Superintendent shuts down Berkeley High School’s gym due to seismic safety concerns

Ashley Chen/Staff
The old gym at Berkeley High School is being torn down because it is seismically unsound.

The abrupt shutdown of Berkeley High School’s gymnasium last week, which forced the few students still using the structure to relocate, has also raised questions about the vulnerability of school structures in the city.

Berkeley Unified School District Superintendent Bill Huyett’s decision this month to close the gym —  already slated to be torn down in January because of seismic safety concerns — came as a surprise to parents and students who assumed it would remain open until the end of the year.

“Being a prudent and cautious administrator, I asked the principal if we could move the students and storage now instead of waiting three months since we were going to have to move out soon anyhow,” Huyett said in a message sent out to the high school community last Tuesday.

The district will undertake a multi-million dollar project that will begin in January which will create a three-story facility with a new gym, a fitness center and more than a dozen classrooms where the old gym currently stands. The project is funded by Measure I, a $210 million bond measure passed by voters in 2010 intended for district construction projects.

Although a draft Environmental Impact Report for plans to renovate the high school in September 2006 raised serious questions about the safety of the gym, school board officials only decided in 2008 to form a group of engineer and landscape architects to decide whether the gym could be reasonably adapted.

ABS Consulting, a risk-management company, has raised concerns about the safety of the building, which houses a gym that was built in 1922 and a warm-water pool from 1929, according to the message sent by Huyett.

More than 9,000 school buildings in California are vulnerable to earthquakes, according to a 2002 inventory conducted of the state’s K-12 school buildings by the state’s Department of General Services, which funds for the creation and construction of schools.

Of those buildings, 7,537 were considered “likely not to perform well” in future earthquakes and needed further seismic evaluation, according to California Watch, a nonprofit investigative reporting group founded by the Center for Investigative Reporting.

The state architect’s office is required to enforce the Field Act, a state law enacted nearly 80 years ago that requires buildings to meet certain safety standards. But enforcement of the act has been plagued with inefficiency and chaos, according to a California Watch investigation.