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Oxford block on the table

By Josh Parr Daily Planet Staff
Saturday September 30, 2000

A collection of green houses and small classrooms at the corner of Hearst Avenue and Oxford Street, better known as the Oxford Tract, will be replaced with a three-story structure and a 200-space underground parking lot, if a UC Berkeley plan bears fruit.  

It’s a frustrating situation for Councilmember Dona Spring, in whose district the new building is to be erected. 

“There is not much leverage the city has to stop it,” said Spring, who opposes the building’s height and bulk and the number of parking places that are planned. “All we can do is deal with the impacts.” 

The regents approved the site’s Environmental Impact Report a few weeks ago, but Spring along with Mayor Shirley Dean and most the City Council have refused to give up the battle to get the university to significantly change its plans. At the Sept. 19 City Council meeting, Spring called on the city manager to look into legal actions to force the university to block or blunt the project. 

But instead the councilmember went along with Dean’s plan to meet with the university before talking lawsuit. A high-level closed-door meeting took place a few days after the council meeting, but the outcome is being held under wraps. 

“I’m not at liberty to say (what happened),” the mayor said. “One of the big issues was traffic. We had a good discussion about traffic.”  

Spring also said the talks were confidential, and she could not talk much about them. She revealed only that they turn around the planned Walnut Street access to the parking structure. “Our (former) traffic engineer made that decision,” Spring said, arguing that the entrance and egress to the structure on the residential street would cause chaos in the neighborhood. 

Also present at the meeting was Chancellor Robert Berdahl, Assemblymember Dion Aroner, who called the meeting, City Manager Weldon Rucker and their staffs. 

“We were trying to find an area of common agreement for ongoing problems in the relationship between the city and the university,” said Hans Hemann, Aroner’s legislative aide. “There had never been face to face negotiations between the university and the city over the Oxford Tract, and this was a first step in that direction.” 

At issue in many of the town-gown tensions is the university’s ability to bypass local concerns. The university is governed by the state, not municipal laws. 

But that does not mean the university ignores city concerns, said Irene Hegarty, the university’s director of community relations. Community concerns heard during public hearings are often incorporated into the building process. 

“But once the regents approve the project,” she added, “the decision can only be challenged in court.”  

The new building, now in the design phase, will occupy roughly one third of the five-acre parcel, and will house classrooms and offices, moving from their traditional space on campus, while earthquake retrofitting takes place. 

“It’s a seismic replacement building,” Hegarty said, referring to the building to be erected on the Oxford Tract. “It’s called surge space, where departments can move during seismic relocation.” 

Hegarty stressed that the need for such a building is acute. 

“Now there are several retrofit projects being held up because of our inability to move departments,” Hegarty said, mentioning that the computer science department, now located in a basement which regularly floods, is a candidate for such space. 

Dealing with the impact of the building will mean resolving an incongruous, “rather cold” office building located a classic Berkeley neighborhood, Spring said. Traffic snarls, already bad in the area, will worsen, with the addition of 200 new parking spaces at the site, she said.  

When Spring talked about a lawsuit, she was referring to a possible challenge to the university’s approval of the Environmental Impact Report. The impact of traffic on the area was inadequately analyzed, she said. 

“The traffic data that was used is 10 years old. They took it straight from the long-range development plan written in 1990. There’s a lot more traffic impact now than there was 10 years ago,” Spring said. 

University officials disagree. 

According to Jennifer Lawrence, the university’s principal planner for capital projects, traffic studies on the impacted area were conducted twice last year, once in April and again in October. 

“We hired a consultant to run traffic circulation reports,” Lawrence said. 

Just one issue in many, the presence of the potential court case looms if the city and university find their differences irreconcilable. But by all accounts the meeting was a good beginning and another is scheduled for next week. 

“I’m satisfied that we can talk about it,” Spring said. “What we want is a better traffic assessment, for the buildings to be put to residential use after the retrofitting is finished, and a design which blends the building into the surrounding neighborhood.” 

“It’s too soon to know the outcome of these talks,” Hegarty said, “and we will continue to dialogue, but so far there is nothing specific to discuss.” 

“Most important is that there is a willingness to work co-operatively with the city,” Hegarty said. 

Groundbreaking for the seismic replacement building will take place in June or July of 2001 if all goes according to university plans. 

Judith Scherr of the Daily Planet staff contributed to this report.