Neighborhood Presentation to Surplus CommitteeAt the May 25, 2006 meeting of the BUSD's Surplus Committee, several neighbors of the Hillside School property presented views on the disposition of the school and playground which the Committee is now reviewing. A written version of the neighborhood views was requested, which was supplied to the committee and is given here. After the presentations, there was discussion with the Surplusing Committee, whose thinking about the Hillside property is not very far from that of the neighbors themselves. Several members of the Committee have been making inquiries and been on the lookout for future uses of the site which would meet the needs of BUSD and the neighbors.
The committee invited all of us who live near the school similarly to be looking for constructive and acceptable onward users and uses of this remarkable land and building. It is important, of course, that they be able to bring funds for the building's lease or purchase, rehab and adaptation. If you know of prospects or have thoughts on this to discuss, please be in touch:
Hillside Association Secretary
We are here tonight on behalf of the neighbors of the Hillside School. We have met many times since we did the 1993 survey of neighborhood views regarding future decisions about the Hillside School property, which has been circulated to this committee. Tonight, we aim to present updated neighborhood views about the Hillside School building and its adjoining open space. We will explain why we feel strongly that the Surplus Facilities Committee should recommend that future decisions about the Hillside School property promote preservation of these two interrelated neighborhood assets, the building and its adjoining open space, as much as is economically feasible.
The Hillside School is a prominent, and architecturally distinctive landmark in our neighborhood. Many of us have stayed in
the neighborhood, or moved into it, because of the neighborhood feeling that the public school and its open space have provided.
Adults and children of the neighborhood, and from outside it, have long used the school’s open space for playing sports,
bike riding, and family and neighborhood picnics.
Our neighborhood is tranquil and residential, with narrow streets, limited parking, and a true sense of community. We value this tranquility, we value our existing open space for the recreation and safety, and we value architect Walter Ratcliff’s impressive structure. We also value the lack of significant commercial enterprises in our neighborhood. We would oppose the University becoming involved in ownership of the Hillside School property, and of course we oppose using the playground space for a parking lot.
If the Berkeley Unified School District decides that it must relinquish its ownership of the Hillside property, we urge the Surplus Facilities Committee and the District to:
1) take our neighborhood views and values into account throughout the decision-making process.
2) stay in active communication with us during the bidding process if the property is offered for sale or long-term lease, and
3) only accept a bid that will result in a predictable, permanent, and economically viable solution, thus minimizing the anxiety and stressful uncertainty we feel surrounding the future of our quiet residential neighborhood and this important landmark in it.
I live at 1570 Le Roy Ave. across the street from Hillside School where my siblings and I attended public school K-6. Like many Berkeley residents living near a public school, I "grew up" playing in its open space, not realizing until much later the importance of that public space for community. After Hillside was closed as a public school in 1983, my own children spent countless hours on what was always called "the playground," as if there were no other. The playground was a magical outdoor space for me, my children and countless others to play in. The playground's open space also serves our neighborhood as a firebreak and safe area. It is in the defense of the long-term interests of children–who have no vote or political power–and public safety that I urge the committee to embrace community open space in its recommendations for Hillside's future.
The Hillside School's open space defines the community, constituting its shared center of gravity. And, it is very important for recreation. Children and adults from the neighborhood and outside it use the playground every day, year round. It is a safe place for children to ride bicycles, for play with dogs, and for seniors to walk. I learned to ride a bicycle there, and so did my children. Children from all over Berkeley participate in activities such as the YMCA day camp, basketball, and other organized and spontaneous activities. Such public open spaces are under constant pressure from commercial interests for conversion to revenue producing purposes, including parking and residential uses. Let us take it as the long-term community interest to devise ways of enhancing public open spaces sustainably and in perpetuity for the interests of children.
The Hillside School's open space also fills important and often overlooked public safety functions. Our neighborhood has two ongoing and active natural hazards, namely fire and earthquake. It was burned to the ground in the catastrophic Berkeley fire of 1923, and was on the point of evacuation because of fire a decade ago. According to the city of Berkeley, the neighborhood is located in a fire hazard zone with continuing high risk. Earthquakes on the nearby Hayward fault and its traces are inevitable. Indeed, a major quake is expected in the next several decades as pressure increases along the fault. Large earthquakes may trigger fire, combining the two natural hazards. As in many parts of the East Bay hills, street access is not optimal for firefighters or other emergency responders or for rapid departure by fleeing residents. Neither of these natural hazards is pleasant to contemplate, but they won't go away by ignoring them. We must learn to live with the hazards while mitigating their negative effects by taking appropriate action now while thinking of the future. It is prudent, therefore, to preserve open space aggressively, to provide needed firebreaks and critical access sites for emergency responders and residents alike. Hillside playground is one of the few sites where fleeing neighbors could congregate and where a helicopter could land. It also constitutes a fire break in an otherwise house and tree-filled area. There are no overhead lines crossing the playground, but most street intersections have overhead lines.
Various measures and statutes, for example Berkeley's Measure L and the state level Naylor Act, mandate preservation of open space in situations exactly like the case of the Hillside School. The Hillside playground has functioned as a public park since its inception. Hillside's overall lot measures 2.85 acres. The building's footprint covers 1 acre, leaving about 1.85 acres of open space. The steep east side between the building and La Loma Ave. occupies perhaps .35 acres, leaving about 1.5 acres made up primarily of the main playground area to the building's west, and the little playground to the south. We hope to preserve as much of the existing open space as possible with a priority on the current playground to the west and south.
We believe that this open space can and should be greatly improved in a sustainable way to give more and better service to its many existing and future users. The playground is not currently being maintained adequately; indeed it has lost several essential features, including public water fountains. Other features have been degraded or abandoned. For example, ivy has taken over the entire west end of the lot, creating a dangerous blind curve on Le Roy Ave. and closing sight lines across the play area. Using it as a parking lot takes it away from children and other users, inflicts long-term damage, creates its own risks and is simply unacceptable as a use of open space in our residential neighborhood.
Thinking ahead, several potential future uses of the open space would meet with substantial objections from neighbors. Perhaps it is best to take these off the table immediately. They include:
• In-fill housing in the current playground area • A parking lot in the current playground area • A phony playground located on top of a parking lot • University of California control of the property.
Thinking ahead more positively, a plan for a revived playground was created with many ideas from YMCA directors Don Burl and Carol Wiegel, as well as from neighbors. This several page draft, "Proposal for Restoring Hillside Playground as Sustainable Common Open Space," is a specific set of ideas emanating from long-term users of the space who know the magic of playgrounds. It will be sent separately to the Surplus Committee. We urge its consideration as a practical step towards launching a dialog about how the space might be used.
It is one thing to witness and deplore the decline of Hillside because of neglect, it is another to think ahead, to grapple with the question of how to restore and sustain the playground and public open space. We need to think creatively to find durable solutions to financing and managing the open space in the future.
I come before you as a neighbor of the Hillside School since 1968, as a former parent of children at Hillside and as a school volunteer - in short, as someone who knew the Hillside School when it was still a jewel in the crown of the Berkeley Unified School District.
Opened with great fanfare in 1926, Hillside School is a major public project by an important Berkeley architect, Walter H. Ratcliff, Jr., whose work was celebrated several weeks ago in the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association's spring house tour. Ratcliff's half-timbered design is totally in harmony with its residential setting, reaching arms out to the north and south that embrace the neighborhood. It is our local center of gravity. We are the Hillside School Neighborhood. In fact, the splendid auditorium was explicitly built to be used by the community as well as by the school. The school yard is a magnet for all ages.
In 1983 the Hillside Elementary School closed. Like other neighbors and tenants, I have watched the surfaces of this gracious Tudor building literally rot. Paint peels. The roof leaks. Plaster falls. Windows break. Weeds grow. Money that the community is assured has been designated for the maintenance of Hillside somehow isn't available. The Berkeley Unified School District has simply turned its back on its stewardship of this major public asset.
Over the years, the larger community has recognized officially the historical and aesthetic importance of Hillside School. In June, 1982, it was designated a City of Berkeley landmark, and in October of that year it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. As you know, these designations offer the building and its site a degree of protection, as well as incentives to preservation such as tax advantages and waivers in building codes.
But what can protect a remarkable building from condemnation by an irresponsible owner's neglect? Your committee has now been impaneled to consider the ghost of the Hillside School. To the BUSD, Hillside is apparently a headache, a potential drain on scarce funds, a useless structure that might as well be a surplus warehouse. And, although structurally the building remains sound, your task has been complicated by a soils report, submitted in the 1990's by Harding Lawson Associates, stating that an ancient secondary trace of the Hayward Fault passes under part of Hillside. Instead of sharing the restraint and skepticism expressed by credible experts Edwin Zacher of H.J. Brunnier Associates and the late Bruce Bolt, director of the U. C. Berkeley Seismographic Station and former Chair of the California Seismic Commission, about the question of how active this particular trace has remained, people tend to speak of Hillside School as "on the fault," as if the actual Hayward Fault had been found between Le Roy Avenue and Buena Vista Way! Although reinforced with steel and declared seismically safe in an earlier survey of BUSD buildings, the stone of doubt has been cast. Before Hillside can be considered as a permanent site for an institution involving children, the use for which it was built, further soil studies would obviously need to be done.
Please try to think creatively as you advise the school board on whether to declare Hillside a surplus property and as you make recommendations for its possible future use. For years the district has not planned for Hillside. For years it has continued to betray the public's trust that BUSD would care for the building. In a 1993 survey of neighborhood opinion, the residents overwhelmingly supported one goal: the preservation of the Hillside School. With your help, can this building and the honor of the school district be saved?
As Mary Lee and Mike have said, the neighbors of the Hillside school would like the handsome Ratcliff landmark building, and its playground and open space to be preserved. As Linda mentioned, we also hope for a resolution, which is economically solid enough to be permanent. We understand that the building needs major rehabilitation for a new use or uses, and then will need substantial ongoing upkeep, for which there needs to be thorough provision.
Within the neighborhood's overarching desire for tranquility and stability, many favor a set of diverse community uses, which could include meeting space, senior activities, clinics, child care, day/evening classes and so forth. Many would want the auditorium, a remarkable space, to be preserved so that it can continue to serve as such. Many neighbors value educational, non-profit uses. The artists and art schools that we have had for many years, or the present chess club, are valued members of the neighborhood. Non-profit offices or various kinds of small schools, such as a culinary academy have been mentioned. Such a diverse set of uses could be managed with or without an intermediary, or umbrella organization between them and BUSD. The neighbors would expect a standard of appropriateness to be applied to individual sub-uses.
A single use could also be well received. The Montessori school was very much appreciated. Conversion to condominiums through re-development has also been discussed. Some neighbors have voiced reservations about 24-hour use, a big change from past use. Others are open to residential use. If conversion to living spaces is proposed, there is a clear preference for a small number of units, that is, a solution that minimizes auto traffic and the need for parking.
We're aware that if and when Hillside is declared surplus, BUSD will be looking for suitable and economically viable onward uses. A wide range of possibilities may be considered, and a solution might not be easy to find. One of the things we want to say to you tonight, is that the neighborhood also has a long-range interest. We want to provide steady and sensible participation in helping to find a fiscally viable solution that is also acceptable to the neighborhood. We hope the Surplus Facilities Committee will write such steady consultation with the neighborhood into its recommendations to BUSD.