The Berkeley Montessori School has gone into high gear with plans to renovate the former Santa Fe Railway depot at 1310 University Ave., currently home to the Santa Fe Bar and Grill restaurant.
In June, the school purchased the site from the Catellus Corporation, which inherited the assets of the now-defunct Santa Fe and Pacific Railroad. It developed Mission Bay in San Francisco, among other projects.
Assistant Head of School Lynne Miles said the eventual look and feel of the school would be influenced by the Montessori educational philosophy, which puts a premium on appealing visual environments and large classrooms with space for independent projects.
“One of the things we’re working on is to get the new design to give a nice flow from the inside to the outside,” Miles said.
Five architectural firms from as far away as Santa Monica have been invited to submit proposals for the domed Mission Revival structure, built in 1904 with a major addition to the rear in the 1940s.
A panel of judges, including three University of California faculty, noted architects and Montessori school board members, will decide on the architect in December.
With encouragement from the school, the Berkeley Landmarks Preservation Commission voted unanimously on Sept. 10 to designate the depot as a city landmark, and a vote by the City Council is pending. Commission officials could not be reached by press time to discuss how such a designation might impact renovation plans.
“When we bought the property we knew it would be landmarked,” said Wes Boyd, a parent who chairs the site committee. “It’s going to be the gem of Berkeley Montessori, so we wanted to leave it in its historic form.”
The school will hold a public input session at the restaurant on Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon. A similar meeting for parents and supporters was held at a school facility last Saturday.
Boyd said that neighbors’ concerns might include parking and the daily pick-up and drop-off of kids. “It’s hard to guess what the neighbors’ concerns would be, but those are the obvious things,” he said. “We want to get feedback up front rather than waiting for design to be done.”
The school runs two facilities with 260 students: a kindergarten and a pre-school it owns on Francisco Street, and an elementary and middle school in leased space at the former Hillside Primary School at 1581 LeRoy Ave. Though the Hillside site has more space than the old depot, administrators decided to move partly because the Hayward Fault is 200 meters away.
“Nobody could guarantee us how the building would perform if it’s right on the trace,” said Boyd.
In addition, said Sharline Chiang, the school’s spokesperson, leasing from the Berkeley public school system had kept the school in a somewhat uncertain position. “We don’t want to build our future here,” she said.
David Madson, chairman of the school’s fundraising campaign, said that “a handful” of individual donors had already donated $400,000 toward a goal of $1 million. The school intends to raise another $2.2 million he said.
The Berkeley depot began passenger service in 1904, after the fast-expanding Santa Fe Railway ran a line from Richmond to Oakland. It was designed by Charles Whittlesey, a key innovator of Mission Revival architecture who also designed the landmark El Tovar hotel at the Grand Canyon’s south rim. Oakland’s similarly styled depot was demolished in 1963, but trains still rumbled across University Avenue and by the Berkeley depot and nearby residences into the 1970s.
In 1969, the site became the home of the Santa Fe Bar and Grill. Today, it is well-shrouded with shrubs, and an organic garden out back – laid out where rails once ran – provides owner Ahmad Behjati with fresh produce.
Behjati, who owns two other high-end restaurants downtown, has not yet made plans to relocate. “We’ll stay in Berkeley,” he said, adding that the restaurant will remain open at its current spot until the renovation begins.
According to Boyd, work is due to commence in the second half of 2002 and the school hopes to teach there in the 2003 fall semester.
The former Jay Vee liquor store next door has been closed and will be replaced by the Netivot Shalom congregation’s new synagogue. The neighborhood currently offers a mixture of residences and businesses, the Berkeley Adult Learning Center, and, on Addison, Strawberry Creek Park.
“It’s very significant that a synagogue and a private school are moving into that neighborhood,” said Chiang, who added that the two institutions may coordinate on site planning, parking and other issues. The school, she added, will strongly support establishing a public bicycle and walking trail along the railroad right-of-way, which still stretches off to the north and south of University Avenue, fenced off and mostly vacant.
“We think it’s a great neighborhood,” said BMS Head of School Lairolyn (Lee) Davis. The school, she said, would retain the Santa Fe Grill’s organic garden “as much as we possibly can.”