Renovations have begun at the 70-year-old Berkeley Community Theatre on the Berkeley High campus.

The $45 million project, scheduled to be completed in summer 2022, will redo the 3,500-seat community theater and the 575-seat Florence Schwimley Little Theatre, according to Bay Area-based Alten Construction who are conducting the work with CAW Architects. The project also includes modifying classrooms connected to the theater and making needed seismic upgrades.

Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen and many more performed at the theater in its heyday, but the large space has most recently being used for Berkeley High shows and community events.

Crews will install a new rigging system and add a backstage hallway allowing performers to cross from one wing to the other. The roof and five existing floor levels in the classroom wing will be demolished to make way for three aligned floors of music classrooms, a drama classroom and a scene shop. Electrical and fire-sprinkler systems in the buildings will be updated, and an upper-level elevator will provide access to classrooms and the main auditorium balcony.

The project is currently being funded by Measure I, the 2010 school facilities bond. It may also draw funding from Measure G, a $380 million facilities bond approved by voters in March.

“We aim to create access that ties the Berkeley Community Theatre into the rest of the campus and breathes new life into a building that has hosted so many music legends over the past 70 years,” John Calise, executive director of facilities for Berkeley Unified School District, said in a news release.

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  1. From the original reporting: “The project architects, with Palo Alto-based CAW, said they surveyed dozens of comparable venues. There is heavy demand for theaters with 600-800 seats, not 3,500, they said”

    It’s not more efficient to have more seats if you can’t book the events to make it worth it.

    Also, the space is being adapted (also from original reporting): “The renovations would nearly double the classroom space, creating facilities for a scene shop attached to the stage, a drama light lab, a recording studio and a digital design classroom, presenters said. The plans for the new offerings are part of a recent focus on career technical education in BUSD and nationally. The proposal also adds a student lobby and a more prominent entrance to the A Building.”

  2. I don’t understand why it wasn’t envisioned as a location for City Council meetings. If they had made the venue decently large it could have been the perfect location for those meetings and been large enough to handle the occasional overflow crowds we get when something controversial is on the ballot.

    Your point about Covid compliance is a good one. Civic projects like this ought to be put on hold until we have a better understanding of what kind of long-term changes may occur as the result of the pandemic but unfortunately Berkeley is continuing to charge ahead with pre-Covid construction plans with zero modifications.

  3. For 45 million we will get a new theater that will seat about 1/3 the number of people. It will be too small for large school assemblies, band performances, and too small to rent out for the most popular events. The school theater manager felt it would be easier to manage a smaller venue, but they were not really thinking about being able to continue the long tradition of having large community events and performances. The school has over 3,400 students, and the new theater will only hold a fraction of them without extra room for teachers, staff, parents, family or community members. How will they decide who is allowed to attend band performances? Only 2 tickets per family? No siblings? No aunts or uncles? No cousins? No friends?

    Do the math: $45,000,000/ 1,200 seats = $33,333.33 per seat (assuming no cost overruns). An outdoor Greek Theater style amphitheater (or one with a roof) would have been much cheaper and Covid safe.

  4. $45 million sounds like about 3 times too much, as usual. Imagine how much money could’ve been saved if the BUSD had properly maintained it over the years, and continued to rent it for big-time concerts. I saw Zappa and Leonard Cohen there, among others.

    Both of those bond measures were promoted as being only for facilities urgently necessary for education.