Labeled as seismically unsafe, Berkeley’s Old City Hall faces uncertain future

Old City Hall, home to Berkeley Unified School District's administrative offices, is seismically unfit and its future is in limbo.
Giana Tansman/Staff
Old City Hall, home to Berkeley Unified School District's administrative offices, is seismically unfit and its future is in limbo.

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With its ornamental tower and spacious steps, Old City Hall has long held an impressive presence in the heart of Berkeley at 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way.

Despite the building’s humble grandeur, a plaque left of the entrance reminds visitors that “this building does not meet structural standards for earthquake safety.”

The building is currently home to Berkeley Unified School District’s administrative offices and also hosts bimonthly meetings of Berkeley City Council, though the seismically unsafe label has led the city to look for new locations for their meetings — leaving the future of the city’s elegant historical edifice up in the air.

“The building should not be abandoned, because it has been the symbol of the city after it was built over a hundred years ago,” said Susan Dinkelspiel Cerny, a board member of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association. “It is a singular building. There is no other building like it — it is one of a kind.”

The total cost of renovating the building would be around $40 million to $50 million, according to city spokesperson Mary Kay Clunies-Ross.

But Cerny said the imminent departures would leave the building vacant and vulnerable to trespassers and neglect, adding that the worst possible option would be to board the building up — what she called “demolition by neglect.”

Instead, she said, the city should focus on who they could lease the building to and spend the money to retrofit the landmark.

At its Feb. 28 meeting, the City Council voted to have the city manager begin preparing the building for lease, though Clunies-Ross said no clear time frame has been established for this process.

Councilmember Darryl Moore said it was “sad” the council has to leave but also necessary to ensure the safety of employees that work in the building in the event of a major earthquake.

“What needs to happen is that, at some point, we need to put a bond measure to retrofit and update old city hall,” he said.

But according to Moore, retrofitting does not seem likely, due to the city’s current financial situation and the likelihood of voters passing another bond measure, despite being the most feasible way of footing these high costs. The earliest this would be put on the ballot is the June election, he said.

“Until we do get one passed, unfortunately, the building is going to stay empty,” Moore said.

Although retrofitting the building is one of the city’s more costly projects, it is not the only facility in need of renovation, according to the city’s biennial report on capital improvement projects for fiscal years 2012-13. Projects like the seismic retrofitting of the Veterans Memorial Building and renovation of King Pool will also have to find alternative funding sources through grants, fee increases or possible ballot measures.

It would cost more than $500 million to complete all of the infrastructure projects the council came up with at a series of work sessions last fall.

Worries about the uncertain future of the building have gained further urgency now that the school district’s move to its newly renovated West Campus facility is set, to take place next month, according to district spokesperson Mark Coplan. The district has occupied Old City Hall since 1975.

The City Council is still deliberating on three final possible locations — Berkeley City College Auditorium, Longfellow Middle School Auditorium and North Berkeley Senior Center Multi-purpose Room — and will meet again May 1 to discuss the viability of the different options.

Having been the meeting place for political change for over a century, Old City Hall is not only an architectural exemplar but also a historical reminder of an illustrious past, notably from the Free Speech Movement in the 1960s to public education cuts in 2012.

Furthermore, the building was renamed the Maudelle Shirek Building in 2007, in honor of the past Berkeley City Council member, who was also a civil rights activist and the oldest elected official in California.

“We don’t want our city to look like every city in the state,” Cerny said. “It helps Berkeley to have a distinctive quality to it.”

Weiru Fang covers Berkeley communities.