Sixteen years ago former Berkeley City Manager Hal Cronkite wrote UC Berkeley officials that the city had “no known objections” to a pedestrian footbridge suspended over Hearst Avenue. Tonight (Tuesday, July 13)—three aborted attempts to win city approval and $600,000 later—the bridge that would connect both halves of the Foothill housing complex is finally coming before the City Council.
But it’s coming with plenty of baggage. In May the Public Works Commission, charged with presenting a report to the council, voted 6-2 to oppose the plan, charging that the university failed to meet the city’s criteria for obtaining the needed encroachment waiver.
UC Berkeley Planner David Mandel contends that the bridge is necessary to safeguard dorm residents from the hazardous pedestrian intersection at Hearst and Highland Street and open La Loma Dormitory on the north side of Hearst to wheelchair-using students.
Even though the dorm has 16 wheelchair-accessible rooms, no wheelchair-using student has ever called La Loma home. The problem is accessibility and distance. Since the terrain around the complex is so steep, the only path to the mail boxes, commons, and dining hall on the other side of Hearst that is flat enough for a wheelchair takes students on a half-mile journey all the way to the Greek Theater and around the complex.
UC wants the bridge so badly it has even indicated its willingness to meet city staff’s conditions that the university provide $200,000 towards infrastructure improvements around Hearst and give the city’s Public Works Department final say over the bridge’s design.
But, as in years past, the bridge is running into a buzz saw of opposition from neighbors, who see it as the “Arc de Triomphe” of university encroachment onto the northside of campus.
“I think the university wants this to brand Hearst for themselves,” said Jim Sharp, who lives a few blocks from the proposed bridge. “I can see them hanging a banner ‘Bear Territory’ across it.”
In the 15 years Sharp has lived just north of the central campus, he has watched as the city sat by powerless to regulate a UC building boom that is heating up again this summer with the start of construction of the new Davis Hall North at Hearst and Le Roy Street.
“It’s like the university is marching towards our doorstep,” he said.
Only in the matter of the bridge, the city is in the driver’s seat. To build a bridge over the public right-of-way, UC needs an encroachment waiver from the city. Approval has not come easily.
UC withdrew applications in 1992, 1997, and 2000 under heavy pressure from neighbors, design advocates, and even its own Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which feared the original bulkier, lower hanging designs would impede ladder trucks and collapse in an earthquake.
Last year, UC revived the bridge with a new scaled-back design and a new rationale. To comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act, UC argued it has to make sure all of its dorms provide access to disabled students.
If the city rejects the bridge this time around, Mandel said the university would scrap the project entirely. Originally budgeted at around $400,000 from a $65 million state bond measure, UC has already spent $600,000 on its rejected designs and would have to spend roughly another $600,000 to build the bridge.
So far, official reaction to the new proposal has been mixed. The city’s Commission on Disabilities voted unanimously to support the project and the Planning Commission voiced its approval in a 5-3 vote, before the Public Works Commission weighed in on the other side.
In a report to council, the Public Works Commission faulted the university for failing to study other solutions that would benefit all residents—such as a tunnel or leveling the crosswalk—and argued that the bridge failed to solve all disabled access issues, blocked the views of several homes and offices, and—in an era of university expansion—set a precedent for future encroachments.
Patricia Dacey, a Public Works Commissioner, agreed with Sharp that the bridge was more about branding than disabled access.
“If the university cared about disabled access they wouldn’t have built [the dorm] there or they would have made for easier access to get to central campus,” she said. “The bridge won’t do a damn thing to change that.”
Public Works Commissioner Linda Perry, who sided with the university, said the majority had let their biases against UC obstruct the key issue.
“This boils down to a matter of civil rights for the disabled community,” she said. “It’s hard to believe that people are so blinded by their anger towards the university they are willing to sacrifice disabled students.”
As a compromise measure, Public Works Director Renee Cardinaux has proposed setting conditions that the university pay $200,000 towards an infrastructure project of the city’s choosing and give Cardinaux final approval over all technical issues and the design.
Initially the university conceived an ornate Bay Region style structure, 18-feet off the pavement, complete with a slanted roof and wooden pillars that opponents complained would block many views and looked like it belonged in Disneyland. The new modified design proposes a steel and wood structure suspended 21 feet off the ground, measuring 11 feet tall, with a slightly arched green top and bottom.
The design would minimize visual intrusions, but utility has not yielded beauty, critics say. The city’s Design Review Commission voted unanimously to oppose the design and the Landmarks Preservation Commission, though not opposing the bridge, which would obstruct the view of the original Phi Delta Theta house, a national landmark, requested the university redesign it.
Cardinaux said the current design won’t suffice. “It has to be a piece of art or it shouldn’t be there,” he said. Although there’s little precedent for Public Works being the final arbiter of style, Cardinaux pointed to the I-80 pedestrian overpass, approved by the department, as an example that he is up to the task.
The $200,000 mitigation money, he said, came in response to a request from the Public Works Commission that the city be compensated should it grant the waiver.
Sharp, however, wants more money, and thinks initial payments should go to the roughly six property owners whose views will be impaired by the bridge.
“They’re treating this like an inside deal,” said Sharp, who wants the university to make annual payments for use of the city’s airspace. “The city is trying to get something out of it, while the neighbors get a mess.”
Opposition from neighbors like Sharp could impact the council’s vote. Councilmember Dona Spring, who uses a wheelchair, said she won’t be able to support the bridge proposal with the current design and without studying a possible tunnel.
“We shouldn’t sacrifice aesthetics just to get $200,000,” she said.?