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Town prepares to battle university over growth plans

By Pam Reynolds, Special to the Daily Planet
Friday October 05, 2001


When Jim Sharp moved into his home 13 years ago, its location two blocks from the UC Berkeley campus was part of its charm. Times have changed. Now his house is only one block from campus, and he speaks of the “blight” that university expansion brings to his neighborhood. 

Sharp has been one of the most vocal critics of UC Berkeley's plan to expand and renovate several buildings on the northeast corner of campus, called the Northeast Quadrant Science and Safety Project. At the urging of Sharp and other community members, the Berkeley City Council decided Tuesday to hire a lawyer to advise them on challenging the university's draft Environmental Impact Report for the project. 

The NEQSS project plans to replace seismically unstable Stanley Hall and Davis Hall North with larger facilities, and add a new building next to Soda Hall. The construction, planned for 2002 to 2005, would add 244,000 square feet and 400 new employees to the area. 

Community opponents to the project claimed that the draft EIR fails to address important environmental impacts of the construction and the new buildings. 

Marie Felde, director of media relations for UC Berkeley, denied that the draft Environmental Impact Report is deficient in the areas suggested. “We have worked very hard to address the potential impacts that the community has raised,” she said, “including extending the public comment period well beyond what is required by the state.” 

The new buildings will house offices, labs and teaching space, including portions of the new Institute for Bioengineering, Biotechnology and Quantitative Biomedical Research, a partnership with UC San Francisco, UC Santa Cruz, and corporations such as Chiron in Emeryville. 


New labs cause concern 

The fact that the buildings will house science facilities, especially state-of-the-art new biotech research labs, is a cause for concern for many residents. Pam Sihvola, co-chair of the Committee to Minimize Toxic Waste, cited concerns that the buildings are too near the Hayward Earthquake Fault. “There is a very, very real danger,” she said, “I think whole area should not be used for any kind of building, and certainly not for operations using hazardous and radioactive materials.” 

L.A. Wood, a commissioner on the Community Environmental Advisory Commission, is convinced that the new buildings will house hazardous and radioactive experiments performed by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He referred to a “stealth lab” of LBNL operations performed on campus that are not governed by university and state regulations, and expressed concern that LBNL would be “coming down to Stanley Hall, making a mega-radiation complex like you couldn't imagine.” Wood wants the university to disclose exactly what the new facilities would be used for, how much space would be occupied by LBNL, and what chemicals and radioisotopes would be in use. 

What Wood, Sihvola, and others would really like to see is research labs using hazardous or radioactive materials relocated to remote facilities, away from urban and residential areas. 


Only 9 percent LBNL on campus 

Rich McClure, a Facilities Planner at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab said LBNL has no plans to have significant facilities in the new buildings. Currently 9 percent of lab space is on the university campus, mostly in Donner and Calvin Labs. 

Many of the opponents of the northeast quadrant expansion were also involved in the outcry against LBNL’s National Tritium Labeling Facility, which will close in December. 

Another major concern for project opponents is the size of the new facilities, which some neighbors said will strain an area already suffering from traffic congestion and noise problems. Sharp said that one neighbor wears earplugs and earmuffs to cut out the noise of current construction projects on Hearst Avenue. 

Mayor Shirley Dean noted that the NEQSS construction proposal is “one of the biggest projects that has come before the council, and there is rightfully some nervousness about it.”  

“We need to be very, very careful,” she said, “because of the size of this project, and because of things we hear are waiting around the corner.”  

One of those things is “Tidal Wave II,” the influx of 4,000 more students plus associated faculty and staff the university expects to see in the coming decade. 

University expansion has been a sore point in Berkeley for decades. Sharp, however, doesn't think this is just another one of the university's growing pains. “This is different,” he said. “It's lot more industrial research and development, it's like part of the university morphing into an industrial park.” 

Wood agreed. “I believe what they want to build toward is more like a biotech industrial complex,” he said, “I believe they've lost sight of the students.” 


Some call for legislative action 

The expansion project has led some opponents to advocate that the city seek state legislative action to block further university growth, as was done in San Francisco. That is something they city is talking about, commented Mayor Dean, but no action has been taken in that direction. 

“I think the problem is, the campus is maxed out - if it grows, the city shrinks. There are some people hoping the city of Berkeley would lead other cities who are impacted by institutional growth,” said Sharp, who supports legislative restrictions on university expansion. 

Sharp also suggested that the city needs to better monitor university impacts on city services, and reassess whether enough money is being collected for services the city provides for the campus. He proposed a neighborhood mitigation fund to compensate areas impacted by university growth, and more discussion of the livability of neighboring areas. 

“I'm hoping this is a wake-up call that we’re hearing from the council,” said Sharp, “but time will tell.” 

A spokesperson for the city attorney's office noted that the plan to hire outside counsel is still in its initial stages, and was unable to say who would be hired or what issues that person would be addressing.