Nonprofit center named after Sierra Club leader complete

BERKELEY — Sierra Club leader David Brower was fond of telling people to “have fun saving the world, or you are just going to depress yourself.” Brower, considered by many to be the father of the modern environmental movement, himself made giant strides in saving the world.

But he also liked to joke around, drink a martini or two and be around people who shared his common interest in environmental justice and preservation.

For that reason, the David Brower Center is holding a giant public party on May 10 to mark the official opening of the $28 million center that took nine years to plan and build.

Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, who was a friend to the late Brower, said the center has been one of most complicated, and possibly one of the longest running, in the city’s history. Skyrocketing project costs, community complaints, complex financing schemes, planning and negotiations are just some of the things that held up work.

“It must have been close to being on life support about 10 times,” Bates joked. “But it’s just a wonderful tribute to David Brower.”

Tenants are already moving in. In between unpacking boxes, they are checking out the 50,000 square-foot center, 180-seat theater, gallery, conference rooms and thousands of square feet of common space indoors and out. A restaurant called Terrain is slated to open in the fall, said center executive director Amy Tobin.

“This is the place where people will engage in environmental and social activism,” Tobin said.

The building at Oxford Street and Allston Way will house nonprofits and green businesses, including the Center for Ecoliteracy, Earth Island Institute, International Rivers, The Madera Group and The Redford Center.

The hope is that workers will mingle in common areas, get to know each other and work collaboratively on environmental projects. “Nonprofits are always working in basements, which is miserable. Being here they are going to be happy and collaborating and coming up with new ideas,” Tobin said.

The Brower Center was built with tax credits, donations and bank loans, center officials said. No city money was used. The city, however, did provide some funding for Oxford Plaza, the adjacent 97-unit affordable housing complex.

Peter Buckley, who co-founded the Center for Ecoliteracy nearly 20 years ago, thought of building such a center back in 1999. At the time, he was searching for a place in Berkeley to locate his nonprofit. But with the dot-com boom, nonprofits were being pushed out in favor of the higher-paying tech companies.

Buckley said he started thinking that joining together with other nonprofits under one roof would be an ideal way to save money and get to know like-minded people.

“The name David Brower just arrived,” Buckley said. “(Brower) might have been in the hospital around that time or I might have been looking out at the Golden Gate bridge and thinking about what he used to say, ‘The Golden Gate Bridge is a nice bridge, but I liked the view a lot better before they built it.'”

David Brower was the first president of the Sierra Club and successfully fought to stop dams in Dinosaur National Monument and in Grand Canyon National Park. He led campaigns to establish 10 new national parks and seashores, including Point Reyes, the North Cascades and the Redwoods. He was instrumental in gaining passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964, which protects millions of acres of public lands in pristine condition. He died in 2000 at the age of 88.

In the spirit of Brower’s dedication to the environment, the center is built from more than 50 percent recycled materials.

Almost everywhere you look, there is a “green” feature. There’s nontoxic bamboo walls and carpet, benches and a reception desk made from reclaimed wood, a lobby wall that is decorated with four different types of local soils, and solar panels on the roof to drive light into offices. The building will have a flat panel display that will show workers and visitors — at any give time — just how much water and electricity is being used in the building.

Center officials said they anticipate receiving a Leadership in Energy and Environment Design platinum rating, the highest available from the United States Green Building Council. The certification process begins later in the year.

Next to the center is Oxford Plaza, which has 97 affordable housing units and 8,500 square feet of ground-floor retail space. About 70 of the units in the $41 million project are occupied, said Dan Sawislak, executive director of Berkeley-based Resources for Community Development. But soon they will all be full. The demand for affordable housing at the plaza, where rents range from $277 to $1,248 monthly, is clear.

“More than 3,500 people applied (for housing),” Sawislak said. “It’s the most we’ve ever had in any project in our history — 25 years.” The retail space could be rented as early as late 2009 or early 2010, Sawislak said.

As with the building of the David Brower Center, there were roadblocks to building Oxford Plaza.

“It did have some white-knuckle moments,” Sawislak said. “It was pretty wonderful to break ground … at that point I knew it was going to be OK.”

One of the struggles was financing. Oxford Plaza was built with 14 different funding sources, he said.

On a recent weekday, Toby McLeod was busy moving his company, the Sacred Land Film Project, which makes documentary films, into the center. He called the building an “inspiration” and a tribute to Brower.

“I knew David Brower,” he said. “I knew him well.”

So, what would Brower say if he were alive today? “Where’s the bar? Where do I get my martini?” McLeod joked. “He’d love it. There’s an amazing energy already. I think it’s going to pull a lot of people together.”

(original article)