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Panoramic Hill Residents Say UC Stadium Plans Are Illegal

By Richard Brenneman
Friday November 03, 2006

Do UC Berkeley’s Memorial Stadium area development plans violate a state law created to save lives in major earthquakes by limiting new construction? 

That’s the contention of neighbors from the Panoramic Hill Association (PHA), who have raised the issue in a letter to UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgenau—and it’s also the basis of a possible lawsuit by city officials. 

The UC Board of Regents is scheduled to vote on approving plans for a 132,500-square-foot athletic training center immediately west of the stadium when they meet at UCLA Nov. 15-16.  

While the city raised the question of valuation in discussions prior to voting to hire outside counsel to prepare possible litigation over the university’s stadium retrofit and expansion plans, neighbors took an additional step. 

PHA took the unusual tack of hiring a professional assessor to challenge the university’s claim that the stadium is exempt from the Alquist-Priolo Act because the planned retrofit would cost less than half the current value of the landmark structure. 

In its environmental impact report (EIR) on the quarter-billion-dollar stadium area projects, the university claims exemption of the stadium retrofit from the Alquist-Priolo Act—legislation passed following the disastrous Sylmar Earthquake of Feb. 9, 1971, that killed 58 people, most in the collapse of the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in San Fernando. 

In the aftermath of the San Fernando Valley quake that measured 6.6 on the Richter Scale—compared to the 6.9 magnitude of the Oct. 17, 1989 Loma Prieta temblor—state legislators passed the law regulating development on and adjacent to major faults. 

Memorial Stadium sits directly over the Hayward Fault, the seismic rift federal geologists predict is the most likely site in Bay Area for a 6.7 quake by the year 2032, with odds set at 27 percent. 

But Alquist-Priolo allows replacement of structures that were built before 1975—a standard the stadium meets by more than a half-century—so long as costs don’t run to more than half of the structure’s existing value. 

Michael Kelly, PHA vice president for university relations, wrote that the association had received no response from two requests to the university for additional information supporting their claim of exemption from Alquist-Priolo. 

One aspect of the law is the exemption—embodied in Section 2621.8 of the California Public Resources Code—excluding “alterations or additions to any structure within a special studies zone the value of which does not exceed 50 percent of the value of the structure.” 

With the university in the midst of raising funds from alumni and other donors for a project estimated to cost more than $100 million. PHA decided to see how much Memorial Stadium is worth by hiring Charles B. Warren, a San Francisco appraiser. 

Warren concluded that by the accepted standards of his profession, the proposed seismic retrofit and additions were “greater that 50 percent of any probable value of the structure.” 

He estimated the undepreciated value of the current structure at between $27 million at the low end at $110 million at the upper end. The lower figure comes from factoring the historic cost of $1,021,500 into contemporary dollars, while the high-end figure calculates the price of building a new, replacement structure. 

By figuring in depreciation as well, the actual value of the structure as it standards today would be zero, Warren wrote. 

In the final EIR released Tuesday, the university dismissed the criticisms as outside the scope of consideration for the document. 

Because the Alquist-Priolo Act doesn’t define value, the university said it might rely on Section 823 of the California Evidence Code, which “provides that the value of property for which there is no relevant, comparable market may be determined by any method of valuation that is just and equitable.” 

But the university did declare that it would make certain that the resulting construction would amount to no more than the allowable 50 percent—though just what basis it would use for determining the numbers wasn’t cited. 

The EIR likened the university’s decision to undertake a major building program on the fault to the fact that “Individuals decide to raise families, entertain and hold meetings at homes subject to disaster and catastrophe. This decision itself does not increase or exacerbate the likelihood that a disaster will occur, but increases individual exposure to risk.” 

“The university takes reasonable steps to reduce risks,” said the report, “including employing design work from reputable civil and structural engineers and engaging a seismic review committee to review and advise on structure design.” 

The university’s website features both the EIR and a collection of seismic reports prepared on the stadium area and the nearby site of a planned 911-slot parking lot which would be built, largely underground, adjacent to the Hayward Fault. 

The report on the proposed Student Athlete High Performance Center treats the proposed 132,500-square-foot structure adjacent to the stadium’s western wall as a separate structure sufficiently distant from the main active fault, which runs through the center of the stadium. 

However, the building would be structurally linked to the stadium, which led one city official—who declined to be identified in print—to wonder at the wisdom of considering the two buildings as separate. 

The report concluded that the training center is west of the active fault, and the potential for the soil beneath the building to drop in the event of a quake was “very low.”