Construction means some destruction
Within a month of the groundbreaking for the first new building on the Berkeley High Campus in almost 40 years, the destruction of about three dozen trees by contractors has sparked cries of “ecocide” and prompted calls for a closer examination of the building plans.
“This could have been prevented. That building could have been configured in a way that would have saved those trees,” said former parks commissioner Lisa Stephens.
The empty lots on the east side of the Berkeley High campus was littered with tree limbs Tuesday. Mangled trunks are all that is left of pines, sycamore and magnolia trees.
“It’s really a shock when you see all the trees they’ve cut down,” said Councilmember Dona Spring.
Longtime Berkeley and KPFA radio personality Larry Bensky said he was riding his bike past the campus Sunday on the way to host his weekly radio show, when “out of the side of my eye I saw this lunar landscape. I couldn’t imagine what had happened.”
“This sets a bad example for the students,” Bensky said. “Somebody has to speak up for trees, because they’re extremely valuable and part of what we treasure about this planet.”
Karen Sarlo, public information officer for the Berkeley Unified School District, said the district makes an effort to protect trees with historic or aesthetic value and that the 34 trees removed in this case were deemed to have neither. Only four of the trees were really large, Sarlo said.
“The district does everything that it can to preserve trees,” Sarlo said, pointing to past projects where an effort was made to build around “significant” trees.
But Anthony Bruce of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Organization said a number of magnolia trees that were destroyed had historic value because they were originally planted as part of a landscaped plaza on Shattuck Avenue and were moved to the campus to make way for a BART station in the sixties.
Stephens and others said the Berkeley Unified School District never gave the public an opportunity to fully review the plans and suggest changes.
“It isn’t just about the trees,” said Stephens. “It’s the way they do business. It was very difficult for people to get information about the planning or to have any input at all.”
Lesley Emmington, a spokesperson for the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, agreed.
“The problem is that there’s never been a public process to look at the effects of this building,” Emmington said.
Beyond the loss of the trees, Emmington said there were concerns that the modern appearance of the planned building may clash with the historic appearance of the nearby Civic Center, or that that the new building will be placed in such a way as to block access to the Community Theater, making an important public space far less inviting than it is today.
Emmington, whose children attend Berkeley High School, said even the students have been kept out of the loop.
Sarlo conceded that it might have eased concerns if an effort had been made to notify people of the planned tree demolition. In the future, she said, she will send out bulletins every two weeks to update students, teachers and the public of upcoming construction work.
But Sarlo said the process of planning the building has been long, deliberate and inclusive.
“You don’t just decide to build a building and then build it,” Sarlo said. “There are layers and layers of people who look at (the plans).”
After the passage of a bond measure in 1992 to get money for the new building, the school district hired neutral observers to mediate public meetings aimed at accumulating input for the new building, Sarlo said. Notification of the meetings were mailed to people who lived near the school, to the press and other organizations, Sarlo said.
Furthermore, said Sarlo, the plans were discussed and modified at several School Board meetings before they were finally approved. Concerned members of the public could have given their input at those meetings, for which the agendas were posted in advance on the school district web site, Sarlo said.
Sarlo said during the planning process for the building most of the debate revolved around the pressing issues of classroom needs, building safety and amenities.
“I’ll bet nobody asked about the trees,” Sarlo said.
The 18-acre Berkeley High campus is “very small for 3,200 students,” she said, pointing to a state standard that recommends a high school with 3,500 students should be built in an area no smaller than 70 acres. The size of the Berkeley High campus hasn’t change in 100 years, Sarlo said, even while growing enrollment and a law requiring reduced class sizes have fueled demand for more classrooms.
The new 64,000-square-feet building is part of a 15-year, $92.6 million plan for improvements to the high school campus. It will house much needed classrooms, administrative offices, a student union, a food complex and a new library and media center, Sarlo said. The Berkeley High library and administrative offices have been housed in temporary space or portable classrooms since a fire destroyed one of the school’s buildings last year, Sarlo said.
“It really altered the campus,” Sarlo said. “Whatever free space we did have it’s now portables or construction.”
Sarlo said the district values greenery and will work on a landscaping plan after more of the construction and renovation is planned and completed.
“Until you know how the new buildings are going to look it’s difficult to do any type of landscape planning,” she said.