The Helios building on July 17. Photo: Jef Poskanzer

This time last year it was a demolition site. Today, the new five-story Helios building in downtown Berkeley stands tall — and vibrant — at 2151 Berkeley Way at Shattuck, not yet complete, but well on the way.

The Helios Energy Research Facility, a UC Berkeley-Berkeley Lab initiative supported with funding from BP, will house Energy Biosciences Institute researchers whose focus is alternative energy. The building took the place of Department of Health Services offices that had stood vacant since 2006.

The bright green color on the walls currently on display is temporary and due to exterior water proofing. Work began last week to install electrical and data lines across Hearst Avenue. Tomorrow should see concrete pours in the basement and on the roof, and the exterior ‘skin’ of the building will soon include window and glass installation.

Construction updates on the building are available on the Helios Energy Research Facility website.

The Helios building in February. Photo: artsnooze conceptualista
Future site of the Helios building in July 2010. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Tracey Taylor

Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...

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18 Comments

  1. I wonder where Bruce takes his friends now that the old Public Health building has been demolished.  I would guess that his favorite building in downtown now is the Firestone Tire store on Milvia and University, the closest thing that remains to the style of the Public Health building. 

    The morning light reflected from the Firestone Tire store is transcendently beautiful when you gaze at it across the parking lot.  The tire store parking lot is a gracious open space that allows light to pour onto the street at any time of day.  Most important, the Firestone Tire store certainly doesn’t block anyone’s view of the hills. 

    Don’t show your friends the traditional main-street buildings that gave downtown its character a century ago (such as the Francis Shattuck building or the Shattuck Hotel).  Don’t show your friends the more recent buildings in the same style (such as the Bachenheimer Building).  Some people think those buildings have a certain quaint charm, and pedestrians certainly like to walk by them and to sit next to them, but all those people are really just trying to turn our streets into homogeneous, shadowed canyons.

    Just show your friends buildings in the parking-lot modernist style of the 1950s.

  2. @CJ_Higley:disqus  and @0c6a1ba3c059e75968ce271f4ea79d78:disqus:

    If, in an urban commercial district context we are to have a building with minimal set-back, then an “active street frontage” is preferable to a dead wall or other closed off imposition.

    That does not mean it is good design to insist that every bit of sidewalk pass before active frontage.

    In the case of the public health building, the set-back from the Shattuck side was huge.   I’m simply describing the impact that this had:   it allowed light to pour into the block at all hours of the day.  The brutalist facade on that side was, in my opinion, a thoughtful choice that was designed to and that succeeded at throwing back light from the afternoon and setting sun.    The large set-back also helped to preserve distant views of the hills and campus from that block.   As the public health building aged, metal railings on that side introduced graceful rust stains which the setting sun highlighted and warmed wonderfully — metal playing in sunlight.   Trees along the sidewalk on that side softened the impact of the parking lot and nicely framed the sculpture that was that building.   It was a nice place for a bus stop, slightly removed from most of the sidewalk hustle and bustle.

    Over the years, as nearly as I can tell, the decorating, lighting, and in one case development of that block all responded to the public health building.   I see it reflected in the architecture firm’s space across the street.   I see the color palate of the buildings across the street as chosen partly because of the color of the direct and reflected sunlight the public health building afforded.   If you look slightly down the next block south, on the east side, there is a shop right next to missing link and a haircutting place — the one that has concentric circles painted at the top of the facade (I’m not sure if the painting is currently covered by a sign or not).   It used to be shinier — using some metalic paints.   It seems an odd element until you realize that, at certain times of year, the setting sun aims down Berkeley way, at a slight diagonal, hitting a bullseye there — the mural is a solar calendar.  Metal playing in sunlight.

    The intense impact of sunlight on that block seems also, to me, to have integrated with the way the street — from that block on south to the BART drum, is decorated and lit at night.  The fancy street lamps on the east side of the street.  The rhythm and palate choices of the neon as it makes its way down to the recent addition at PIQ

    The parking lot made the public health building imperfect in some ways, for sure.  Nevertheless, at least as far as the western face went, the public health building was a beautiful, intelligent design that contributed a lot to one of the more successful parts of downtown.  It saddens me to hear its destruction so celebrated.   It saddens me that people think it would be better to build more vacant store fronts there instead.   Burying the parking lot, landscaping, and taking down the fence would have been terrific if the old building could have been allowed to stand.   Even with the parking lot there, though, that building did a lot of good.

  3. @CJ_Higley:disqus  and @0c6a1ba3c059e75968ce271f4ea79d78:disqus:

    If, in an urban commercial district context we are to have a building with minimal set-back, then an “active street frontage” is preferable to a dead wall or other closed off imposition.

    That does not mean it is good design to insist that every bit of sidewalk pass before active frontage.

    In the case of the public health building, the set-back from the Shattuck side was huge.   I’m simply describing the impact that this had:   it allowed light to pour into the block at all hours of the day.  The brutalist facade on that side was, in my opinion, a thoughtful choice that was designed to and that succeeded at throwing back light from the afternoon and setting sun.    The large set-back also helped to preserve distant views of the hills and campus from that block.   As the public health building aged, metal railings on that side introduced graceful rust stains which the setting sun highlighted and warmed wonderfully — metal playing in sunlight.   Trees along the sidewalk on that side softened the impact of the parking lot and nicely framed the sculpture that was that building.   It was a nice place for a bus stop, slightly removed from most of the sidewalk hustle and bustle.

    Over the years, as nearly as I can tell, the decorating, lighting, and in one case development of that block all responded to the public health building.   I see it reflected in the architecture firm’s space across the street.   I see the color palate of the buildings across the street as chosen partly because of the color of the direct and reflected sunlight the public health building afforded.   If you look slightly down the next block south, on the east side, there is a shop right next to missing link and a haircutting place — the one that has concentric circles painted at the top of the facade (I’m not sure if the painting is currently covered by a sign or not).   It used to be shinier — using some metalic paints.   It seems an odd element until you realize that, at certain times of year, the setting sun aims down Berkeley way, at a slight diagonal, hitting a bullseye there — the mural is a solar calendar.  Metal playing in sunlight.

    The intense impact of sunlight on that block seems also, to me, to have integrated with the way the street — from that block on south to the BART drum, is decorated and lit at night.  The fancy street lamps on the east side of the street.  The rhythm and palate choices of the neon as it makes its way down to the recent addition at PIQ

    The parking lot made the public health building imperfect in some ways, for sure.  Nevertheless, at least as far as the western face went, the public health building was a beautiful, intelligent design that contributed a lot to one of the more successful parts of downtown.  It saddens me to hear its destruction so celebrated.   It saddens me that people think it would be better to build more vacant store fronts there instead.   Burying the parking lot, landscaping, and taking down the fence would have been terrific if the old building could have been allowed to stand.   Even with the parking lot there, though, that building did a lot of good.

  4. To each his own, I suppose.  But I agree with the urban designers who believe “active street frontages” result in desirable neighborhoods.  Solano, Telegraph, Elmwood, Rockridge, 4th Street, and Upper Shattuck all seem to be vibrant living proof of this design principle. 

  5. It astounds me that anyone can be so totally oblivious to what urban designers have been saying for the last several decades.  

  6. I don’t think Charles’ comment suggests that at all. Continuous storefronts with parking in the rear do not necessitate homogeneity, tall buildings, or “shadowed canyons of light-blocking buildings.”

  7. Charles, to me it sounds as though you want to turn Shattuck around there into a homogeneous, heavily shadowed canyon of buildings where some great hill views have been lost and some successful business spaces have lost considerable value as a result of the ticky-tacky “density-bonus, mixed-use” style of development.

  8. Yep, it is always great to have a surface parking lot facing the sidewalk.  Pedestrians love to walk by surface parking lots, and they make for beautiful urban design.  As for me, I love to go to suburban strip malls and walk there, because all the stores have parking lots in front.

    (More seriously, numerous studies have shown that pedestrians like continuous storefronts facing the sidewalk, as on College Ave and other favorite streets.  These studies are called “visual preference surveys, and New Urbanists have done many of them.  Because of these studies, many cities have adopted form-based codes that require storefronts facing the sidewalk and parking behind the buildings, where it doesn’t bother pedestrians.  These form-based codes forbid developers from building parking lots facing the sidewalk, like the parking lot of the old Public Health Building.) 

  9. Thanks to both you and Tracey for “doing my homework” for me. I’m glad to hear that there are plans to have something other than parking in this important block.

  10. Chris, I don’t think it was ever much of a gaping hole on Shattuck.  Notice how it’s surrounded by Liason, Oscars, uh… that coffee place I forget the name of, Triple Rock, the food place next to Triple Rock (I’ve lost track of the current incarnation), the optometrist place, Body Time, the little place on the west corner of Berkeley Way and Shattuck …. etc.   With the glaring exception of the space that used to be the stationary / office supply store, that block does pretty well.   I think part of the secret sauce that makes that block fairly vibrant, aside from excellent location, is the set-back of the building on that lot from Shattuck.   The building they tore down – the one so many people hated?   To the Shattuck side it presented a blank (I guess “brutalist”?) face, stained with rust from metal railings.   In the afternoon and setting sun it was beautiful sculpture that (a) bounced a lot of light back into that block;  (b) preserved hill views from the businesses and sidewalk on the west side of Shattuck.   The real dead zone, in my opinion, is on the next couple of blocks north thanks to the apartments to the west and the not terribly successful recent density / mixed use development to the east.

    Edit: “Pedestrian friendly”, though, I agree with to the extent that we mean replacing the fenced in parking lot with something that can be usefully and pleasantly traversed by the public.

  11. In brief, it will be used for a new building for UC School of Public  Health plus a health facility for the public that should attract lots of people and generate lots of vitality in the area.

    But given the state budget crisis, it may be a long, long time before it is built.

  12. The link in the article leads to the Helios website which includes plans for the building and construction updates. This article provides some other details: http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2010/01/11/helios/

  13. While I’m glad to see the new building fronting directly on Hearst and Oxford streets, it seems like it’s turning it’s back on Shattuck Avenue and the core of downtown. What’s the open ground on the west side of the parcel going to be used for? Surface parking or will there be a building (and some life) on Shattuck Avenue? Ideally, I would like to see a pedestrian-friendly building facade that extends along the Shattuck block face of this parcel consistent with the facades seen between Berkeley Way and University on Shattuck. Is there anything you can tell us about the plans for this important project design element? Will it continue (as the previous building on the site did) to be a gaping hole in the fabric of downtown’s north side?

  14. I changed the phrasing slightly to make that clearer. I understood the walls weren’t going to disappear, but I don’t think I articulated it very well!

  15. Thanks for the coverage!  Just a small clarification – the bright green is temporary but the walls are not.