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Proposed Ed Roberts Center Funds May Knock Out Freeway Sound Wall

By Judith Scherr
Tuesday November 20, 2007

The Ed Roberts Campus—an easily accessible center where disabled people will find legal advocacy and housing help, learn computer skills, find specialized day care, practice fitness routines and meet friends for coffee without the barriers most local cafes present—may have found the last $9 million it needs to start construction on the project that began 12 years ago. 

Funding for the project, however, could pit Aquatic Park advocates against the project for the disabled, as Mayor Tom Bates has proposed using funds for the center which were previously earmarked for a sound wall between the park and freeway. 

A Metropolitan Transportation Commission committee approved $4.5 million last week, contingent on matching funds. The full MTC will vote on the allocation on Nov. 28.  

Bates, an MTC commissioner, is asking the City Council to agree to spend another $2 million on Nov. 27, $500,000 from the city’s general fund capital budget and $1.5 million from the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) in a fund previously earmarked for the sound wall project. 

The sound wall was approved by the council in 2000, but was never fully funded by CalTrans. 

In addition to the new amount which Bates proposes allocating, the council voted on Oct. 23 for another $500,000 contribution, to come from Berkeley’s Housing Incentive Financing Program funds, aimed at improving transportation. BART has agreed to add $2 million.  

That would give the project the $44 million it needs to break ground next summer. 

Dimitri Belser, president of the Ed Roberts Campus board and the executive director of the Center for Accessible Technology, has been working on the project for more than a decade. Seven nonprofit organizations that focus on disability have come together to form the larger nonprofit ERC. Collaboration among the groups is the key to making the project go, Belser told the Planet on Friday. The member nonprofits are: Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program, Center for Accessible Technology, Center for Independent Living, Computer Technologies Program, Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, Through the Looking Glass, and World Institute on Disability. The project will be owned by the ERC. 

The organizations don’t duplicate, but “dove-tail services,” Belser said. 

Speaking about the project in an interview last month, CIL Executive Director Jan Garrett, vice president of the ERC board, said: “It will be a model. People will come from around the world to see it.”  

Councilmember Dona Spring told the Planet Friday that she supports the ERC, but is concerned about using the sound wall funds for that purpose. Before the city approves the allocation, Spring said, Aquatic Park users should be consulted.  

The barrier envisioned was to be a “living” sound wall, made of earth and plantings. While Caltrans funded the project at $1.5 million, real costs were in dispute at the time and Caltrans never approved the project, although the City Council supported it. 

“There’s no reason why we should not push for money for Caltrans to complete the sound wall,” Spring said.  

Aquatic Park advocates Mark Liolios, of EGRET (Environmental Greening, Education, and Restoration Team) and Lisa Stephens, member of the Parks and Recreation Commission, both said they were surprised when a reporter told them of the proposal. Both said they thought the sound wall project was still in the pipeline of projects to be done. 

“This is scandalous,” Stephens told the Planet. “They’re required to do something.”  

If the funds are approved and the project goes forward, the Ed Roberts Campus will be built on the eastern parking lot of the Ashby BART station. The lot will be redesigned so that no parking spaces will be lost, Belser said.  

In addition to offices each organization will have, the Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program is planning to build a fitness center. “It will be the first ever fully accessible fitness center,” Belser said.  

The child development center will be run by Through the Looking Glass, which supports parents who are disabled. Meeting rooms are to be fully accessible, with smaller rooms that could open into a large one that could seat several hundred people.