playground under the Naylor Act. Since the City doesn't have funds to purchase the land or convert it into a park, it would be reimbursed by a neighborhood tax-increment for a term of years. BUSD, however, responded less than frankly, and would not agree to divide the property and sell the playground land at a concessionary price. The City was not willing to mount a legal effort to enforce a Naylor Act sale, an effort that would have been complicated and uncertain of success. Therefore, the Naylor chapter closed, and we did not poll the neighborhood to see if we had the required two-thirds support for the tax increment to acquire the playground.
In October 2009, the elected school board instructed BUSD staff to resume efforts to sell the Hillside property on the open market, but this time in better consultation with concerned parties, including the neighborhood. BUSD is now seeking a realty company to manage the sale.
BUSD Superintendent Bill Huyett met with a group of neighbors on November 29, 2009, which represented improved communication between BUSD and the neighborhood. The very experienced superintendent talked about how letting go of property is always a difficult process for school districts. We worked hard to help him understand that the neighborhood is a stakeholder in the school sale/lease process, and that we want to be included in the communications and deliberations about the property's management and disposition. Mr. Huyett said that BUSD recognized our interest in how the Hillside property comes out, and would try to be more open about including the neighborhood and communicating with us.
While the present situation of BUSD's ongoing neglect and the decay of the Hillside School property is unsustainable, the real issue is not BUSD's decision to sell, in itself, but rather finding a suitable and adequately financed successor use for the property. The property is a difficult one, and there is a dearth of prospective purchasers. BUSD just recruited the real estate firm CB Richard Ellis to handle marketing Hillside, but as of now, late May 2010, has contracted with this realty company only for "initiation and data gathering," not a sale operation.
One potential candidate is a group of principal current tenants, led by the Berkeley Chess School, which is likely to propose a long term lease (probably five years) with option to buy. The Hillside Educational Foundation (HEF), as the group calls itself, tells us that it plans to keep the playground as open space and invest in physical upgrades to the building.
Most importantly, HEF is trying to work with architects, engineers, and the City of Berkeley's building authorities to establish how much and what kind of rehabilitation work Hillside needs to move into the next phase of its use. Given the building's neglect in recent years, its landmark status, and its seismic issues, the scale and cost of rehab and updating work is a critical component of estimating its affordability for HEF or other purchase/lease candidates. As far as we know, no candidates other than HEF have expressed interest.
Neighbors remain concerned at the prospect of a harmful new activity or land use replacing the school and its playground. Many would like to see the architectural jewel preserved, although substantial rehab investment is needed for seismic safety and to remedy under-maintenance and deterioration. Decay and insecurity are a potential danger to the neighborhood and an issue for us. Many neighbors, particularly parents of our new generation of young children, also hope Hillside's acre-plus playground is preserved and improved as open (and potentially city park) space, rather than turned into a parking lot or houses. Also, if kept open, the playground space is valuable as an operations center in case of earthquake or other disaster.
We neighbors should be aware that maintaining a neighborhood place at the table, particularly to preserve and improve the playground as recreational space, may require us to raise funds among ourselves as, for example, the tax increment district would have done.