More than 70 people showed up at North Gate Hall for a public hearing Monday night, to challenge UC Berkeley’s Northeast Quadrant Science and Safety Project.
The precise subject of the hearing was the university’s recently-completed Draft Environmental Impact Report on the project, a document required by the California Environmental Quality Act.
While the university asserts the NEQSS Project is necessary to satisfy its space and earthquake retrofit needs, many city residents at the hearing said the project was too large and would increase traffic and noise in the area.
The project would:
• Demolish and reconstruct two buildings, Stanley Hall and Davis Hall North
• Add a new building next to Soda Hall
• Remove the tennis and skateboard recreational space atop the Lower Hearst Parking Building, to add more parking spaces
With this project, the university will seismically retrofit its science facilities, and in the process, it will also add 244,000 square feet and 400 new employees to these buildings. The opinions of the 25 or so people who spoke at the hearing were strong and unequivocal in their opposition.
“I think those were great comments,” said Jennifer Lawrence, UC Berkeley’s principal planner for the project, in a telephone interview Tuesday. “I think the campus needed to hear them.”
There were many challenges leveled against the way the NEQSS project has been carried out until now, from its publicity down to the timing of the hearing.
“Is NEQSS or is it not the biggest-ever set of projects – in real dollars, or gross square feet – ever launched by the university under a single construction initiative?” asked Jim Sharp, who lives near the proposed project. “I think the public should know that it’s such a big to do,” he said.
Community activist Clifford Fred suggested that the reason the NEQSS project seems so large is that it’s not, indeed, one project.
“Allowing the bare minimum of only 45 days to comment on an EIR that encompasses four major projects is unfair to Berkeley residents,” he said. “We should be given ample time to review and comment on this very large and complex draft EIR.”
Along with many others, Fred urged UC to grant an extended public comment period – something more than the 45-day-minimum required by CEQA. Karen Mena, who graduated from UC in May, argued that the student population is tremendously ignorant of the NEQSS project.
“I urge that the comment period be extended to include the comments of those students and community members that are away during the summer period,” Mena said.
Pamela Sihvola, co-chair of the Committee to Minimize Toxic Waste, rang the alarm on how these new science buildings – combined with the Hayward fault and the other buildings in the vicinity – may have a potentially-hazardous, radioactive effect on the surrounding neighborhood.
“We feel that such an immense project – which has great potential to release hazardous and radioactive materials routinely, accidentally or as a result of a major earthquake on the Hayward fault – would be much more appropriate if located in a less populated area, away from this active, earthquake fault,” Sihvola said.
L.A. Wood agreed.
“We’re going to have to decide whether we’re going to let bio-radiation/bio-tech dominate the campus or whether we’re going to scale it down and allow students to educate themselves there safely,” Wood said.
There was also a very pronounced turn-out by those concerned over the demise of the tennis courts and skateboard recreational facilities on the Lower Hearst Parking Building.
City Councilmember Betty Olds spoke on their behalf.
“People may not know that the university decided not to build 200 parking spots in the (new Seismic Replacement Building at Oxford Street and Hearst Avenue) because it would cost so much money,” Olds said. “That alone means that, since you don’t have that added expense, you certainly should seriously consider replacing the tennis courts on top of the next floor of the parking structure of Scenic Avenue and Hearst.”
Rob Lipton said he felt the tennis courts are representative of larger tensions between UC and the Berkeley community.
“The tennis courts lead the way as one of the ‘canary indicators’ of what the university thinks of the public,” he said. “It’s not just a trivial, my-personal-issue-with-tennis situation. It’s the larger issue of how this can be generalized to all the other aspects of what these projects are doing and what UC generally is doing.”
Luis Borrero spoke on behalf of the Newbridge house for recovering drug addicts, arguing that removal of the tennis courts is not just a statement about recreation, but a negative public health statement.
Lawrence said the university is considering the residents’ comments. There’s a good possibility that replacement courts will be placed atop the new floor of parking, she said, noting that a study is already underway to help make the final decision about any replacements. It will be completed by end of summer.
Greg Smith spoke from experience about how little he’s looking forward to the construction noise, noting in particular the use of truck backup beepers, jackhammers and delivery trucks. Even when the EIR designates quiet hours, the construction workers don’t seem to follow the rules, he said.
He suggested 24-hour noise monitors, while Lara Bice, of Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson’s office, asked:
“If a significant but unavoidable impact is the potential city of Berkeley noise violation,” Bice said, “what is the expectation that you will be granted permits by the city if even before construction you presume that you will violate (these conditions)?”
Others pointed to the need for studying cumulative impacts:
“This EIR is very deficient in terms of measuring cumulative impacts, especially with parking and transportation,” City Councilmember Dona Spring said. “You need to do more with your staff to use public transit. The students are paying for a transit pass; the university employees (should too).”
But it’s not just sitting in traffic or waiting for a parking space, others added. The traffic construction these projects create can kill, and may again, as the death of pedestrian Jayne Ash a few months ago.
“The university is very concerned about jaywalking, but as a fact we know that a woman lost her life,” Nancy Holland said. “It’s strange to have such a renowned university justifying it’s extension plans without being able to recognize a fact that we all know from the newspapers.”
Final comments on he NEQSS project are due at the UC Planning Office by Aug. 1.