Happy 3rd Anniversary David Brower Center! How a Building Can Build Community

© Urban Habitat
Urban Habitat and the Bay Area Social Equity Caucus hosted their 3rd State of the Region at the Brower Center

This May, the David Brower Center celebrates its 3rd anniversary. The 50,000 square foot sustainable-community center was built in May 2009 despite it being the height of the recession. It is a space that has become an inspiration for action and a physical expression of the power of community. I’ve only been in the building once, but my visit was a stimulating experience that still motivates me. The Brower Center is located in Berkeley, California, a city that is one of the epicenters of the green movement. The Center was constructed to LEED Platinum standards. But more impressive than its green credentials, with its rainwater collection and solar energy, is that the center has multiple uses all under one roof. The Center is comprised of office space, meeting rooms, a gallery, a theater and an affordable, locavore café and restaurant. The uses comingle to create an eco-hub, where the sum is much greater than its individual parts. It is sometimes a juggling act to keep all of the parts working together, but the dedicated staff at the Brower Center have made it their mission.

Green Design

© Bonnie Hulkower

The building itself was designed to support its multiple uses of hosting visitors and also to be a space that is welcoming for employees. Located just two blocks from the downtown Berkeley BART Station, the center is uber convenient for attendees and employees alike. The center was designed by San Francisco architects WRT Design in collaboration with Loisos and Ubbelohde, Tipping Mar and Associates for structural engineering. The developers wanted the Center to exceed LEED design and be a model for visitors. In addition to rainwater and solar hot water, there is also an energy and water monitoring system that is published live in real time on the Center’s website and a solar system on the roof that doubles as a sun shade. Inside, the building was designed to be a comfortable space for the office tenants to work and think. To accomplish this, the Center makes use of recycled and non-toxic materials and all the offices rely on natural day light and ventilation. One of the first things that struck me as a visitor, was how light and airy the space felt.

Tenants and Office Space

© Bonnie Hulkower

Often non-profits operate on a shoe string budget and as such, don’t always work in ideal workspaces. The Center wanted to provide groups already working in the environmental and social justice arenas a stable workplace to continue their work in a physically healthy setting with a supportive community environment. These tenants pay rent to the Center and the resources stay within the community.

The Center is home to a number of non-profits including Earth Island Institute, Center for Ecoliteracy and International Rivers, which were all anchor tenants for the building. Other tenants include the Redford Center, SAGE, Citizen Engagement Lab, the Color of Change and The Hub, a coworking community. The non-profit office space is located upstairs to provide a quiet separation from the gatherings downstairs. At times compromises need to be made with the people hosting events and workers in the office, but most of the time there is a happy coexistence between programs.

Bringing in new people and building community

© Bay Area Open Space Council

Peter Buckley, founder of the Center, wanted to create a community asset that would magnify the movement by attracting newcomers. Buckley’s vision is to have sustainability become mainstream. He didn’t want to create a barrier to entry, but wanted the Center to be a space where people would feel welcome walking in from the street. In addition to the activists of today, he wanted the Center to support and inspire future activists as well. To accomplish this, there is a gallery that hosts three exhibits a year, a 180 seat theater space, several meeting rooms and a conference center.

Providing Community Space

© Bonnie Hulkower

Often non-profits face a shortage of affordable meeting rooms and community spaces. The Center helps fill this need by providing meeting space for non-profits or educational institutions and subsidizing the rates by 40%. The Center doesn’t just provide a rental space, but also often helps promote events. Private events, such as weddings, or University parties are not specific to the mission of the Center. But these events are still valuable as they help offset the costs of the non-profit rentals and also bring new people to the Center who may not have otherwise visited the space.

Arts and the Gallery

© David Brower Center

The exhibition space was a part of the vision to advance the message of sustainability and to draw people in. The art space and gallery are immediately visible and accessible from the main entrance. Last year there was a group show of only Bay area artists, where the artists were asked to express themselves to David Brower’s quote “have a good time saving the world, otherwise you are just going to depress yourself.” For this request, they received more than 500 submissions. They also host solo shows with renown artists, such as Chris Jordan. The current exhibit closes May 9th, the next one opens May 17th.

Gather Restaurant

© Bonnie Hulkower

A restaurant on site was key to the board's vision for the Center as they always wanted people to be able to gather around food. Ari Derfel and Eric Fenster, founders the organic caterer Back to Earth, were selected for the restaurant and café space. They were selected even though they had never had owned a restaurant before because had a common vision. Ari and Eric wanted to do more than just events; they wanted to create a restaurant where people had meet and have erudite conversations over a meal. The restaurant also serves as the heart of the Center. Employees stop by for coffee, business lunches happen, and people in the neighborhood also stop for light California cuisine. When I was there I had a delicious fennel pizza, and an incredible vegan charcuterie plate that even my avid carnivorous friend devoured. People have caught on to how good the restaurant is and it is pretty busy, but not too busy to get a table on a Saturday night-

Struggles to Get The Center Built

Since the Center opened, it has played host to over 500 green events and conferences. The restaurant and the Center have been so successful that at times it is hard to believe there was a nine year struggle that went into getting the Center built. The City of Berkeley had owned the space and wanted to revitalize the area and create mixed use space, but the space came with the need to develop units of affordable housing and a parking lot with 100 spaces. There were fights over how much parking the center should have. In the end in exchange for the air rights, the Center built the city a 97 space parking lot below ground.

The Future of the Brower Center

© David Brower Center

The Center would like to do more artist talks and school tours. Eventually they will do a volunteer docent program, where people can learn about exhibits and green building. They are looking for opportunities to collaborate with their programming. This July 1st would also have been David Brower’s 100 year old birthday. The Center is hosting an art exhibit to celebrate his advocacy and legacy. David Brower had a vision for environmental and social action working together. The Center is a more than a venue, it is a place where one can walk in and enjoy the art and the connections that naturally happen in this space. It embodies the Brower spirit, and I think David Brower would have been proud.

Happy 3rd Birthday David Brower Center and Happy Centennial David Brower!

Tags: Berkeley | Communities | Green Building

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