A proposal to build a multi-service homeless complex in West Berkeley has stirred debate over whether it is appropriate to build housing for the poor in an area with known environmental problems.
The Berkeley-based nonprofit Building Opportunities for Self Sufficiency (BOSS) is proposing a $4.5 million project called the Ursula Sherman Village on the city-owned property near the Albany border. The village— which will be adjacent to the existing Harrison House Adult Shelter, also operated by BOSS—will consist of four buildings totaling 21,000 square feet. The project, slated for completion by 2006, would provide much needed housing, medical care, education facilities and job training for about 130 men, women and children who would stay at the facility for up to two years.
A recently released draft environmental impact report (DEIR) has raised concerns about elevated levels of particulate matter in the area. Particulate matter is small, airborne pieces of liquid or solid matter that come from a variety of sources and is known to aggravate respiratory conditions such as asthma, which state medical officials say is common among the East Bay’s poor.
The poor air quality at the site is one of three environmental problems that have arisen since the city purchased the 6.4-acre site from UC Berkeley in 2000. The city has already spent more than $400,000 to mitigate a contaminated water problem and most recently the city discovered two fuel tanks underneath the Harrison House Adult Shelter, which could cost as much as $266,000 to remove.
Community Environmental Advisory Commissioner LA Wood has been an outspoken critic of development at the site. Referring to a 19-month-long air study that showed levels of airborne particulate matter exceeding state and federal standards, Wood said building transitional housing for the poor at the location brings up issues of environmental justice.
“The air is compromised down there and when you bring in people who are at high risk for respiratory illness and other health problems, it creates a very, very undesirable situation,” he said. “I think the project is greatly needed but I can’t support it in that location.”
BOSS Executive Director boona cheema said there are measures BOSS can take to help offset the poor air quality such as locating clients with active respiratory problems at the McKinnley House in central Berkeley.
Cheema said that signs will be posted around the complex warning residents and workers about the poor air quality and potential for respiratory problems. She said the city is taking steps to reduce the release of particulate matter from the Berkeley Solid Waste Transfer Station, which is immediately west of the proposed housing site.
“But really what this comes down to is that there will be much less risk at Ursula Sherman Village for families than there is living on the street or in crack houses,” cheema said.
Housing Director Stephen Barton said developing transitional housing in West Berkeley’s industrial area is a question of priorities.
“I think the question is can you mitigate [the air problems] enough so it’s responsible to let people live there knowing they otherwise may not have an option,” he said. “We have to be realistic, yes it’s a less than ideal environment, but on the other hand people living on the streets is certainly less than ideal.”
A public meeting on the project’s DEIR will be held June 9 at the West Berkeley Senior Center at 7 p.m. The Zoning Adjustments Board will conduct a public hearing on the project on June 26 in Old City Hall at 7 p.m. The DEIR is also available for review at the Central Library and on the Web at www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/planning/current/default.htm
In addition, information about the 19-month air study can be found at http://www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/parks/parkspages/HarrisonAirQuality.html