Demolition Derby

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They are the 50,000 square feet of concrete and glass on the Southside serving 833 diners at a time.

Designed by modernist architect John Carl Wernecke in 1956, their pagoda roofs, while often littered with garbage, are visible from the top of the Berkeley Hills.

Two or three times a day, the approximately 2,000 students who live next to them make the familiar trek from dorm room to a meal and back, rarely thinking of the architectural significance these structures possess.

They are the dining commons of Unit 1 and Unit 2, and to the dismay of local architecture groups, they will soon be torn down to make way for the Underhill Area Plan, which will dramatically alter the Southside.

The pavilions have recently been landmarked by the city of Berkeley, but the university can still demolish the buildings legally because they are on university property.

When they are demolished within the next two years, the Underhill Area Plan will be fully underway, bringing with it a transformation of a neighborhood dominated by UC Berkeley students.

"When the community protests, it's frustrating because it's almost as if it's an exercise in futility," says Lesley Emmington, the

Southside representative to the Landmarks Preservation Commission. "The university policy is 'decide, announce, defend,' in pattern and practice. How does the community come forward as being legitimate in its concerns?"

In the 1950s, UC Berkeley underwent perhaps the most formative period in its history. Baby boomers and GI-bill beneficiaries flooded the campus in what is now known as the "Tidal Wave" of enrollment. When they came, the city and the university were forced to build housing on a larger scale than ever before.

To house more students, they commissioned a competition: architects would submit plans for two high-rise dorm complexes with higher capacity than other UC Berkeley dorms at the time.

Wernecke emerged the winner. He envisioned complexes with tall structures concentrated on the edges, leaving the center space open.

In the middle of the blocks, he built the dining halls. Their glass facades were designed to give the impression of openness in the middle of large-scale development, but it is the pagoda roofs, which Emmington calls "the miracle" that gave them their distinctive look.

"It's about as good as anybody offered at the time," she says. "It was the best. In those times, there was no question that was the way to go. The trick is to offset or give grace to something that was ungraceful. What he felt he could do was have the roofline express a spirit."

In an urban environment, the dining halls provide a sense of calm, says Anthony Bruce, the director of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association.

"The reason this design was so successful was because they managed to keep open space in this design by creating tall buildings along the edge," he says. "They could keep a lot of property open for landscaping and glass-walled dining pavilions."

The association sponsored the proposal to landmark the pavilions, and the landmarks commission approved it, with only the appeals process still open.

Fittingly, the dining halls that were built for the "Tidal Wave" will be washed away by "Tidal Wave II," the children of the first boom generation. Nearly 4,000 of them are expected to come to UC Berkeley by 2010, and housing them all has become a major headache for both the university and the city.

"It's tricky because there are grand proponents for many of the elements, and opponents too," says Jennifer Lawrence, the university's principal planner. "You will find articulate opponents and proponents for every site on the Southside."

The dining halls - which can be seen in the movie "The Graduate," along with many other Southside buildings - are only one part of the university's much larger, long-term Underhill plan.

If the UC Board of Regents approves the proposal in November, the university will begin implementation. First, a three-level parking structure with a playing field on top would be constructed on what is now Underhill Parking Lot, along with a new dining commons that will feed 800 people at a time in a combination of indoor and outdoor seating.

Later, new dorm structures will be inserted into Units 1 and 2, and two entirely new apartment-style dorms will be constructed - one at the corner of Channing Way and Bowditch Street, and one at the corner of College and Durant avenues. In all, up to 900 beds are expected to be provided.

Like any development proposal, the Underhill plan has met with resistance from area residents. Rick Young, a Boalt Hall Law School student, camped out on the lot early this summer because he felt not enough housing was included in the plan.

The Fox Cottage, a historically significant building, will not continue to exist on Channing Way after the completion of the Underhill plan. The university is offering it for sale - for $1 - to someone who will move it to an alternate site where it can be preserved.

Other structures, such as the Anna Head school and several fraternities, are landmarked and will be unaffected by the development. The Bernard Maybeck-designed First Church of Christ, Scientist, for example, is mentioned in Underhill's draft Environmental Impact Report as a nearby "historical resource."

The historical significance of the residence halls is somewhat open to debate. Students who live there often characterize them as ugly and impersonal.

"They should be knocked down," says ASUC External Vice President Nick Papas. "There are a lot of examples of modernist architecture on campus, and even though they are examples of this style, we have a responsibility to house our students."

But demolishing the dorms will deprive the city of a crucial piece of heritage, Bruce argues.

"Fifty years ago, Victorian buildings were not considered significant," he says. "We're at that same crossroads with modern buildings, where people can look at them affectionately in the future."

The university did take the pavilions' historical significance into account in the planning process. In the end, their demolition was deemed unavoidable. Unlike the dorms that surround them, they have not been seismically retrofitted, making the university eager to remove students from them before an earthquake can occur.

And while the campus is open to community concerns, work on the Underhill plan needs to begin, Lawrence says.

"I think the campus would have some concern about changing strategies now because I think there would be some concern that it's a delaying strategy," she says. "I think we feel the project that is currently proposed is a good one."

Lawrence points out that students will never be without a dining hall, as the new complex will be built before the old ones are demolished.

Councilmember Kriss Worthington, whose district includes the units, says he is worried the new dining hall may not hold enough students and could put them in danger.

"Is it really safe to have thousands of students walking in front of all of these cars everyday?" he says, referring to the facility's location across the street from both Unit 1 and Unit 2. "Are we creating this jam-packed scene where you'll have to stand up in order to eat?"

Like it or not, the Underhill plan will likely soon be a reality. Take a look around - in ten years the Southside will be a whole new place.


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