If UC Berkeley was looking for city residents and officials to praise their massive development plans for the Memorial Stadium area, then they might be disappointed by the response.
Most residents had little good to say about the massive expansion plans around the stadium during a scoping session last week.
With the help of his staff and of other city officials, Berkeley Planning Director Dan Marks prepared a scathing 19-page letter this week accusing university officials of serving up an ethically challenged subterfuge that offers vague, questionable and unenlightening generalities as self-evident truths.
His letter, with the approval of the Berkeley City Council Tuesday night and under the signature of City Manager Phil Kamlarz, was dispatched the following morning to Jennifer Lawrence, UCB principal planner for capital projects/facilities services.
The project, dubbed the Southeast Campus Integrated Projects (SCIP), includes the construction of three major buildings, significant alterations to a fourth, the demolition of two landmarked buildings, and the significant alteration of a third.
At Memorial Stadium—the renovated structure—the project plans call for a seismic upgrade and alterations to seating, as well as creation of two new levels above the existing stadium rim to house a press box and luxury skyboxes.
The three new structures are:
• A 132,500-square-foot Student Athlete High Performance Center building at the base of the stadium’s western wall.
• A $60 million underground parking lot north of the stadium.
• A 180,000-square-foot Law and Business Connection building across Piedmont Avenue east of the stadium that unites Boalt Hall and Haas School of Business teaching functions in a common structure which incorporates a sizable indoor/outdoor meeting facility.
But Marks said the EIR should also address yet another major landmark immediately north of the project area, Bowles Hall, a massive gothic-style residential hall which is one of two sites the university is considering converting into the home of a Haas School of Business non-degree program for working corporate executives.
His comments were drawn from the 52-page notice of preparation (NOP) the university issued on Nov. 14 announcing their intent to create an environment impact report (EIR) on the project.
Where are the facts?
“[T]he NOP offers vague descriptions of the projects the EIR will evaluate and their potential environmental impacts, raising serious questions about the adequacy of the assessment to follow,” Marks wrote.
“The NOP fails to include even conceptual plans for the proposed projects, is unclear about the nature of several key aspects of the projects, and provides little or no detail as to the specific scope of the development ... and fails to present the detail that is typically provided in the project-level NOP that it purports to be,” making it “extremely difficult to make any specific comments on the scope of the analysis of potential impacts in the EIR for this project.”
Yet, noting the NOP’s detailed parallel construction timelines for all the included projects, Marks said he found it “difficult to believe the university does not have more specific information about at least some of the projects.”
Marks also raised the specter of legal action, noting that the “most ethical and legally defensible approach” would be for the school to prepare an EIR that evaluated the high performance center and the law and business school projects in detail and to formulate a set of policies on future developments in the area while postponing the remaining projects until they’re more fully developed.
“Regretfully,” he wrote, “based on past experience the City of Berkeley expects that the university will proceed with this ill-defined project description.”
Without specific plans and numbers, Mark wrote, there is virtually no way the city can estimate the project’s demands for city services, impacts on surrounding neighborhoods or potential costs to city taxpayers.
The city isn’t without some power, he noted, because the threat of legal action remains a weapon in the city’s arsenal. Though the controversial settlement agreement ending the city’s suit against the university’s 2020 Long Range Development Plan (LRDP) barred litigation over most university development, the agreement specially excludes the Memorial Stadium precincts.
Among the concerns Marks raised:
• The NOP contained no conceptual site plans showing the footprints of the proposed new buildings, even though the university showed drawings at a press conference and in the hallways on the day of the scoping session, held as the public comment period was coming to an end.
• Impacts on city services can’t be assessed without specific information on the nature and intensity of uses at each site, including Memorial Stadium, where the university plans, thanks to new permanent lighting, to go “beyond football” to offer “major public-interest events.”
“What is the average number of persons who can be expected for how many hours on how many days each year?” asked Marks. Does it mean that the stadium’s 62,000 seats “will be filled 10 times a year or 40 times a year?” A Draft EIR without that kind of data “will not be legally adequate,” he wrote.
• While the university intends to rely on the 2020 LRDP traffic analysis for much of its projections, Marks says the new parking structure and changes to pedestrian access, changes from other, unspecified transportation improvements and changes at Memorial Stadium will have site-specific impacts that could require another look at the LRDP EIR assumptions and those in the city’s own Southside Plan EIR scheduled for next year and the EIRs of AC Transit’s Bus Rapid Transit plans for the city.
• Other transportation issues which have likewise been left undescribed include vehicle access to the new facilities and mentioned but undetailed new shuttle bus service.
• Marks also questioned the proposed demolition of two landmarked houses to make way for the law/business building and the overall project impacts on Piedmont Avenue, a landmarked streetscape, and on Memorial Stadium, for which a federal landmark nomination is pending.
• The planning director also spotted some language on the athletic center, which the NOP notes is “currently proposed as a two-story landform building.” (Marks’ emphasis). In whatever form the university finally chooses, what will be the impacts on the stadium and the landmarked streetscape, he asked.
• Marks noted that the vague details concerning the controversial addition of permanent night lighting for the stadium, a multi-level press box and luxury skybox additions above the west stadium rim made specific comment “very difficult.”
• Marks also criticized information about the $60 million underground parking, which he noted would have tremendous impact on city-owned streets, “with very poor access that is virtually on top of the Hayward Fault.”
• The most complex analytical issues involve the stadium, which “is located literally over a major high-risk fault and is in a relatively isolated location in terms of vehicle access, yet is clearly destined in the NOP for intensified use.”
For those and other reasons, Marks wrote, “We assume the university will indicate what other options it considered besides retaining the stadium in its current location,” close to the Hayward Fault, where it could “expose even more students and other persons to very real seismic hazards.”
• Likewise, “the city fails to understand why the university would insist on replacing existing parking and increasing the parking supply in one of the least accessible places in the City of Berkeley” at a site that abuts the Hayward fault.
• Without specific information such as building sizes and heights, the number of night-lighted events at the stadium and other buildings and plazas in the complex, details of above-the-rim stadium additions and other facts, any assessment of aesthetic and visual impacts is impossible, he said.
• He also takes issue with the university’s claim that the LRDP analysis is sufficient for issues of hydrology and water quality impacts. An increase in the number of major events at the stadium could significantly impact the city’s wastewater system, and the projects themselves could alter existing drainage patterns. Similarly, more events means more demands on the city’s sewer system.
• Marks argued for expansion of the project’s traffic study area. He also asked for specific studies of peak morning and after hours as well a separate analysis of a Saturday home football game.
Meetings, delay sought
While the city has requested that university officials present their plan to the city Landmarks Preservation, Planning and Transportation commissions and the Zoning Adjustments Board’s Design Review Committee as soon as possible, Marks said the university should issue a new notice of preparation taking into account the concerns he raised.
“[T]he city urges the university to better define its projects, provide a clear project description and then issue an appropriate NOP before proceeding with this EIR,” Marks concluded in his the letter. “This would allow the public and the city as a responsible agency sufficient opportunity to provide comment. As the project is currently described, the city does not believe it can make adequate comment.” ?