Page One

Zoning Board Considers New Site for Animal Shelter

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday June 11, 2009 - 07:53:00 PM
The kennels at the current Berkeley Animal Shelter.
Jill Posener
The kennels at the current Berkeley Animal Shelter.

It’s been a long time coming. And if the city’s Zoning Adjustments Board gives the green signal Thursday, June 11, the Berkeley Animal Shelter will have a new home after a decade-long battle. 

The shelter, which has been running out of an 8,000-square-foot, one-story building in West Berkeley since the late 1950s, plans to relocate to the site of the old Helmet Building at 1 Bolivar Drive, thanks to a $7.1 million bond measure approved by Berkeley voters in 2002. 

The Berkeley City Council—which added another $1 million to the bond money—voted last summer to buy the property which was on the market for $1.9 million. 

A proposal to scrap the cur-rent 11,311-square-foot, two-story building on that site has already been approved by the city, and the zoning board is scheduled to vote on whether to let the Public Works Department build a new one in its place. 

The new animal shelter will be a two-story, 11,700-square-foot structure overlooking the I-80 freeway and the Berkeley bike-ped bridge. A paved area adjacent to the south of the site is owned by the City of Berkeley and is currently being developed into the East Touchdown Plaza by the Department of Parks, Recreation and Waterfront. 

A report from city planning staff says that that in order to provide a continuous design element for the animal shelter and the proposed plaza, the city hired the same firm, Design Community and Environment, to create the landscape design for both projects. 

A shelter specialist was brought in to design specific shelter components. 

Berkeley Humane Commissioner Jill Posener, who has been instrumental in getting a new site for the animal shelter for the last 10 years, said she had mixed feelings about the site. 

“I had very high standards and a vision for what I wanted to see,” said Posener, who led the campaign for the animal shelter bond. “My intention is to seek perfection, but I guess one has to learn to be pragmatic.” 

One of Posener’s concerns is that the current design does not provide rear access to the building or turnaround space for animal control vehicles. 

“That’s a big problem for an animal shelter,” she said. “Also the kennels are right up against the freeway. Will it have an impact on the animals? We’ll have to wait and find out.” 

Primitivo Suarez-Wolfe, assistant architect for the city’s Public Works Department, said that rear access could not be provided because the lower University Avenue off ramp curves around the north end of the property. 

Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, who replaced late Councilmember Dona Spring, a staunch advocate of the new shelter, said he shared Posener’s concern. 

“The access is a big issue,” he said. “It will be very difficult for the vans to maneuver. We are exploring some ways of getting access from one of the underpasses.” 

Posener said that although she felt that the bond money, along with the council’s $1 million, would cover construction costs for the new building, it was difficult to get a clear sense of what the actual expenses would be. 

“Bids are not in from the contractor,” she said. “We don’t know what we are missing.” 

Even if the bond money covers building costs, it will not be enough to buy medical equipment, furniture and other necessities for volunteers, Posener said. 

In spite of the shortcomings, Posener said the Bolivar Drive building would be a big improvement over the current municipal shelter, 

“It’s a marvelous location and will allow volunteers to continue to walk shelter dogs on unleashed walks in Aquatic Park,” she said. Local architects BurksToma collaborated with animal shelter consultants ARQ to design the new building which would be as “sustainable” as possible. 

“It is expected to be a model animal shelter, utilizing ‘green’ methods to reduce the environmental impact of this facility,” Posener said.  

Posener described the current shelter as unsafe and completely inadequate. 

“It’s terrible, simply terrible,” she said. “It has poor ventilation and lighting. The dogs can see each other which triggers a lot of barking and fighting. There’s no quarantine or medical area or a place for volunteers to meet. No outdoor dog room—I could go on and on.” 

Posener said that when the site floods, there were dog feces running all across the floor. The laundry room doubled up as the euthanasia room 

“It’s an unsafe facility, but it’s got some nice qualities as well,” she said. 

“Dogs can sit in their outdoor kennels and watch the world go by. However, the rabbits have to sit opposite to the dog kennel. Overall, the shelter staff has worked really hard to turn it into a much better place than what it was before.” 

Calls to shelter director Kate O’Connor were not returned by press time. 

Even before the Berkeley Animal Shelter, Posener said, there was the “dog pound,” an open lot where animals were all thrown in together. 

An educational book dating back to 1906 sheds light on the shocking conditions of Berkeley’s pound, describing it as being “located on the water’s edge at the foot of University Avenue and so close to the water that at high tide the pen is underwater,” Posener said. 

Here, the book said, dogs, horses and other animals were confined together in a large fenced pen and clubbed to death. 

“There is a description in the book of local people recalling hearing the yelping of dogs dying in pain,” Posener said. “The animals were so hungry they had gnawed and chewed on every wood structure. The pound was described as a ‘disgrace to civilized society,’ Berkeley’s ‘dirty little secret.’” 

When the Berkeley Animal Shelter was built at 2013 Second St. at the same location as the earlier pound in 1953, it was managed by one “reluctant department after another— public works, fire, and then police,” Posener said. 

Recordkeeping, although finally in place in the late 1980s, was spotty. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that records were available for public scrutiny. 

In 1996, Spring called for a new animal shelter, and two years later Posener and a group of local animal welfare activists set up Paws for Thought, demanding complete reform at the shelter. 

The group met with then-mayor Shirley Dean, who formed a mayoral task force in 1999 to examine shelter conditions. A year later, the task force released a report which transformed the way the Berkeley Animal Shelter was run.  

“The report called for profound policy changes at the shelter, including removing it from under the control of the Berkeley Police Department, the creation of a volunteer program, employment of a volunteer coordinator and city support for a local animal rescue group Home At Last,” said Posener, who at that time insisted that the city replace the dilapidated shelter on Second Street. 

The same year, new California state law mandated that shelters had to keep animals for a longer time and provide them with proper medical care. Up until then, shelters could euthanize animals even if they had minor medical conditions. 

“We improved the state law by saying that no animal would get killed if there’s a space problem,” Posener said. “We have done a lot in Berkeley.” 

In 2001, a non-profit spay-neuter program was established which the city took over in 2002, and has been funding ever since. 

More than 6,000 animals have been spayed and neutered under the program, Posener said. Euthanasia rates have also gone down drastically at the shelter, which euthanised 75 percent of all dogs and cats in 1988. That number decreased to 65 percent a decade later, and is at 15 percent today. 

One of the task force’s recommendations was a new animal shelter, and the animal advocacy group pushed the City Council to agree and support a bond measure which would fund the idea. 

The animal shelter bond was the only tax measure to pass in the East Bay in Nov. 2002, winning by just over the required two-thirds majority.