Public Comment

Commentary: UC Development in Southeast Berkeley

By Janice Thomas
Tuesday November 28, 2006

During the next 15 years, southeast Berkeley will be radically transformed by the realization of the 2020 Long Range Development Plan (2020 LRDP), the Southeast Campus Integrated Projects (SCIP), the Underhill Parking Lot, and the proposed development at and near Bowles Hall. The long range plan and parking lot are already approved; SCIP approval which includes another parking lot is imminent, while the Bowles Hall expansion and reuse proposal is a cumulative impact and inevitable byproduct of all that precedes it.  

On a mundane level, the scope of these proposed developments will add new sources of noise pollution, light pollution, additional commuter traffic, additional special event traffic and additional construction vehicle traffic. Already bad traffic on Gayley and Piedmont Roads will make travel from the north Berkeley Hills to the south Berkeley Hills appreciably more tedious and time-consuming having the effect of shifting more traffic to the Fulton-Oxford north-south arterial.  

On a more philosophical level, the project scope will shift the values toward commercial enterprises and revenue-generating activities and away from sustainability and protection of natural and cultural resources. The change in value orientation will create an environment less able to support stable residential communities and more able to accommodate visitors with their need for attendant services and commodities. Some visitors will be in the form of service providers, e.g. vendor operators; others will be short-term guests, e.g. heads of state and corporate executives; still others will be spectators, e.g. for football and other capacity events.  

The mundane and the philosophical intersect at the point of traffic. When the university was a place dedicated to education, traffic was primarily limited to faculty, staff, and student commuters. As the university becomes more corporate, more “professional” and more financially self-sufficient, even more traffic is the natural byproduct of this enlarged university role and function.  

Although the topography of the southeast area creates natural barriers and development limitations, UC will eliminate natural and cultural resources to the extent possible in order to squeeze in the oversized SCIP development. The Cheney Houses located at what was once the end of College Avenue will be demolished. The vast majority of the mature Coast Live Oaks in the west Memorial Grove will be “removed”. The stadium rim will be raised on the west and east sides blocking views of the game from Tightwad Hill, views of the Bay from Rim Road and Panoramic Hill, and views of Strawberry Canyon from inside the stadium itself.  

The footprint of the SCIP project is a tight fit at the mouth of a canyon in an area already identified as subject to landslides, penetrated by the active Hayward Fault, and underlain by the largest creek in Berkeley, i.e. Strawberry Creek. Low impact uses have been the prevailing wisdom for the past 83 years of the stadium’s life span with only occasional lapses in judgment. In 1960, for example, Memorial Stadium was leased to the Oakland Raiders but the area-wide impacts were so detrimental that the use was ultimately abhorrent to university administrators and not just Berkeley citizens.  

The constituency of football fans and alumnae is well-resourced both in terms of organization and money. Whether these resources translate into good decision-making is another matter. Certainly the university has used these resources to its advantage so as to move forward even in advance of CEQA-mandated citizen participation. The result would seem to be expedient rather than well-reasoned.  

Planning assumptions have been guided predominately by fundraising and revenue-generating considerations rather than sustainable development policies. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the public discussion of the seismic issues where hardly a word has been said about public liabilities from the “risk of loss of life, injury, or property”. Although individuals may estimate their individual risks as low, administrators have the responsibility of confronting collective risks that should influence policy.  

As various entities prepare to sue, it has become increasingly obvious to cognoscenti that the project reach extends far beyond the project area. The veritable planning debacle pushes development into an area dense in cultural and natural resources while Telegraph Avenue is left wanting for an anchor tenant of substance and sophistication. Likewise the development of downtown amenities will be truncated to the extent the development center of gravity is shifted east.  

When all is said and done, the area will be transformed by intensified use, additional uses, destruction of the existing, construction of the new. Whether Mother Nature transforms the setting back to its earlier form may or may not occur in any of our lifetimes. Meanwhile, the broad interest in the grove of coast live oaks west of the stadium and east of Piedmont Avenue is a visceral response to an anticipated taking informed by a history of taking pieces of Berkeley. The first step in the physical transformation of a larger landscape begins there.  


Janice Thomas is a Berkeley resident.