Public Comment

Commentary: UC Tries to Re-Write Earthquake Safety Law

By Hank Gehman
Friday April 04, 2008

The trial phase of the lawsuit brought by the City of Berkeley, the Panoramic Hill Association and the California Oaks Foundation against the University of California to stop the building of the new office/gym facility (SAHPC) and a mostly new Memorial Stadium heard its final arguments on March 20. The case is now in the hands of the judge who will give her decision within two months. The stakes couldn’t be higher. We have just seen in our newspapers a study of the probable damage from the severe earthquake expected at any time on the Hayward Fault. These experts are predicting staggering losses to homes and businesses of at least $165 billion. The magnitude of the damage and the rebuilding is hard to imagine. 

Yet, in the face of these frightening predictions, the university is using all of its political and legal muscle to throw fuel on the fire and convince the court to approve the new SAHPC and Memorial Stadium project which will be built on and adjacent to the Hayward Fault. The project is massive. It is currently projected to cost $450 million. The use of the stadium by the public will be expanded with the addition of seven large concerts and an unlimited number of smaller events. This would bring more than one million spectators a year to the fault. Add to that the increased daily use due to the SAHPC and it’s obvious that the number of people at risk would be greatly increased and that risk spread out over many more days of the year. 

The Alquist-Priolo Act has been protecting Californians for 35 years against the dangerous folly of building on an earthquake fault. So to build this project, UC has to find a way in court to get around this law. What has the university’s legal strategy been? In the end, it has been to get the judge to re-write the law. In the trial, UC has been trying to get the court to change some of the basic language of the Alquist-Priolo Act so it can play a “shell game” and hide the obvious fact that the SAHPC and the Stadium together make a unified project. 

Alquist-Priolo restricts most new building within a quarter-mile zone around major earthquake faults. For buildings already on the fault, the law limits “alterations and additions” to 50 percent of the value of the building. This way every time a building owner wants to improve or expand he would be limited and would have to ask himself if the limited improvements would be worthwhile or sufficient. The terms “alteration and additions” were chosen as the legal hurdle because the law wants to limit these improvements. Without improvements and expansion, over time, buildings loose their usefulness and might even be abandoned and would achieve the basic goal of Alquist-Priolo to get people out of harm’s way. 

In court UC has attacked the use of “alteration and addition” as the proper legal test and says that the real issue should be whether the SAHPC is “separate” from the existing stadium. They say the definition of “separate” should be whether the two buildings touch. But is using “separate” a better way to achieve the goals of the law? Or is it just a way to undermine the law? It is true that there is a seismic joint between the SAHPC and the stadium that would allow the SAHPC to move somewhat independently from the stadium during an earthquake. But buildings in earthquake areas have seismic joints for just this purpose. The SAHPC itself is divided by two seismic joints. Seismic separations, by themselves, don’t make buildings separate.  

When you look at the Memorial Stadium/SAHPC project as a whole, it’s clear that the seismic separations don’t automatically result in different buildings. The design for the new stadium is based on having seismically-separated sections at the critical places where the earthquake is expected to tear the stadium apart. These areas (A, B and C in the graphic) are completely separate structures. They have their own walls and their own separate foundations. Like the SAHPC they are designed to move independently. Webster’s dictionary would call these separate buildings. But who would argue that this design would make the Stadium itself four different buildings? When you look at the basic design, the SAHPC/Stadium is a collection of seismically isolated structures that together make a unified project. The SAHPC is one of those pieces. 

The university has said in court that from the beginning it was designing the SAHPC as separate and independent from the stadium and therefore it couldn’t be an addition or alteration. But the first set of plans made before they knew they were being sued showed numerous connections between the SAHPC and the stadium that even the university admits would make the SAHPC an addition to the stadium. Once UC realized that they might be held to the limitations of Alquist-Priolo, they removed most of the connections in later plans to make it appear that they were in compliance with the law. But UC still claims to have the right to make those connections later when they build the new stadium. 

This project is the ultimate example of how California should not invest its resources. UC is rolling the dice with public safety and surely squandering hundreds of millions of dollars. We can only hope that the judge will protect the public interest and see through these transparent attempts by the University to make an “end run” around Alquist-Priolo. For good reason, “separate” is nowhere found in Alquist-Priolo and to now make “separate” the key term would only thwart the intent of the law and even open the door to a flood of challenges to the law. The 2007 California Building Code says that, along with other criteria, an addition is defined as an “expansion” of a building. Regardless of the gaps between the SAHPC and the Memorial Stadium the SAHPC is an expansion and is part and parcel of the stadium rebuild project. If UC’s legal sleight of hand is allowed to prevail there will surely be tragic consequences. 


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