A Place to Gather

Berkeley Way West is located adjacent to one of the City of Berkeley’s main thoroughfares. As part of the west campus extension into the city’s bustling downtown, the University desired to transform an existing parking lot into a new academic building with a plaza, retail space, and a series of streetscapes that stitch into the existing urban and academic fabric. The design for a new plaza and retail front was part of an overall strategy to re-envision the whole block and consider the relationship of the two academic buildings, Berkeley Way West and the Energy Biosciences Building—connecting students from across campus to the urban setting.

Creating a landscape design that fulfills the demands of everyday urban life while providing an amenity for the University was the main challenge for the project. The previous use of the site as a heavily compacted asphalt parking lot with construction debris buried beneath the surface posed ecological challenges due to concerns about drainage and infiltration as related to the long-term success of the landscape.

The plaza provides a space to gather for the students and visitors of the recently completed School of Public Health, Education and Psychology. An interface with the public realm, a retail terrace on the west of the building activates the periphery of the site along one of Berkeley’s busiest streets. Through material selection and visual connections within the light filled atrium of the building, an inside-outside relationship is established between the interior and exterior spaces surrounding the building.

A series of weathered steel walls line the planting areas throughout the site and gesture to the nearby site’s materiality and form. Stepped seating and linear wood benches mark the edges of the plaza. The various seating elements provide opportunities for professors and students to utilize the plaza for clinics as well as social gatherings and daily activity.

The canopy of trees and clouds above are reflected in the surface of the polished basalt stone seats that are interspersed among the trees and the building columns that touch down within the plaza. The basalt material was selected as both a durable and creative option for informal seating arrangements with the plaza. Dappled shade from the trees offers relief from the sun during the summer months.

Lush planting areas surrounding the plaza capture runoff and filter stormwater piped from the roof areas of the building. Gravel sumps installed at the base of the trees aid in percolation within the tree pits to ensure water does not sit at the bottom and negatively affect the overall health. A large bioretention planter at the south edge of the plaza filters a portion of the water collected on the roof rather than discharging directly to the stormwater system. Provisions for stormwater treatment, the selection of low-water use plant species, the design of an efficient irrigation system, and the installation of low-albedo paving materials contribute to the overall sustainability of the project that is in the process of applying for LEED Gold certification.

The plant palette was carefully considered and developed with the University in order to select plants that were low maintenance and not sharp or noxious. Some of the clinics held within the building were anticipated to host children and the planting needed to respond to the potential users.

Establishing a pedestrian link at the east side of the plaza from the existing Walnut Pedestrian Connection was also paramount to the landscape design. The former street transformed into a pedestrian walkway and bikeway between Berkeley Way West and the neighboring building provides a connection to the neighborhood to the north of the site as well as to the future campus development to the south. Extending the design to the existing improvements at the Energy Biosciences Building, created by the same landscape architect, provided a challenge to determine a cohesive design strategy that would provide new amenities for the campus while negotiating the existing grades.

Though thoughtful and strategic design, the former parking lot has transformed into an integral part of the campus expansion and an amenity for students and the community. Through material selection, form, and an interconnected layout, the landscape design unites Berkeley Way West to the adjoining landscape as well as the adjacent neighborhood and vibrant city activities.

Name of the project: Berkeley Way West
Project category: Public Project
Role of the entrant in the project: Landscape Architect
Other designers involved in the design of landscape (if any):

Architect: WRNS Studio
Civil Engineer: Freyer and Laureta
Structural Engineer: Nishikian Menninger
Irrigation Designer: Russell D. Mitchell and Associates
Mechanical/Plumbing: Interface Engineering
Electrical Engineer: Mazzetti and Associates
Lighting Designer: Auerbach Glasow French

Project location: 2121 Berkeley Way, Berkeley, CA
Design year: 2014-2017
Year Built: 2018


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