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Is Vacant Building Site Kennedy’s Albatross? Soil Laced with MTBE

Tuesday August 12, 2003

So Kennedy bails on 2700 San Pablo Ave. after overcoming the opposition of unappreciative locals. I just hope his counterpart in the White House takes a lesson from this! After five years and countless hours of his precious time why the sudden drop in interest when he’s only a few steps away from leaving his imprint for posterity on the West Berkeley landscape? Perhaps it’s true that he’s beckoned by the siren’s call challenge of developing yet larger oversized projects in a declining rental market but then again maybe there’s more to this story than immediately meets the eye.  

This property was a former gas station and is on the Cal EPA list of leaking underground storage tank sites. There is an attachment to the deed of 2700 stating that it has a history of petroleum contamination and among the documented residual contaminants is MTBE, a likely carcinogen notorious for its durability in soil and water. Although a partial cleanup of the contamination was done less than a decade ago, 2700 San Pablo has been allowed to seep contamination into the water table and ultimately into San Francisco Bay, a federally protected waterway, for many decades. A July 2000 study by the Environmental Working Group found that the majority of these sites that were closed (considered “safe”), were done so prematurely in sweetheart deals with the State Water Board and its proxy agents. A few days ago, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors endorsed the “precautionary principle” in dealing with pollution by writing it into their law. Basically it says that regarding pollution if you have a reasonable suspicion that something bad might be going to happen, you have an obligation to try to stop it. Might this be a harbinger of more stringent environmental oversight statewide? 

Unlike the San Francisco supervisors, Berkeley’s Toxics Management Division, under the aegis of the Planning Department (no conflict of interest there!) was only too happy to give it’s approval in covering up the toxic stew under 2700 San Pablo, reminiscent of the skateboard park fiasco—out of sight, out of mind. But I think Kennedy might have been facing at least one more hurdle from an outside authority. He would have had to get a discharge permit from East Bay MUD to pump potentially contaminated water from the subterranean garage into the city sewer. In the evolution of various proposals of the project the city’s Toxics and Planning Departments attempted to diminish and minimize this mitigation. At first the dewatering system was to be post-construction, incorporated somewhere in the design of the structure and maintained by nobody in particular. The Design Review Committee and Zoning Adjustment Board never found specificity about this element to be important. Ultimately the mitigation became little more than an afterthought—a possible procedure to be overseen by the developer during construction. But since EBMUD made a bit of a deal about discharging a few hundred gallons of contaminated water from the site in 1995 they might consider discharge of an indeterminate amount of potentially toxic water with MTBE in it to be a bit more significant problem, thus making issuance of a discharge permit less than certain. 

Another question that comes to mind is whether Kennedy can simply transfer his development permit carte blanche to a buyer. Is there no expiration date on the current permit? Would there be no review by the Zoning Adjustments Board? After all, conditions have changed in the neighborhood since the project got approval. In October 2000, during one of 2700 San Pablo’s development stages, then Planning Director Marc Rhoades told a group of us neighborhood “activists” that, by law, it wasn’t legal for planning staff to consider what the cumulative impact of 2700 would be in concert with future potential projects. At that time there was one proposed project nearby, 2575 San Pablo—over 40 units—that had received initial city funding. But somehow it was irrelevant. Now there’s yet another approved project and together they total about 170 units more than 2700 San Pablo, all within a block of each other. Can Planning continue to refuse to address the potential cumulative impacts of 2700 with other nearby projects or the cumulative impact of those projects in relation to 2700? Or for that matter, the cumulative impact of all other large projects in Berkeley? 

It seems to me that Kennedy and Jubilee Restorations might be being a bit optimistic in their hope to unload 2700 San Pablo. Far from having buyers flocking to their door, they might just have the proverbial albatross around their neck. 


Pete Teichner is a long time Berkeley resident and a concerned neighbor of the San Pablo site.