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UC Regents Delay Vote on Stadium EIR

By Richard Brenneman and Judith Scherr
Friday November 17, 2006

Despite promised lawsuits by the City of Berkeley and project neighbors, UC Regents voted Tuesday to approve a massive athletic training center along the western wall of Memorial Stadium. 

But the Regents withheld one key approval needed before the project can move forward—certification of the environmental impact report (EIR). 

City Councilmembers voted unanimously in closed session Tuesday night to sue the Regents under the California Environmental Quality Act if the project’s current environmental impact report is approved. Kriss Worthington was absent. 

The EIR which would trigger litigation includes the Student Athlete High Performance Center, major stadium renovations, a nearby 912-car underground parking lot, an even larger new building joining functions of the UC Berkeley law and business schools and streetscape changes for Piedmont Avenue/Gayley Road. 

Any suit challenging the EIR and the project it covers must be filed within 30 days after regents adopt the document, a move which could happen as early as the first week in December in a telephone conference of the Board of Regents’ Committee on Grounds and Building. 

The committee voted unanimously to approve the project, simultaneously urging UC Berkeley officials to see if a compromise on EIR issues isn’t possible—though officials said approval of an EIR in time to allow for bidding to begin in January so excavation at the building site could be completed before the start of the fall football season was deemed an essential feature to avoid a year’s delay in construction. 

The other would-be plaintiff is the Panoramic Hill Association (PNA), which is comprised of residents who live on hillside homes to the east of the stadium. 

PNA member Michael Kelly told the Regents Tuesday, “The only road left to us is legal action.” He said the association has been advised that “there are elements of the current proposal which have serious flaws.” 

But the regents approved the $112 million project budget, with $12 million in potential standby financing if needed during fund-raising and plans for the 142,000-square-foot training and office facility. All funds are to come from corporations, organizations and individual donors 

Four stories tall in places, the training center would fit beneath the base level of the landmark stadium building. 

When it came time for a City Council vote Tuesday, Betty Olds said, “The trees are enough to make me vote for it,” referring to the 40 Oaks that were among the trees slated for destruction if the project goes through.  

The new parking lot added to her determination. “Nine hundred cars to too much to put on Gayley Road,” Olds said. Gayley is the two-lane nationally landmarked roadway that leads to the Stadium. 

The city retained Harriet Steiner of Sacramento-based McDonough 

Holland & Allen to work on the lawsuit, which will be filed within one 

month, Olds said. 


Fault issues 

One objection cited by the city and neighbors is the contention that the projects embraced by the EIR include structures on or near the Hayward Fault, and thus are susceptible to provisions of the Alquist-Priolo act, a law governing buildings on or adjacent to active earthquake faults. 

While acknowledging the Hayward Fault runs under Memorial Stadium itself, UC Berkeley’s Vice Chancellor Ed Denton and Associate Vice Chancellor for Project Manager Rob Gayle insisted the training center is exempt from the law because it is not on or sufficiently near the fault. 

UC Berkeley officials who addressed the regents dismissed claims of neighbors and the city that the project would impair emergency response times for the surrounding city neighborhoods. 

But Kelly said he was encouraged by the comments of Regent Leslie Tang Schilling, who questioned the wisdom of building an athletic training center next to a stadium which was facing legal challenge. 

Both PNA and the city said they plan to use the Alquist-Priolo Act in their challenges, a law the university concedes does apply to the stadium itself—while arguing the training center is exempt. 

The PNA, which has retained Alameda environmental lawyer Michael Lozeau, contends the university is barred from massive renovations of the stadium under Alquist-Priolo, which restricts upgrade work to 50 percent of the value of the structure. 

An assessment obtained by PNA valued the structure at between $27 million and $110 million, but the Denton told the regents that the stadium should be valued at what they say is a replacement value of $600 million. 

The university’s planned stadium renovations would be barred if the PNA figures are held to be accurate, and permitted under their own estimate. 

Kelly said one solution for the university would be to split the EIR into two documents, one for the projects west of Gayley Road and one for those east of the roadway. 

“That way they could approve one set of projects and go ahead with them,” Kelley said. 

He presented the suggestion in a letter he hand-delivered to the regents Tuesday. 

Regent Odessa Johnson, who described herself as “a great Bears fan” and a frequent attender of their games at the stadium, said that while it was important to attract top athletes and provide the facilities to support them, “it’s important to maintain good town/gown relations ... we need to work out some sort of consolation.” 

While she supported going further with the projects, Johnson said, “I would be happy to put off” adoption of the EIR. 

Committee Chair Joanne Kozberg said that while she supported the projects, the documentation had arrived at the committee so late that she felt she need time to reflect on the massive EIR. 

“We need to do our due diligence,” she said. 

Minutes later the committee voted unanimously to approve the key elements of the training center project, while delaying the essential vote on the EIR which is essential for the project to move forward.