Negotiations are underway to renovate and redevelop Bowles Hall into a residential college, after the project cleared its latest hurdle at the March UC Board of Regents meeting.
The board approved terms for the negotiation of the property’s lease to the Bowles Hall Foundation, a nonprofit organization composed mainly of UC Berkeley alumni, which would oversee the construction efforts and operate Bowles Hall as a residential college. Intended to reopen in August 2016, students would be encouraged to live in the newly co-ed college for the duration of their undergraduate education.
The $37 million construction is expected to begin May 2015 and last until July 2016. The project would be financed by the Bowles Hall Foundation through the sale of revenue bonds and donations and would come at no cost to the campus.
The redeveloped hall would follow a residential college system, modeled after similar colleges at Oxford and Cambridge. It would be a self-governing, financially self-sustaining entity with live-in faculty, a restored lounge and its own dining commons. Students would be supervised by a housemaster reporting to a board of directors composed of alumni, faculty, students and members of the community. The plan intends to promote a greater sense of community and a higher four-year graduation rate than other campus housing options, according to the foundation’s website.
Bowles Hall, the first residence hall on campus, opened in 1929 as the first residential college in the United States — one year earlier than Harvard University’s first residential college.
“Bowles Hall was a pioneering attempt to create a small college setting within a large college campus,” said Robert O’Hara, a higher education consultant who has researched residential colleges extensively.
If the plan is completed, Bowles Hall would be the best modern example of a residential college on the West Coast, O’Hara said.
The hall ceased to follow the residential college model in the 1970s, according to UC Berkeley alumnus Bob Sayles, who lived in Bowles Hall and graduated in 1952. After one year of living in the building, students had to reapply to live there the next year and were selected through a lottery system. In 2005, the building became restricted to housing freshmen.
Sayles, who is now spearheading the redevelopment efforts, said he was concerned when he heard the building would no longer house students of all ages — something he felt was integral to his college experience. That year, he and three other former Bowles Hall residents met with campus officials and began speaking to students about their experiences in the hall.
They discovered that the building was in a state of disrepair; it had not been renovated since it was built, according to Sayles. Landon Damiao, a UC Berkeley freshman and current Bowles Hall resident, complained that some bathrooms do not have sinks.
The building also fails to meet modern earthquake safety guidelines and isn’t accessible to disabled students, according to Sayles.
“The maintenance department’s great, but it’s an 80-year-old building on a fault line,” said Indy Nelson, a UC Berkeley junior who lives in Bowles Hall. He petitioned the campus as a transfer student to allow him to live in the building as a junior.
Since 2005, Sayles and other alumni have worked with students, faculty and administrators to develop a plan for the renovation and recreation of the Bowles Hall residential college experience, traveling to institutions such as Harvard University and the University of Virginia that currently use this system.
In October 2012, the Bowles Hall Foundation put forth its first formal proposal, which wound its way through the approval process, culminating in the March 20 decision of the UC Board of Regents to authorize the university to negotiate the terms of a ground lease.
That negotiation is currently ongoing. The Bowles Hall Foundation intends to negotiate for a 45-year lease during which time the foundation would control the construction and subsequent operation of the building. The university would be relieved of all maintenance and operation costs, as Bowles Hall would be financially self-sustaining, according to the foundation’s website.
Impact on student housing during construction has not yet been determined, according to Marty Takimoto, spokesperson for Residential and Student Service Programs.
“We look forward to working closely with the Bowles Hall Foundation to ensure that any possible impacts on students are minimized (including any temporary housing needs) during proposed renovation work,” he said in an email.
The reopened Bowles Hall would be co-ed for the first time in its history. Sayles said those developing the plan thought living in a co-ed building is “richer and more like adult living than in a single-sex facility.”
If the project is completed, Stern Hall would be the only single-gender residence hall on campus. UC Berkeley freshman and current Bowles Hall resident William Tang said, “People might question why there’s an all-girls dorm but no all-guys dorm.”
Damiao noted that the current single-sex status brings an associated stigma. Many people look down on the hall because it’s restricted to men, he said.
He also raised concerns that the new system might affect the sense of history and tradition that makes Bowles Hall so integral to the UC Berkeley campus.
O’Hara, however, said the redeveloped Bowles Hall would enable access to the breadth of UC Berkeley’s offerings in a small, family-like environment.
“A new Berkeley student who joins Bowles Hall will really be joining a Hogwarts by the Bay,” he said.