Public Comment

Commentary: The University’s Faulty Judgement

By Hank Gehman
Tuesday September 11, 2007

This summer UC has been using a campaign of misinformation and erroneous statements to convince the City of Berkeley to withdraw from the lawsuit to stop UC development on the Hayward Fault. The most important deception in this campaign is UC’s efforts to make it appear that the university is only asking for the approval to build the workout/office facility (the SAHPC). This is a red herring. The lawsuit is not only about the SAHPC but also includes the proposed new stadium and other buildings to be situated at the fault. If the suit is stopped for the purpose of allowing the SAHPC to go forward, the rest of the projects including the new, expanded stadium also would be automatically approved. The SAHPC and the new stadium are legally inseparable. This sleight of hand is why UC is so eager to restrict the focus of the debate to the gym. If people knew the truth that UC is planning to transform Memorial Stadium from football-only to one of the Bay Area’s largest entertainment venues, approval of these projects would come under more intense scrutiny. A quick, insider deal with the city would be more difficult and UC would be left with fighting an uphill battle in court. 

In their campaign to politically defeat the lawsuit, UC is also making an erroneous and dangerous claim that, since the site for the gym is more than 50 feet from the Hayward Fault it is as seismically safe as if it were two miles away. That statement is only true in certain locations and is unlikely to be the case at the stadium site where the damage zone is likely to be wider. This claim also conceals the true seismic risks by hiding the fact that it is local conditions that typically determine the amount of destruction from a major earthquake. Memorial Stadium is built on fill and is officially identified by the USGS as a liquefaction zone. In addition to the forces of the lateral tearing apart and the huge ‘S’ wave that would pass through the fault zone, this fill would reverberate like a bowl of jello in an earthquake. According to UC geologist Patrick Williams, the adjacent hills are seismically compressed and “can probably produce a larger moment-magnitude earthquake than previously estimated.” It is this uncontrolled shaking that is the most dangerous for large structures. The SAHPC is attached to and is the principal foundation for the stadium and being merely more than 50 feet from the fault will not isolate the SAHPC from these destructive forces. Also, UC’s own geologists (Geomatrix) have found faulting directly under the footprint of the SAHPC. Originally, when the Alquist-Priolo Act, California’s law intended to reduce human occupancy at earthquake faults was written, these faults were considered “active.” Since then the law was changed and now only the most recent faults are defined as “active.” But “older” faults can present an equal danger. It is reasonable to expect that these faults which branch off of the Hayward Fault will be activated when the main fault erupts. The university is a public institution and has an obligation to Californians to reveal the true magnitude of the risk. 

Another misleading claim of UC’s PR campaign is that the university has to build the SAHPC to protect the safety of the athletes and employees now at the stadium and portrays those who oppose building on the fault as the ones endangering these people. In fact, even before 1981 when the university first started moving these people to the facilities under the stadium, UC’s own experts have been very critical of this move and have repeatedly called for Cal to move these people away from the stadium. Yet, after 26 years of lack of concern, UC still keeps these people there. Now they are using their dangerous situation (created by UC itself) as an argument for development at the fault. UC should instead obey Alquist-Priolo and do everything it can to reduce occupancy at the fault. The students and employees currently under the stadium should be immediately moved out and no longer held hostage as a “talking point.” 

UC is also emphasizing that no public money will be used for the SAHPC or the stadium. This argument is deceptive. These projects will end up damaging UC’s financial health. Private donations that could be going towards education are being diverted to football. Also, since no insurance company would insure anything at that location, UC has no choice but to be self-insured (with state money). This means that California taxpayers will be left holding the bag after the earthquake. As expensive as rebuilding or decommissioning the stadium and gym would be, the cost to California of paying out the huge personal injury lawsuits that would follow the earthquake could be even greater. 

Hidden in the shadows by the constant focus on the SAHPC are UC’s plans to build a new stadium designed to transform Memorial Stadium from a football-only stadium to a multi-use entertainment venue. In the EIR UC says that they will have seven capacity night time concerts (most likely rock concerts) and also an unlimited number of smaller events. This expansion of use could bring an additional 600,000 to 700,000 people a year to the new stadium from outside Berkeley. Also, these events will be spread out over much of the year. Under this new plan there will be many more people in the vicinity of the fault and they will be there more often. Put together, this would greatly raise the risk of a human disaster. The purpose of Alquist-Priolo is to curtail development and to limit human occupancy at California’s faults. UC wants to do exactly the opposite. No other state or federal agency or private company could build there. Only the university can do it because—in order to protect academic freedom!!—UC is immune from normal governmental regulation. 

It now has been revealed that UC is planning to float bonds or some similar debt instrument to fund the construction of the new stadium. This would explain why UC is so adamant about having these concerts. They will be necessary to pay for the bonds. The new stadium will be very expensive. UC claims that they are merely “retrofitting” the stadium but that is misleading. Except for the outer wall which is being preserved for legal and aesthetic reasons as a façade, the stadium will be completely gutted, excavated and rebuilt anew. The stadium may well cost upwards of $250-$300 million. The university knows that it would take many years to raise that level of money by traditional means like ticket surcharges and booster donations. Issuing bonds lets UC more quickly get the necessary funds. But UC’s debt obligations would be so great that revenue from these concerts and events would be required to service the debt and retire the bonds. The covenants of the bond would surely legally require UC to continue with these concerts as long as necessary. That could be 20 years! Remember the McCartney concerts and the Raiders! The negative impacts on all the city of Berkeley would be enormous, probably permanent and the city would be powerless to stop it in the future. Just imagine the gridlock, the scramble for parking and the day-into-night partying that would result. The citizens of Berkeley would truly lose control of their city. Going forward with this development on the fault would also have a very negative impact on the public safety response for the rest of Berkeley. When the earthquake comes, with the landslides and fires, the police and fire personnel would be diverted from the neighborhoods of Berkeley to the stadium where the damage and injury would likely be the worst. 

How is it that a major institution like UC could be making such reckless decisions? No doubt there is more than one cause of UC’s clouded judgment, but one reason for UC’s obsession with big-time football is that this emphasis on the circus diverts the public’s attention away from the failing California higher education system. There are no new educational initiatives at UC—only tuition increases and big-time football. Emphasizing football works to give the UC leadership a pass on their failure to drive forward higher education in California. 

Today UC acts like an imperial institution, the natural result of almost no accountability to the public. UC’s irresponsible decisions flow from the dictum that, “We do it because we can.” Our city’s lawsuit is a great opportunity to change that and must not be dropped like what happened with the LRDP. It’s time that California had leadership that was obsessed with education and not football. Richard Blum says that he wants to reform and refocus UC. Wisely investing UC’s resources and immediately stopping these projects would be a good first step. 


Hank Gehman is a former Ivy football player and Cal graduate student.