Public Comment

Commentary: Environmental Study Needed for Brower Site

By Gale Garcia
Tuesday February 27, 2007

The referendum against giving away the Oxford Parking lot for the “Brower Center” has certainly gotten some attention. A venomous disinformation campaign is being waged against the people involved in the referendum (well, mainly against me). 

Recent commentaries against referendum supporters are riddled with misrepresentations and lies. The “Brower Center”/Oxford Plaza project has not, as claimed, “undergone extensive public review.” Rather it underwent extensive collaboration among the project proponents, our corrupt Planning and Development Department, and the various commissions appointed by City Council to rubberstamp every big box that developers propose. 

It is true that an initial study was done for this project, but that is only the beginning of the state mandated review process—hence the term “Initial.” This preliminary step allows just 20 days for public comment. The next step should be the full review involved in an environmental impact report (EIR). A huge project partly over the original Strawberry Creek bed certainly deserves such scrutiny. 

For the “Brower Center,” as well as most of the other humongous projects proposed in Berkeley over the last five years, the environmental review process has been terminated after the initial study. Thereafter, the public’s chance to comment on a project’s environmental impacts is essentially over.  

I read with interest the geotechnical study of the site, prepared for Oxford Street Development, LLC, which was mentioned in several of the disinformation pieces. It raises more questions than it answers. The four exploratory borings to obtain information about subsurface conditions were backfilled immediately and, according to the study, “may not have been left open for a sufficient period of time to establish equilibrium ground water conditions.” What was the hurry? 

I wonder about the choice of locations for these borings. It appears from the 1890 and 1894 Sanborn maps that Strawberry Creek was only a few feet away from the northwestern corner of this project (that’s the real creek which was on Allston Way, not the “water-feature” planned for Center Street). Yet the closest exploratory boring to this corner was some 60 feet away from Allston Way. Wouldn’t one want to investigate the subsurface conditions closest to the creek bed?  

Had there been an EIR, citizens could have commissioned a more thorough geotechnical study by an expert not employed by the project applicant. 

What about the “extensive outreach” with nearby businesses? One merchant described a meeting about the project arranged by the Downtown Business Association. Merchants were not allowed to speak because they had failed to turn in speaker cards on some mysterious prior occasion. They were told they could speak at the end of the meeting, if any time was left. They were ultimately allotted 90 seconds total—three people got 30 seconds each to air their views.  

This merchant added that no one from the city or from the developers of the project had ever attempted to discuss it with him, and had he known how badly Berkeley treats small businesses, he would never have located his shop here. 

In May 2006, at a point when the City Council should have reopened the review process due to changes in the project, the Board of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA) wrote to the council, “The project, as currently planned and designed, would most assuredly have numerous environmental impacts upon its surrounding area, but has lacked, to date, the benefit of serious environmental review….”  

People have been voicing their opinions and explaining the need for an EIR for this project, and have been simply and totally ignored. 

Citizens hold two powerful tools, the power of the initiative to legislate, and the power of the referendum to suspend legislation. In this case the citizens of Berkeley are using our right to gather signatures for a referendum to suspend a legislative act by our City Council that many people believe to be illegal and detrimental to the town. 

Folks, they have given away the Oxford Street parking lot—the one with all the trees near the California Theater. There are only two days left to sign petitions to suspend this action so we can vote about it. It’s our land, and we don’t have to give it away. 


Gale Garcia is a native Berkeleyan who grew up on Berkeley Way.