Skepticism, Questions Greet UC Officials’ Presentations By Richard Brenneman

Friday February 24, 2006

Members of four city panels filed into the North Berkeley Senior Center Wednesday night to hear the university’s first formal presentation of its plans for the Memorial Stadium area.  

On hand were members of the Planning, Landmarks Preservation and Transportation commissions along with the Zoning Adjustment Board’s Design Review Committee. 

The university’s representatives included Emily Marthinsen, interim assistant vice chancellor for physical and environmental planning; Jennifer Lawrence, a principal planner in Marthinsen’s division, Catherine Koshland, vice-provost for academic planning and facilities; Robert De Liso, vice president of the university’s project management firm URS Corp, and Darryl Roberson, a principal of Studios Architecture in San Francisco, one of the designers of the stadium area projects. 

The stadium had been designated seismically unsafe in 1997, but plans for a retrofit had been on hold because state funds couldn’t be used for the project, Marthinsen said. 

Renewed interest came a year-and-a-half ago, “and it has to do with the success of the football program,” she said. 

Left unsaid was the demand by Cal Bears Coach Jeff Tedford that the stadium be renovated, as a condition of getting his signature on a five-year, $1.5 million annual salary contract. 

Also included in the plans is a structure across Piedmont Avenue from the Stadium where Boalt Hall School of Law and Haas School of Business have proposed a joint “connection” building to house offices and a common meeting area. 

Wednesday’s presentation focused on four projects, two planned in the immediate future and two planned for later.  

The immediate projects are a 180,000-square-foot Student Athlete High Performance Center (SAHPC) along the stadium’s western wall and a four-level, 800-to-850-space underground parking lot at the site of the Maxwell Family Field immediately to the north of the stadium. 

Koshland said the SAHPC would house specialized training for the football teams and 12 to 13 other intercollegiate athletic teams.  

A seismic retroift to the stadium, including the addition of new seats, permanent lighting and other features will reduce seating from 72,000 to 60,000. Much of the reduction is to meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Koshland said. 


Public Comments 

None of the public speakers who followed the university representatives enthused about the plans. 

Doris Willingham raised fears about the project’s impact on landmark structures. “The university apparently intends to demolish ... venerable, beautiful old buildings in its efforts to bring us what appears to me a high class office park,” she said. 

Frederica Drotos of Friends of Piedmont Way said she worried about the projects’ impacts on that streetscape—a city and state landmark—designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. 

Drotos lamented the apparent intent of the university to sacrifice a large stand of trees to the SAHPC, a point reinforced by Joanna Dwyer, who read off a list of species and numbers, which included 46 Coast Live Oaks and five mature redwoods. 

Zelda Bronstein, former Berkeley planning commission chair, called the event “a one-stop dog-and-pony show.” She said informed comment was almost impossible because the university had provided no detailed information. 

“What we’re reduced to is sound bites. It causes anger and distrust,” said Janice Thomas, another project neighbor. “My neighborhood is at risk for being destroyed.” 

Noting that the underground parking structure would house twice the number of cars as the city’s five-story Center Street parking garage in a difficult to access area, Panoramic Hill resident Bill Robbins said the project didn’t make sense from a transportation planning perspective. 

Daniella Thompson, a member of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, noted that stadium architect John Galen Howard hadn’t wanted to locate his stadium at the site. “It was one of the reasons he was fired,” she said. 

Thompson decried the projects as evidence of the university’s “megalomania, growth at all costs ... the community is not going to benefit in any way.” 


Official Questions 

Because the university has mentioned opening up the stadium and the common area of the law and business schools’ connection building to public events, landmarks commissioner Patti Dacey—also a member of the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee—asked just what the events might be. 

“We’re struggling with this too,” said Marthinsen, who then noted that graduations had been held in the stadium and that John F. Kennedy had delivered an address there during his presidency. “We’re looking at it as a place for other very specific campus-related and community events. We are definitely not looking at it as a venue for rock concerts.” 

As for the venue across the street, Marthinsen said that events there would probably be informal interactions between students of the two schools—though gubernatorial debates were suggested by university officials during an earlier press briefing. 

“Why can’t the parking structure be located in a more sensible area?” asked Transportation Commission Dave Campbell. 

UC planner Lawrence said that location meets all the university’s goals, adding that the upcoming draft environmental impact report (EIR) on the projects would look at alternatives, including one in downtown Berkeley. The document would also examine the possibility of locating the athletic training center closer to the downtown as well, she said. 

Design Review Committee member Burton Edwards asked the university to provide more specific views of the projects, including elevations seen from the street, 

“I find it really hard to think about and talk about Piedmont Avenue and Gayley Way without knowing what’s going to happen to the row of important historic structures,” he said. 

Planning Commissioner Gene Poschman said that had the project been within city limits, officials would have demanded “a thousand times the information” presented at the meeting. 

What are the actual hours of use of the planned facilities, and the number of people who will be coming and going?, he asked. How many cubic yards of earth would be excavated during construction of the parking lot and training center? 

Poschman also asked if the university would be providing answers to a lengthy letter city Planning Director Dan Marks had sent the university in December during the solicitation of information to be considered in the EIR. Marks had blasted the school for providing few details and questioned the university’s honesty. 

The response, he was informed, would come in the EIR. 

While Planning Commission Chair Harry Pollack said he hoped the city would be able to respond with one voice, Poschman said he was skeptical that could be achieved. 

Landmarks commissioner Lesley Emmington said Marks’ questions needed to be addressed in the EIR. “We need to see the answers to that letter,” she said. 


Future events 

Marthinsen said the public’s next opportunity to learn more about the project would come on March 13, when the stadium would be made available for tours starting at 5:45 p.m. 

“There will be opportunities to talk with consultants and the occupants of the building,” she added. 

The university will reveal a draft EIR on the project in May, followed by a 45 day period in which the public and officials will be able to make comments to be considered in the report’s final draft..