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Six Things To Know About the Commonwealth Club

The largest and oldest public affairs forum in the US is about to go through some major changes, and we got the scoop on The Commonwealth Club of California's new temporary pad.

1. Moving From Market Street To Union Square--For Now

We've exclusively learned the club has an LOI at 111 Maiden Lane for 12k SF, which will act as temporary space for about a year until its home on the Embarcadero opens. Its lease at 595 Market ends Dec. 31, but landlord Tishman Speyer gave an extension through June. 111's fourth floor space is a little smaller than its 14k SF HQ now, and the plan is to take possession of the space early in the new year. The club has to be in the center of downtown, Commonwealth CEO Gloria Duffy tells us, since the majority of people who attend programs come by public transit or walk. Last year, the club hosted a whopping 450 events

2. What's Causing the Delay

Starting construction on its new club at 110 The Embarcadero has been later than hoped. One reason: an angry neighbor. That individual--who lives in a nearby apartment building and reps its tenants' association--often objects to projects on the waterfront, including the cruise terminal. The club has support from the planning commission and neighbors (YMCA, Jewish Community Federation). And it's two-thirds of its way into fundraising for the new HQ. The $25M budget includes the acquisition of the property, design costs, fundraising costs, and legal fees associated with the appellant's appeals. Above, Gloria interviewing former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta at the Club in October (photo by Ed Ritger).

3. The Money Status

The club will likely take out a bank loan while fundraising finishes. That's typical of nonprofit construction, she says. The club hasn't finalized a construction contract and is waiting on final bids. (She anticipates the build-out to take 14 months.) The club has no endowment or extra funds and has to raise every dime from donors in the community, and many donations are multi-year commitments (the Hewlett Foundation, Packard Foundation and Irvine Foundation are big supporters). The future 19k SF club will be LEED Gold or Platinum and includes a third-story addition. It could go up three more levels but will go up just one to save money (going any bigger would require additional steel pilings underneath). 

4. A Quick History Lesson

The location on the Embarcadero is strategic. This year marks the 80th anniversary of the 1934 Pacific Coast maritime strike to protest poor hiring practices and working conditions. The strike shut down the entire West Coast from Bellingham to San Diego. On July 5, 1934, known as Bloody Thursday, there was a clash between S.F. police and picketers. The Commonwealth Club's new HQ was the Longshore workers’ union hall at the time of the strike--and the street corner where two strike supporters were killed that day. National legislation in 1935 established collective bargaining and set up the National Labor Relations Board. The club is working with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union to commemorate those historic events via digital displays in the main lobby.

5. Every Inch Counts

Pictured: ARUP global leader for mechanical engineering Alisdair McGregor, speaking at the HQ press conference last month about how natural ventilation will reduce the carbon footprint and costs. A lot of function is packed into a relatively small building (45 feet wide) with 43 staff: house club programs, offices, casual meeting areas, audio/video production, green room space, a ticketing counter, two auditoriums (136 and 299 people), a library, and a rooftop terrace overlooking the Bay Bridge. The 111-year-old forum is 10 times as active and as big as anything like this in the US, she says. The club is often ahead of issues (a month ago there was a big town hall meeting on the situation in Ferguson).

6. Upgrades Are Desperately Needed

Visitors can socialize before and after events on the second floor (pictured). Its current space on Market "wasn't designed for what we do," Gloria says. (It was originally a bank.) The club has the longest-running radio broadcast in the US--and she does voiceovers in a storage closet with foam baffling pasted up on the walls. She perches on a little stand talking into a microphone. Since the club sits in a skyscraper, the HVAC goes off by 5pm, but many of its programs are at night after work. In the summer, big fans are needed, and in the winter, coats are kept on. Tishman has plans for the space when they vacate, but they haven't made them public.