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Lab Stewardship Includes Caring for Creek

Daniella Thompson, James M. Sharp
Tuesday July 22, 2003

The following letter was addressed to Jeff Philliber, environmental planning coordinator, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory: 


Within the last seven months—and with shock and awe—we’ve watched how the lab rapidly secured UC Regent approval for a six-story nanotechnology facility (aka “Molecular Foundry”) in Strawberry Canyon with an absolute minimum of environmental disclosure and public scrutiny.  

Now it’s like déjà vu all over again. At least this time we’ve had a notice of preparation and initial study (NOP/IS) to study and a public scoping meeting (June 30) and site tour (July 7) to attend.  

Yet we still can’t believe that LBNL’s project stewards are truly serious about transforming this latest pair of mega-proposals into reality. After all, the lab still describes itself as a world-class institution, doesn’t it? 

We have no reason to doubt the assertion that many of the lab’s 4,200 employees are cramped for space. Nor do we doubt that many are frustrated by the lack of parking near their job sites. But are these inconveniences sufficient to justify excavating 26,000 cubic yards of material from a steep slope to build an office tower (Building 49) and to dump the residuals into a nearby Strawberry Creek tributary to create a 95-plus-space (G-4) parking lot?  

To us, the underlying rationale for Building 49—that the lab fails to meet federal space allocation requirements—appears bogus. Does LBNL face any penalties if lab space doesn’t match up with the figures recommended by the General Services Administration (GSA)? How much would the lab’s existing space/employee figures be altered by transferring 240 existing employees into the proposed Building 49? How many more such buildings would be required to meet GSA specifications under current conditions? 

The NOP/IS promises that the EIR will examine alternative on-site or off-site locations for this “decompression” office space. If only that were so. In our experience with UC-sponsored CEQA exercises, the alternative “straw men” are routinely flattened by the “preferred alternative”—the one selected before a notice of preparation and initial study are ever drafted.  

Moreover, we wonder how far the lab’s preferred alternative would fly without the “unique” risk-bearing contribution of the consortium of private companies who plan to finance, design, construct, own and manage Building 49.  

As unconscionable as we find the proposal to transform a riparian corridor into a parking lot, we are equally appalled by the precedent emerging here. Will public university land increasingly become the domain of private developers via clever lease-back arrangements?  

Above all, we are struck by the incredible waste of human resources that this whole process represents. Grown (and presumably well-paid) men and women in 21st-century Berkeley are spending inordinate amounts of their time and energy to advance a pair of projects which are at odds with clear thinking and good watershed management.  

It is as if the university is determined to return to the bad old days of the last century when Memorial Stadium blasted its way into the mouth of Strawberry Canyon. Have the intervening 80 years taught UC nothing about the importance of site stewardship? 

Our hope is that public reaction to this NOP/IS stimulates sufficient introspection within UC and LBNL that an EIR won’t be necessary and that the projects as proposed will be withdrawn quietly.  

It’s not impossible. After all, we recall that the NOP/IS for an EIR on LBNL’s long-range development plan (2002) was issued in October 2000. More than 1,000 days later, we have yet to see a follow-on document.  


Daniella Thompson, James M. Sharp