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BAM Architect Listens to Community Ideas

By Richard Brenneman
Friday December 22, 2006

Tuesday morning Berkeley met the man who will help transform the face of downtown. 

UC Berkeley officials introduced Toyo Ito to a gathering of officials and interested citizens in the seismically unsafe Pacific Film Archive’s (PFA) Gund Theater. 

Ito, a world-renowned Japan-ese architect known for his strikingly original designs, is the university’s choice to hire to design a new home for the PFA and the Berkeley Art Museum in downtown Berkeley. 

Ito, who took notes as he listened intently with the help of translator Noriko Takaguchi, had little to say himself—leaving most of the speaking up to two university officials, museum/ PFA Director Kevin Consey and Kerry O’Banion, a principal planner for capital projects. 

But the images of some of Ito’s projects that played on the screen during part of the 90-minutes session left Calvin Fong convinced the architect would create something that didn’t look like any other Berkeley building. 

“That’s pretty clear,” said the assistant to Mayor Tom Bates. 

Consey said he expects the $120 million project will draw 300,000 people a year to the site that would occupy the eastern half of the block bounded on the east by Oxford Street, on the south by Center Street and on the north by Addison Street. 

Immediately to the west on much of the remaining half of the block that ends on Shattuck Avenue will rise a 19-story hotel also being developed at the university’s behest. 

The project is being funded entirely by grants and gifts, and Consey made a pitch at the end of Tuesday morning’s presentation—ostensibly a meeting of the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC). 

DAPAC, created as a result of the settlement of a city lawsuit challenging university development plans laid out for the first two decades of the 21st Century, is helping to draft a new plan forced on the city by the university’s mandate to develop at least 800,000 square feet of new space south of the campus in the city center. 

That figure doesn’t include the hotel, which is a private development. 

While the session was billed as a DAPAC meeting, Chair Will Travis sat in the audience next to Berkeley Planning and Development Director Dan Marks and Planning Manager Mark Rhoades.  

Of the nearly 1,000 daily visitors expected at Ito’s building, three-fourths will be members of the general public and many will be Berkeley residents. “That alone makes it important to listen to the community and hear your aspirations,” said Consey. 

The museum will display examples from the university’s extensive art collection, while theaters and classrooms will offer screenings, conversations and classes about notable films. The facility will also house facilities for restoration and preservation of artworks and films. 

Ito was chosen in a process that began with 141 firms worldwide, and selected because of his track record for “creating inspirational multi-use buildings,” said Consey. The Berkeley project will be Ito’s first North American commission. 

When it came time for comments, Michael Katz, a member of Friends of the United Nations Charter, led off with a plea to preserve a landmark building that now occupies much of the site—the UC Press Building, where the charter was printed before its adoption at the first session of the United Nations in San Francisco in 1945. 

“It’s a wonderful piece of history and was almost made to be converted into a museum,” Katz said. 

John McBride, secretary of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, seconded the plea, adding that “the university press was the most innovative printing plant in America” when it was built. He also urged preservation of key features of other historic university-owned buildings on the same block. 


Creek pleas 

For Helen Burke, a Sierra Club activist in addition to being chair of the city Planning Commission and a member of DAPAC, made a plea for closing the block of Center Street between Shattuck and Oxford, as well as daylighting Strawberry Creek down the resulting public space. 

But City Councilmember Gordon Wozniak, after noting that the creek now runs through an underground culvert along Alston Way a block to the south, said diverting a waterway “could cause an ecological disaster” and have adverse impacts downstream. 

Carole Schemmerling of the Urban Creeks Council said Wozniak’s worries were misplaced, given that in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake the greatest damage to buildings outside the San Francisco Marina happened to building constructed over culverted waterways. Berkeley’s downtown culverts are already in poor shape, she said, citing three collapses in the civic center area. 

“We have a vision of a great pedestrian space, one that brings nature into the city,” said hydrologist Gus Yates of Citizens for a Strawberry Creek Process. 

“Obviously there is tremendous interest in finding a way to recreate a creek that did flow through downtown Berkeley,” said DAPAC member Steve Weissman. Agreeing that the project would be a re-creation rather than simply daylighting a long-buried channel, he said reestablishing a natural habitat was an important concept, as was reestablishing awareness of the role of the hills and the water they bring through the community. 

“Diversion of some water down Center Street will not ruin the downstream aspects,” said DAPAC member Wendy Alfsen. Given the loss of water-absorbing soil service in the university’s building boom, a watercourse down the street would help divert some of the increased runoff.  

She also noted that the block of Center where the museum is planned carries the heavy pedestrian traffic in Berkeley, 10,000 a day and likely to double by 2020 with increased enrollment at the university, she said. 

Richard Register of Ecocity Builders added his voice to the creek chorus, invoking Al Gore’s recent Berkeley visit and the specter of global warming to encourage a project that wouldn’t add fuel to the flames of global crisis. 

Rob Wrenn, who chaired the Planning Commission’s UC Hotel Task Force, joined the call for turning the key block of Center Street into a pedestrian plaza, and urged the university to coordinate the designs of the hotel and museum. 


Other voices 

While some speakers spoke of the need to discourage car use, Kensington museum consultant Ann Harlow said that while Berkeley “is a very idealistic city, I’m more concerned about practicalities and just being realistic. We need parking; downtown Berkeley is just so difficult to park in.” 

David Snippen, chair of the Civic Arts Commission, urged Consey to create street-visible display areas for works of local artists, and Downtown Berkeley Association President Mark McLeod urged the university to consider creation of space for local businesses. 

Architect Erick Mikiten, a disability rights activist, spoke from his wheelchair to urge Ito and Consey to “encourage another aspect of sustainability, one that must be considered from the inside out. I am talking about a built environment that sustains the usability of the building.” 

An supporter of universal design—a school of architecture that advocates access for all—he urged Ito to consider Berkeley’s role as the birthplace of the movement of independent living and universal access and to create “a world-class design that accommodates all people openly.” 

Retired architect Rodney Wong compared Ito’s opportunity to Frank Lloyd Wright’s commission to create the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, a chance to celebrate Berkeley’s role as “the world leader in everything that makes the world a better place.” 

Preliminary designs should be ready for public viewing sometime during the spring and project updates will be posted at the museum/PFA web site at 

O’Banion said coordination is already underway between the museum team and Carpenter & Co., the Massachusetts firm picked by the university to create the projected 19-story hotel at Center and Shattuck west of the museum. 

“Certain aspects can benefit from a joint approach, including parking and collocating services for both projects,” he said.