The city of Berkeley held an open house Wednesday for a plan to reshape the Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park and two nearby historic buildings — Veterans Memorial Building and the Maudelle Shirek Building, also known as Old City Hall — located in Berkeley’s Civic Center.
Created with the input of some 600 community members, the Civic Center Vision Plan is aimed at improving the public space around Berkeley’s civic center to reflect the city’s diversity and history, according to the project’s website. However, some criticized the plans for not considering the unhoused community.
“As a city, we must decide if we want to invest the time, energy, and resources to save it so that it serves the specific needs of today and tomorrow,” said project director Amanda Knowles of Siegel & Strain Architects, a firm tasked with the development of the plan, at the open house.
The city adopted the plan in Sept. 2020 and is set to finalize the design in June 2023, with construction slated to begin in 2026.
One of the plan’s proposals revolves around designs that allow the Civic Center Park to be better utilized by the community. This includes potentially adding seating, bringing food and beverage vendors to the park or building a performance venue.
The park will also feature the Turtle Island Monument Project, a memorial to the Bay Area’s Indigenous communities that revitalizes the park’s central fountain.
One tentative idea to better utilize the public space is to host the farmers market — which happens every Saturday morning on the Center Street side of the park — on both sides of the park so that people can stay and spend the day there, said Colin Searles of Siegel & Strain at the open house..
The park has historically been underutilized by the public, and its most visible users are unhoused people “who have come to regard the Park as their home,” according to the Civic Center Vision Plan report. This has “regrettably” changed public perception of the park, the report added.
While the project is meant to improve community engagement with the civic center area, some have expressed concerns about the project’s implications for the unhoused community.
“One piece of criticism I have is that the houseless people who live there weren’t mentioned at all,” said Berkeley resident Aimee Hutton at the open house. “A lot of people live there and have their meals there.”
Knowles, of Siegel & Strain, noted nonprofits that work to support the houseless community that are currently based in the Veterans Memorial Building would have to relocate in the event of reconstruction for seismic repair.
Relocation plans for the people living at the park are uncertain for now, according to an anonymous city official familiar with the project.
The plan also provides for renovations to Civic Center buildings. The Veterans Memorial Building, built in 1928, would be turned into a community arts center with performance venues. Built in 1906, the Maudelle Shirek Building would include a new large meeting chamber, the city office for public engagement and museum space for the Berkeley Historical Society.
Both buildings are also recommended for seismic retrofits. However, whether funding will be provided for these upgrades remains uncertain, according to a city official.