‘Once in a lifetime opportunity’: Berkeley residents, City Council debate renovations to Willard Clubhouse

Photo of Willard Park clubhouse
Theo Wyss-Flamm/Staff
The Willard Clubhouse sits behind a closed park fence in Willard Park. At a community workshop Thursday, Berkeley residents expressed their opinions on redesigning of the clubhouse.

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For decades, Willard Park has been a staple in the South Berkeley community, beloved for its tennis courts, greenery and beautiful sunset views.

However, the small Willard Clubhouse, occupying 525 square feet in the southeast corner of the 2.72-acre park, has come under great scrutiny as Berkeley City Council members debated the redesign of the building during a community workshop Thursday.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to remodel and redesign the Willard Clubhouse,” said Councilmember Lori Droste during the workshop. “It’s in desperate need of rehabilitation, not just for the children of Berkeley but for all the residents of South Berkeley.”

Funded by the $100 million T1 infrastructure bond passed in 2016, Willard Park received $7 million toward building a larger clubhouse, according to Scott Ferris, director of the city’s Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Department. He added that other recipients included the MLK Jr. Youth Services Center, South Berkeley Senior Center and African American Holistic Resource Center.

Ferris also said the previous building in Willard Park housed a summer and afterschool program that cared for kindergarteners through fifth graders. With a program capacity of 45 children and a waiting list capped at 50, the clubhouse was unable to accommodate a large proportion of the Berkeley community.

“Our afterschool is designed for those people who can’t afford to pay for traditional afterschool, and we would like to expand that program,” Ferris said. “There’s a high need for K-5 programming and a place the community can have space for adult or youth classes, a community meeting room or birthday parties.”

The expansion, which will be designed by ELS Architecture and Urban Design, was brought forward in four different proposals, all of which exceed 2,000 square feet. According to Mark Schatz, principal architect of the firm, the proposals include one to two activity rooms, an office, a kitchen, a storage room and indoor restrooms.

While, during the workshop, the city council members sought feedback from the community regarding which proposal they would prefer, some residents expressed sentiments against the renovation as a whole.

“I am adamantly in objection to the fact that we are going to lose a large amount of open space to accommodate this building,” said Mark Lowe, a neighbor to Willard Park, during the workshop. “We’re talking about a large building that is going to accommodate uses that we don’t currently entertain at this park … I just wish we could look at a downsizing of this thing.”

At the same time, some community members declared their support for the project, citing its usefulness for children. UC Berkeley student Davina Srioudom added that the clubhouse could achieve “long-term goals of equity.”

Ferris said the project includes a proposal to remove nine obstructive trees from the vicinity of the clubhouse along with an addition of at least 30 trees throughout the remaining park.

While some residents agreed that the trees’ placement in the northwest corner of the park would be harmful to its scenery, Srioudom lauded the efforts to reduce the park’s carbon footprint.

“I know how important supportive adults are in the development of children,” said resident Jim McGrath during the workshop. “These children live in our neighborhoods, and we have a responsibility to provide for Berkeley for the future.”

Contact Kavya Gupta at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @kavyaguptta.