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City Landmarks Bevatron Site, Not Bevatron Building

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday August 08, 2006

The battle over landmarking the Bevatron building ended Thursday when a city panel voted to bestow the honorific not on the structure itself but on the ground beneath. 

The 5-4 decision by the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) ended an agonizing process that had lasted through months and a long series of deadlocked votes. 

“We’re going to landmark a site. This is starting a precedent that has never happened before,” said Commissioner Lesley Emmington, one of the dissenters. 

“The building seems eminently suited to landmarking to me,” said Gary Parsons. 

In adopting the motion by Burton Edwards, the commission called out the details of the revolutionary discoveries made within the massive circular building, as well as the discoverers—while leaving out all mention of the structure and its unique architecture. 

“This application was made by the public,” Emmington said, and called for designating the building and its historical significance. 

Commissioner Carrie Olson cast the deciding vote, supporting a motion by Edwards that called on the university to memorialize the groundbreaking research carried out on what was once the world’s foremost subatomic particle accelerator. 

“So we have a new landmark site,” said Chair Robert Johnson after the vote in which he opted for the Edwards motion. “It’s a complex issue.” 

The commission has been wrestling with the issue since last December, when it conducted its first hearing on a proposal by LA Wood to designate the building that led to four Nobel Prizes for research that transformed the way physicists look at the way the universe works. 

Officials of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory opposed landmarking from the start, declaring that the best way to commemorate the work done there was to tear it down and build new facilities for new cutting edge research. 

Opinion in the scientific community was divided. The late Owen Chamberlain, the Nobel Laureate honored for his Bevatron research that discovered the anti-proton, had argued passionately for preservation before his death at the end of February. 

The Bevatron building and the attached office structure totaling 126,500 square feet form part of a series of major demolitions planned at the lab. The other six large structures are in the lab’s “Old Town,” a collection of mostly wooden buildings constructed during World War II. 

Demolition plans are spelled out in the lab’s 10-year site plan, released on May 20, 2005. 

According to that report, demolition of the Bevatron building and the massive structure it contains will take six to seven years and cost an estimated $83 million—with work to begin before the end of the current fiscal year and ending six to seven years later. 



Opposition to demolition mobilized residents who fear that that the 4,700 truckloads expected to traverse city street en route to recycling facilities, landfills and hazardous waste disposal sites could spread radioactive contamination and dangerous asbestos fibers in their wake. 

Critics also said they are concerned about traffic congestion, especially in light of other major construction work planned by UC Berkeley in the area of Memorial Stadium not far from the lab. 

Landmarking efforts came later, and the application before the council was filed by LA Wood, who with Pamela Shivola has been spearheading opposition on public health grounds. 

Many of the landmarking advocates have consistently acknowledged that their concerns were as much for public health and safety as for the preservation of a unique exemplar of Cold War architecture. 

Demolition of the massive structure ranks high on the priorities of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory—and neighbors are worried that deconstruction will result in exposures to radioactive particles, asbestos fibers and other toxins. 

Completed in 1953, the Bevatron was in operation until Feb. 21, 1993, when it shut down for the last time, rendered obsolete by vastly larger and more powerful accelerators. 

Modern accelerators are far greater in size—with the largest almost big enough to encompass all of Berkeley within their circumferences. 

But the Bevatron was unique in being the first of the world’s great accelerators, and while the accelerator itself—once the world’s largest human-made machine—has been decommissioned, much of the heavy equipment remains in place. 

While Wood, Shivola and the commission minority felt the building itself should remain, the majority agreed with lab officials, who have repeatedly said the best memorial would be to replace the structure with new facilities that could generate new ground-breaking research in physics. 

Even if the Berkeley Landmarks Preservation Commission had voted to landmark the building, the decision would have had little power to halt the eventual demolition of Berkeley’s last significant relic of the monumental era of government-funded Cold War science, since it is owned by the University of California, which is exempt from Berkeley law. 

If Edwards has his way, the work carried out at the Bevatron will be commemorated in an exhibit, perhaps at the Lawrence Hall of Science—a suggestion repeatedly raised by lab officials.