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UC Regents Approve Controversial Projects

By Richard Brenneman
Friday December 08, 2006

Tree-sitting protesters, impassioned comments by neighbors and environmental activists, a poem, a bit of guerilla theater and the allotted 90 seconds of reasoned argument from Berkeley’s chief planner failed to sway UC Regents Tuesday. 

After a fast-paced public session, a single unanimous and largely telephonic vote by the board’s Committee on Grounds and Buildings gave the green light to the construction of a tree-clearing high tech gym at UC Berkeley and approved a critical, state-mandated document authorizing seven major projects atop and around the fault-sitting Memorial Stadium. 

Thursday, the second working day after the vote, UC Berkeley issued a call for contractors to apply for prequalification to submit bids, with a conference of would-be bidders slated for 9 a.m. Tuesday in Conference Room 231 at 1936 University Ave. 

The largest projects include a 912-space underground parking lot, a new office and meeting complex joining the functions of the university’s law and business schools and major additions to a seismically upgraded and refurbished Memorial Stadium. 

Lawsuits are certain to follow, with lawyers already hired for just that purpose by the City of Berkeley and the Panoramic Hill Association, which represents residents of the hillside above the stadium, recently recognized as a National Historic District. 

Meanwhile, the ranks of protesters who are taking to the branches of the imperiled trees have grown, along with the ranks of their supporters. 

Julia Butterfly Hill, the inspiration for the protest, paid a quiet visit Tuesday to the grove of coastal live oaks, California redwoods and other trees largely doomed by UC Berkeley’s plans to build a 138,000-square-foot high tech gym at the site. 

Former mayor candidate Zachary Running Wolf—the first protester to take up residence in the branches—cited Hill as the inspiration for his protest. 

Running Wolf ascended a redwood at the stadium grove during the pre-dawn hours of Big Game day Saturday. He has since been joined by other protesters who have taken up residence in nearby trees. 

“The tree-sitters are 100 percent committed to staying up until the trees are safe,” said Doug Buckwald, the environmental activist who has been coordinating support for the tree-in. 

Running Wolf and fellow protester Jess Walsh, who is perched on a platform high in one of the oaks, have been maintaining their perches full time, while Aaron Diek, a student, is being spelled while he completes his final exams, Buckwald said. 

“They’re all doing great,” he added. 


Regents act 

Running Wolf was one of the project opponents who spoke to the regents Tuesday, another disembodied telephonic voice—in his case, relayed through the cell phone Doug Buckwald held up to the public microphone in the meeting room at UC San Francisco’s Mission Bay Conference Center. 

“There are options open to you in other areas,” pleaded Running Wolf, a Native American activist as well as a recently defeated candidate for Berkeley Mayor. 

While earlier reports listed the probable cost of the Student Athlete High Performance Center to be built at the grove site as $125 million, Wednesday’s announcement cited an estimated cost of $75 million, or $543 per square foot compared to the earlier $880—funds to be raised by private donors who are expected to pony up more than a third of a billion dollars for the seven projects included in the Southeast Campus Integrated Projects (SCIP) environmental impact report (EIR). 

Combined with an eighth adjacent project, an addition to Bowles Hall, the projects will create as much floor space as that enclosed by one third of the block-square, 102-story Empire State Building. 

While the tree-sitters have drawn the media’s attention to the loss of a grove which includes oaks that would be protected inside the surrounding city, Berkeley officials and neighbors are concerned about both the cumulative impact of the massive projects and the potential dangers to students and university staff they say are posed by building so much near a locked and loaded earthquake fault. 

“The city is clear. Our basic concern is safety,” said Marks. “We are the first responders.” 

One legal basis for a challenge is the Alquist Priolo Act, which governs building on or adjacent to active faults—a law that clearly applies to Memorial Stadium, which is bisected by the Hayward Fault, rated by federal geologists as the Bay Area’s most likely source of a major earthquake in the coming two decades. 

But UC Berkeley Vice Chancellor Edward J. Denton, who heads the university’s building program, told the regents the worries are groundless, and pleas to move the training center and the stadium itself were out of the question. 

The chief reason he cited was the need to preserve a stadium which played a central role in the memories of graduates who return to campus, especially for the Big Game with Stanford that is the highlight of the campus football season every other year. Left unsaid but implicit was the awareness that is those very folks the university wants to tap for money to build the projects. 

Also rejected were pleas by Don Sicular to withhold plans to build a higher bank of seating on the stadium’s eastern side—a project that would block the view of fans who flock to Tightwad Hill, a slope overlooking the stadium where fans can watch for free. 

The high tech gym is critical, Denton said, as a “daily operations hub” for campus athletic programs. 

He also rejected pleas by several critics to build the gym and a new stadium near Edwards Field, a notion he called “bad planning” because the site is also a landmark, and because a stadium there would overshadow downtown buildings immediately to the west. 

Mike Kelly said Panoramic Hills residents aren’t opposed to the training center, only its location. Like the city, the neighborhood association is alleging the university failed to follow the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) in preparing the SCIP EIR. 

“We’ll pursue legal action,” he said, because the stadium is built on a fault. 

Approval of the EIR triggered a 30-day window during which opponents can file suits challenging its legal adequacy 

UC Berkeley officials, supernumeraries to the regents, a hired legal gun and the largely disembodied telephonic voices of the regents occasionally offered comments during Tuesday’s meeting, which was preceded by a closed-door conference presumably involving the threatened litigation. 

Charles Olson, an environmental and property law partner in San Francisco law firm Sanger & Olson, represents the university, while a lawyer with similar specialties, Harriet Ann Steiner of Sacramento law firm McDonough, Holland & Allen, represents the city. Alameda environmental law specialist Michael Lozeau represents the Panoramic Hill Association. 


Tight leash 

Acting Secretary Anne Shaw kept the speakers on a tight leash and shortened speaking time. Because 23 people signed up to speak during the 20 minutes allotted for public comments, she cut the standard two-minute segments to 90 seconds, with a maximum of 159 seconds if two others were willing to sacrifice their time to a third speaker. 

Running Wolf was followed by retired Berkeley schoolteacher Scott Walchenheim, an advocate of the Edwards Field site for a new stadium and training center. He said the EIR was also faulty because it failed to list destruction of the grove as a significant impact that couldn’t be mitigated. 

Jim Sharp said another EIR issue was the document’s failure to include the project to transform Bowles Hall, now a men’s residence, into a corporate executive education facility, a project that would add another 50,000 to 80,000 square feet of new construction to the mix. The site is immediately across Stadium Rim Way from the 912-space underground parking lot to be built northwest of the stadium as part of the SCIP projects. 

“Withdraw, revise and recalculate,” he urged. 

Two alumni and one student athlete spoke in favor of the athletic training center, agreeing with university officials who have described the school’s current facilities as the worst in the PAC 10 and possibly the worst of all the major NCAA schools. 

Pleas to spare the oaks came from Dr. Ellen Gunther of the Alameda County Sierra Club and Berkeley poet Bob Randolph, who read from his work, “Two Oaks.” Letters pleading for the oaks came from the California Oaks Foundation and the California Nation Plant Society. 

Berkeley environmental activist LA Wood quoted Berkeley’s most famous environmental activist, David Brower, who he said had once urged the university “not to build another monument to stupidity.” 

Buckwald, who had held up his phone for Running Wolf’s comments, performed a bit of guerilla theater, offering a spring of oak, a broken mirror and an acorn to “invisible gods” of the disembodied regents as the ancient Druids had offered up sacrifices to their own invisible pantheon of spirits. 

The oak was for the trees, the mirror so the regents could reflect on the shattered town/gown relationship and the acorn as a symbol of hope for the future, he said. 

But in the end, after a few questions to Denton and Olson, the committee voted 7-0 for approval, clearing the way for bids in January and the cutting of trees and beginning of excavation in March. 

The entire project should be complete by February 2009, Denton said. 

Meanwhile, Buckwald said, UC Berkeley Police have warned protestors that their banners are illegal and could be removed. Officers visiting the site Tuesday also took down the names of some supporters. 

Still the police presence wasn’t anything like the regents meeting, where no fewer than 10 officers, including a captain and a lieutenant were armed, ready and highly visible outside the meeting room. Three officers later sat in on the meeting itself.