EGRET Evicted from Building in Berkeley’s Aquatic Park (News Analysis)

By Joe Eaton, with Charlotte Perry-Houts
Berkeley Daily PLanet
Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Nothing brightens the holiday season quite like an eviction.

This Monday afternoon, Mark Liolios, founder of the Aquatic Park Environmental Greening, Restoration, and Education Team (EGRET), locked up the Cabin, also known as the Model Boat Building, the structure he and his environmental stewardship group have been using as an interpretive center. The Berkeley Parks and Recreation Department had demanded that EGRET and its sponsoring organization Berkeley Partners for Parks accept the city’s terms for a lease on the building or vacate it by December 14. The city offered to provide a tool shed for the group’s use if the second option was chosen.

Liolios says the city’s lease requirements, which would require EGRET to make substantial upgrades, are inconsistent with those held by other Aquatic Park tenants, notably the Bay Outreach & Recreation Program (BORP). He describes a Catch-22 dilemma. “The lease we were offered two weeks ago said the bulk of physical improvements must be made within six months of signing the lease,” Liolios told the Parks and Recreation Commission last week. “BORP got a city lease last year with a five-year timetable for upgrades. EGRET couldn’t use the building until the city had signed off on all those capital projects. It’s hard to raise money for a program when you’re not running the program. To get a grant you must show you have a signed lease and property. We had a donation for a new roof but we can’t get a building permit without a lease.”

EGRET has been using the Cabin since 2002, when the city was looking for a tenant for the vacant International Bird Rescue Research Center. According to Liolios, EGRET’s bid was approved by a Parks and Recreation review committee and the Parks and Recreation Commission. The city produced a draft lease document and negotiation ensued but was never finalized. While that issue remained in limbo, EGRET continued to occupy the building. In October 2009 there was a new request for proposal limited to the Cabin, accompanied by a new version of the lease. Liolios says EGRET was the only respondent.

On July 20, Parks and Recreation Director William Rogers wrote Liolios and BPFP stating that EGRET’s bid “fail[ed] to meet the City’s goals and requirements for Aquatic Park in a number of significant respects.” Rogers said EGRET’s proposal to use the Cabin for restoration projects at the south end of Aquatic Park was “incompatible with the City’s ongoing efforts to ensure that all work performed in this sensitive wildlife habitat is appropriately vetted by qualified conservation agencies and authorized by the City Parks Superintendent… The City does not want to implicitly encourage nor facilitate unauthorized work in Aquatic Park through its leasing policies and is instead looking for uses that are compatible with the City’s environmental education and restoration goals at the park.” EGRET’s responses, he added, “fail to demonstrate any current financial commitment to rehabilitate or improve the building…” As a parting shot, Rogers invited discussions on “a plan for the City to amicably regain exclusive possession of the building…”

Between July and November, Liolios was able to mobilize support from local green groups. “We thank the City for supporting EGRET’s work by allowing the use of this building in the past, and we encourage you to allow EGET to continue to use the building now and in the future,” wrote Golden Gate Audubon Society Executive Director Mark Welther. Citizens for Eastshore Parks and more than twenty other organizations, including Aquatic Park tenants BORP and Waterside Workshop, also sent letters of support to the city. In September, while all this was going on, Liolios was named one of five “Cox Conserves Heroes” for the Bay Area by the Trust for Public Land and Cox Enterprises.

The other shoe dropped with Rogers’ November 19 letter, advising that recent inspections had revealed “significant safety and accessibility issues” at the building and posing the lease-versus-tool shed choice. Rogers set December 14 as the deadline by which “the City [would] be required to pursue its available legal remedies.” An attached term sheet for the lease required the tenant to replace the roof, upgrade the electrical system, clean and upgrade the sewer, construct accessible ramps, modify the restroom for disabled access, paint the exterior, and install signage, all prior to July 2011.

EGRET supporters turned out for last week’s Parks and Recreation Commission meeting at the North Berkeley Senior Center: UC Berkeley students and some of the 300 other volunteers who worked with Liolios this year, along with former commissioners and BPFP officers. Jack Appleyard of BPFP expressed concern about the city’s willingness to partner with nonprofits: “Over the last couple of years we’ve noticed it’s getting more difficult for many of our organizations to do what they do.” Appleyard also raised the lease comparability issue: “It’s disturbing that the lease offered for the Cabin is very different from previous leases with the requirement to complete all construction in six months while not occupying the building… To the casual observer it appears that EGRET is being held to a higher standard [than other tenants] for this particular lease condition.”

Rogers, after cautioning the Commission that its role was strictly advisory, praised what the city has done for Aquatic Park. “Over the last ten years Aquatic Park has come a long way,” he said. “We have an excellent partnership with Audubon and work with a wildlife biologist on habitat restoration… We have folks we’ve hired who have a lot of expertise in habitat restoration.”

Rogers continued: “As a city we have the responsibility to hold ourselves to high standards. We want to have all the leases be at the same level… Leaseholders have the responsibility to do capital work on these buildings. That’s why we charge such a cheap rate.” Noting that required structural work would not require significant time or expertise, Rogers said there had been “many attempts to get BPFP to sign a lease and that hasn’t happened. We’re happy to talk about time frames for improvement….Raising funds contingent on signing a lease demonstrates they’re working in good faith to have that happen and I’m not seeing that.” In response to a question from Commissioner Carole Schemmerling, he said that EGRET’s use of the Cabin in its present state “puts the city at a ridiculous amount of liability.”

Several Commissioners urged face-to-face discussions between BPFP/EGRET and the city before the December 14 deadline. Others, while expressing hope for a resolution, voiced concerns about EGRET’s role in the park. “We need a substantive conversation about coordinating the actual work,” Pam Gray told Rogers. “There are some areas of real concern where that hasn’t been done and there has been damage to the habitat.” Commission Chair Joe Gross concurred: “We can’t have a situation where a volunteer nonprofit organization is making its own decisions about what is done in the park. There’s no sense leasing a building to an organization that’s going to be at loggerheads with the people responsible for maintaining the park.”

Liolios says no such discussions took place. In an email to the Planet on December 14, Rogers reiterated that BPFP/EGRET was “provided with two options-to sign a lease for the building (which they do not currently have) or accept a shed provided by the City for tool storage in order to facilitate EGRET’s work in the park. Berkeley Partners for Parks/EGRET chose the latter. We will be meeting with Berkeley Partners for Parks/EGRET in January to discuss the details and dimensions of the shed. This arrangement does not preclude future conversations about a building lease.” He later told a Planet reporter that there were a couple of other parties interested in leasing the building.

Councilmember Daryl Moore told the Planet: “I’m supportive of any non-profit that wants to be housed in Aquatic Park, so long as all of them are treated equally.” He said that he greatly appreciates EGRET’s efforts and that they’ve done a great job cleaning up the park, and that because of that he’s interested in supporting them, but that it’s not really the role of the council and that there isn’t really any action he intends to take.

We have here, in short, a typically tangled Berkeley situation. Clearly this isn’t just about the Cabin. The language used by Rogers in his July letter and some of the comments at last week’s commission meeting suggest agendas that have not been made entirely public. Do Rogers’ folks with a lot of expertise in habitat restoration leave any room for volunteer efforts at Aquatic Park? How exactly has EGRET’s work been incompatible with the city’s restoration priorities? Will personalities and control issues be allowed to derail an award-winning stewardship initiative? As-or if-answers emerge, we’ll try to keep you updated.

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