Berkeley Libraries Should Branch Out

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Two years ago the voters of Berkeley passed Measure FF, providing bonds to renovate the city's four neighborhood branch libraries. Monies from Measure FF will go to remodel and modestly expand the branches in the Claremont and North Berkeley neighborhoods. But two of the branches must be replaced. Here is why:

The South Branch, at Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Russell Street, houses both the neighborhood branch and the Tool Lending Library. Both are overcrowded. Most of the community meeting room has been taken over as a staff work area; computer stations and shelves crowd the public areas and make wheelchair maneuvers almost impossible. Additional shelving has blocked windows that once made the reading room a spacious and handsome place.

The deficiencies were recognized well before the passage of Measure FF when the Board of Library Trustees considered moving the regular branch facilities to leased space on the Ed Roberts Campus, under construction at the Ashby BART station. But at several neighborhood meetings there was opposition to the move and a sense from many residents that the neighborhood deserved a free-standing building like the other branch libraries. Thus the decision was made to stay in the same location. Measure FF has made that possible.

The site of the South Branch is the smallest parcel of land of any of the four branches, yet it contains, in essence, two libraries: the regular neighborhood library and the Tool Lending Library. The library staff held four community meetings at the South Branch, where the architects worked through alternative designs for this small and crowded site, and in addition the architects gave four public presentations before the library trustees. The architects carefully studied ways to retain some parts of the existing 50-year-old building.

Unfortunately, the concrete block structure was discovered to have significant seismic problems. Because the low wood plank roof has no inner ceiling and the concrete floor contains heating pipes there is no space for inserting modern wiring for computers. Although the Tool Lending Library is used by citizens from all parts of the city, the original grant that created it was directed to South Berkeley, and it can only be expanded with Measure FF funds if it stays as part of the South Branch. It is now housed in crowded trailer-like buildings. Because some of the tools available for lending are large the city planning department insists, quite correctly, that there must be off-street parking spaces for pick-up and drop-off on this busy street, requiring yet more space on the small site.

Ultimately the architects concluded that retaining a piece of the old building would be an insignificant gesture and would restrict developing a plan that could accommodate all the needs of this branch. Their design will be a handsome new facility that will match in symbolism the North Branch at the other end of Martin Luther King Jr. Way.

In 2003 the library developed a conceptual plan for the West Branch on University Avenue near San Pablo. This plan would have removed the ugly 1970s fašade and moved and restored the original building while also providing new and expanded facilities for regular library users and for this branch's special program, Berkeley Reads, a program for adult literacy which is one of the most wonderful (there is no other adjective) things happening in Berkeley.

The 2003 conceptual plan was estimated to cost $14 million. The library applied for a State grant for much of this cost and came close to receiving one, but now state money has dried up. Based on construction cost indexes the $14 million estimate in 2003 would now be $19 million, more than 70 percent of the entire amount provided by Measure FF for all four branches. As with the South Branch, the architects studied the possibility of a second story as a means of preserving part of the existing structure, but the construction costs for fire stairs and an elevator and the additional operational costs for staff on two floors went well above budget.

In order to accommodate the neighborhood library needs and Berkeley Reads and still keep within the budget, the architects concluded that the original building must be replaced. The design will be as green as possible, with the intent that it will be a Net Zero Energy building - meaning that it will use solar energy and natural lighting and ventilation to achieve no energy costs over a 12 month period.

South Berkeley and West Berkeley deserve the finest branch libraries we can get with the money available from Measure FF. The library administration and the Board of Library Trustees have done the best job possible to assure this happens.

Christopher Adams is former president of the Berkeley Public Library Foundation. Reply to [email protected]

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