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Hotel, conference & museum complex adjoining campus advances

– A vision to develop a hotel, conference, banking and museum complex on the edge of the University of California, Berkeley, campus and downtown Berkeley's new arts district got a boost Thursday as interested developers met with city and university officials.

A hotel and museum center complex - described as a "real jewel" for both the city and university by Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates - has been on the drawing board for several years, Bates said. "This is by far and away the furthest that this project has moved."

The hotel, conference center and banking portion of the plan could be constructed with private financing as soon as mid-2007, Bates said. The museum complex would follow in a second phase and would be supported by fund-raising efforts.

Representatives from approximately a dozen firms met with authorities Thursday in response to UC Berkeley's "request for qualifications" issued to architects, hotel operators and development teams earlier this month. The deadline to respond is Dec. 15.

A team could be chosen within 60 days, said James Didion, executive real estate advisor to UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Berdahl. Then it likely will be another six months before any formal design proposals come forward, he said.

"We want a world-class design we can all be excited and proud of," Bates said.

"It's a concept, a vision that we believe in and are going to try to make happen," said Didion in a meeting Thursday with Bates at Berkeley City Hall, before the two addressed the development group.

The project would fill a longstanding need for conference and meeting space, and raise about $1 million annually through hotel occupancy taxes for the city facing a growing budget deficit, said Bates.

It also would offer new quarters for the university's world-class Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive. The art museum is now housed in seismically challenged space on Bancroft Way.

In addition, the project would provide a new and more publicly accessible facility for UC Berkeley's Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology collection, now tucked into cramped campus quarters in Kroeber Hall.

Bates said he is particularly excited that the project would double the area of Berkeley's arts district, already home to the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, the Aurora Theater Company and the Jazz School, and soon to be the location of the Freight & Salvage folk music hall and the Judah Magnes Museum of Western Jewish Heritage.

Bates praised the project's "synergy" with existing community activities and uses. And while the city would collect ad valorem tax revenues from the development, it also would benefit from spin-off spending by hotel and museum visitors, he said.

The hotel proposal calls for 175 to 200 beds, with about 10,000 to 20,000 square feet of conference space and underground parking. The museum complex would measure as much as 165,000 square feet. A banking center on the portion of the site owned by Bank of America would cover around 5,000 square feet.

The overall project cost estimate ranges between $150 million and $200 million, Didion said, stressing that any estimate at this point is highly speculative. The project won't be funded by the state, but rather through a combination of conventional financing, gifts to the museums and other more structured financing mechanisms.

The plan follows on the heels of a hotel and conference center project that is underway at UC San Diego and another planned for UC Davis.

"For some time now, UC Berkeley faculty have expressed a desire for additional hotel and conference space next to campus to enable them to host their academic and industry colleagues from around the world. This project would meet that need and better serve other visitors to the campus, as well," said Kevin Hufferd, a senior campus planner and project manager for the proposal.

The Berkeley project site is a block from the Downtown Berkeley BART station, between Center and Addison streets, Shattuck Avenue and Oxford Street. Approximately 10,000 people traverse Center Street each day, according to the city.

Additional university-owned property, located behind University Hall between University Avenue and Addison Street, also is part of the plan and is tentatively designed for parking and retail use.

The project site is currently occupied in part by the UC Printing Services and a campus parking structure. The printing plant will be relocated and a replacement parking structure built across the street near University Hall, under the current concept for the land.

"The university would buy the private property at fair market value," said Didion, through university funds or gifts, and the developer who is selected may have to advance funds and enter a long-term lease.

As the project proceeds, it will undergo public review and must pass California's environmental impact review process. The concept of the proposed project, which must be approved by the UC Board of Regents, will be consistent with the university's draft 2020 Long-Range Development Plan.

Bates said the project enhances downtown Berkeley's renaissance, marked in part by redesign of the streetscape of Center Street and establishment of the thriving arts district.