Environmental Warrior’s Posthumous Battle
None of David Brower’s victories came easy, not even the eco-headquarters to be built in his honor.
Brower, the pioneering environmentalist who died in 2000, spent his life fighting to save the country’s most fragile and spectacular wildlands. Fittingly, it took six years of legal wrangling, creative financing and hard-headed determination to get the Brower Center approved for downtown Berkeley.
“My father would be very pleased right now,” said Brower’s son, Kenneth Brower, a Berkeley writer. “He used to undergo the most incredible rejuvenation around people with good ideas. And that’s what he’d find in this building.”
Organizers envision the Brower Center, which is expected to break ground in early April, as a headwaters for the region’s, and possibly the nation’s, environmental movement.
The building will provide first-class office space for up to 30 environmental groups, where activists, students, businesspeople and visitors can brainstorm and join forces to promote sustainability. Its ground floor will feature a theater, art gallery and cafe.
The four-story structure at Oxford Street and Allston Way — which aspires to secure the highest rating from the U.S. Green Building Council — will include solar panels, natural light and ventilation, as well as recycled nontoxic building materials.
The project will be among the greenest in Berkeley, but it has also been among the most complicated and expensive. The price tag has skyrocketed from less than $50 million to about $75 million and depleted much of the city’s fund for affordable housing. The bureaucratic aspects became so complex that the project had to be broken into four separate entities, each with its own funding and liability issues.
One reason for the complexity is that center will be accompanied next door by a new six-story housing project with 96 units of affordable housing on top of ground-floor retail. Beneath both buildings will be an underground public parking garage, replacing the city-owned surface lot now at the site.
The city hired lawyers and consultants to oversee the project, for which it’s become a de facto partner.
“We knew there were going to be risks and it wasn’t going to be easy, but we were going to make this happen,” said Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime project, a legacy project for our city.”
The project began just before Brower died at age 88. His friend Peter Buckley, co-founder of the Center for Ecoliteracy and a former Esprit executive, came up with the idea when he saw how environmental groups were squeezed by rising rents in the dot-com era.
He thought the progressive movement, like many conservative groups, should have assets and financial stability. Owning a building would provide a basis for that. Because Brower was ill, Buckley decided to name the center after him.
“In the years that I was building a career and making a comfortable life for myself, David Brower was saving the planet,” he said. “I wanted to honor him and all the folks who work toward that goal and give them a decent facility to work in.”
Buckley and Brower’s son, Kenneth, both said Brower was enthusiastic about the idea of creating a home base for the environmental movement.
“He was always bridging people together,” Kenneth Brower said. “He saw the commonalities in lots of different progressive groups, and saw what they could do together.”
Berkeley seemed like an ideal location: Brower was a lifelong resident, the city has been a hotbed of environmental activism for decades, and the University of California brings in a steady stream of creative, energetic students and scholars.
Then things got complicated. The preferred site, a parking lot owned by the city, was slated for an affordable housing complex. So the Brower Center incorporated housing into its plan. Then myriad setbacks arose from parking, financing and zoning requirements.
And, as with many big proposals in Berkeley, there was local opposition. Critics variously said there wasn’t enough parking, the building was too ugly and big, and the project would require the removal of some rare eucalyptus trees growing on the lot.
“Memorializing David Brower by chopping down mature trees to put in a development — that’s where they lost my support,” said Michael Katz, a Berkeley resident who’s lobbied against the project. “They do have excellent intentions, but as everyone in Berkeley knows, the worst things often come from the best intentions.”
Because costs have increased so much, rents at the Brower Center will be higher than organizers intended. Nonprofits will pay about $25 per square foot, about $5 more than most pay now, Buckley said.
So far only a handful of groups have formally committed to moving in, but dozens have expressed interest, including the Ecology Center, Climate Group, Rainforest Action Network, several UC Berkeley departments and Brower’s own organizations, Earth Island Institute and California League of Conservation Voters.
“We think the Brower Center is a terrific idea,” said Sam Haswell, communication director of the Rainforest Action Network. “It would be great to be surrounded by other environmental groups working toward similar goals.”
Haswell’s group hasn’t yet agreed to move in because most of its staffers live in San Francisco and the building is not configured to accommodate the group’s 40 employees. But if the logistics can be solved, the convivial atmosphere would be worth the higher rent, he said.
Buckley, head of the Brower Center board, is thrilled to see the project nearing fruition.
“The big lumps are behind us, thankfully,” he said. “Now I’m interested to see how it comes out. This is a new kind of critter.”