The Berkeley Zoning Adjustment Board, or ZAB, approved use permits Thursday to replace the existing clubhouse and restroom at Willard Park with a new 3,301 square foot community center and bathroom.
Scott Ferris, the director of the city of Berkeley’s Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Department, said he hopes to put out a bid for construction within the next six to eight months.
Surrounding residents often cite the clubhouse as dilapidated and unsuitable for the city of Berkeley’s after-school childcare program, which is held there.
“We love the counselors, but we decided to change to Frances Albrier Community Center at San Pablo Park,” said Amy Stauffer, a mother of three who lives next to Willard Park. “It was incredibly convenient to walk across the street and pick up the kids after school, and we changed not because we didn’t like the programming or counselors or teachers, but because of that facility. The facility is very small, out of date — there were rodents often, and the bathrooms didn’t always work.”
According to a staff report to the ZAB, a new community center on the southeast corner of Willard Park near Hillegass Avenue will replace the clubhouse. The new community center will include a community room, a kitchen, restrooms and an office.
Heather Ball, the PTA president of Malcolm X Elementary, said the school often refers families to the city’s after-school programs due to a shortage of after school workers at Berkeley Unified School District. The Willard Clubhouse Afterschool Program, in addition to several other city childcare programs, provides low-cost services and scholarships for low-income Berkeley residents.
“The clubhouse would make the park so much more usable,” said Rana Cho, the PTA president at Emerson Elementary. “If anything I wish it were bigger. I understand people wanting to go for the smaller footprint, but as a resident who would like to see more city services through the park, I want it to be bigger.”
With construction costs rising 26% from 2020 to 2022, the developers reduced the original plan for a 4400 square foot space to approximately 3300 square feet, according to Ferris.
However, some residents still want the size to shrink further. The Willard Neighborhood Association, or WNA, submitted comments to the ZAB at Thursday’s meeting, citing the need for more green space and questioning the exemption of the new construction from the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA.
California lawmakers, including Governor Gavin Newsom, cited the trend of using CEQA to claim environmental impacts to stop new construction. Rae Lovko, an attorney for WNA who submitted the comments to the ZAB, noted that WNA is not “categorically” opposed to the new construction, but it should be reviewed under CEQA because it is over 2500 square feet.
According to Vincent Casalaina, a Berkeley resident living near Willard Park and the treasurer of the WNA, the WNA’s main concern is the “change of use” of a small clubhouse to a larger community center.
He agrees that the current clubhouse “needs to go” and that Berkeley’s childcare services should expand. He clarified that he’s not opposed to the expansion of the clubhouse, and would prefer a 2500 square foot space rather than a 3300 square foot space, to adhere to CEQA exemption guidelines.
He also clarified that he is not opposed to accommodating additional kids during the afterschool program.
Jordan Klein, the director of the city of Berkeley’s Department of Planning and Development, said the new construction still adheres to due to CEQA exempting structures up to 10,000 square feet in urbanized areas.
Casalaina added that the building could potentially host loud events, which would require additional parking spaces.
“Lots of people (are) coming from out of the area and needing to park in a neighborhood that already has more parking permits than there are parking spaces,” Casalaina said. “So noise, traffic and parking are all issues that concern us turning it into a community center.”
Amy Stauffer, a Berkeley resident near Willard Park who is not part of the WNA, noted that as a mother who works full-time at the Oakland Unified School District, many working families lack the time to join a due-collecting neighborhood association, given the many “stresses” in their lives.
Willard Park is one of five after-school care sites for K-5 students in Berkeley, according to Ferris. He noted spots typically fill up quickly in the beginning of the year, adding that 25-30 kids were on the waitlist for the Willard after school program last August.
With the opening of the new community center, the Recreation and Waterfront Department hopes to increase the capacity of the afterschool program by 40-50%. Stauffer added that adding a functioning bathroom to the park would allow more kids to make use of the space.
“I think it’ll help contain those events and provide a safer spot for those events to happen,” Stauffer said. “As a parent, I want my own children, residents in Berkeley, and children around the city and region to use the park.”