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Wild Neighbors: Strawberry Canyon and UC’s Edifice Complex

by Joe Eaton
Tuesday April 15, 2008
Strawberry Canyon 1n 1870
Bancroft Library
Strawberry Canyon 1n 1870

Who was it who said that anyone who isn’t outraged just hasn’t been paying attention? 

A week or so ago I got mail from Berkeley naturalist/writer Phila Rogers announcing the formation of a new group called Save Strawberry Canyon. It came as something of a surprise, since I hadn’t been aware that the canyon needed saving. Boy, does it ever. 

Rogers explained in a later conversation that the impetus for Save Strawberry Canyon was UC’s Long Range Development Plan (LRDP) for the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in general and two new ventures in particular: the Computational Research and Theory Facility (CRT) and the Helios Energy Research Facility. Both have received little news coverage, even in the Planet. 

Both new buildings would have enormous visual and environmental impacts. The CRT would be a high-rise structure 

sited in Blackberry Canyon, just inside the Lab’s main gate. (The Lab is already building a guest house there, without an EIR.) It has been described as the engine for future lab expansion. 

Helios is in some ways even more problematic. The new building, funded in part by BP (ex British Petroleum), would be plunked down in the heart of Strawberry Canyon, across the road from the UC Botanical Garden. Its construction would require removing 18 redwoods from the Mather Grove. 

If you want an extra level of irony, the Helios Project would be dedicated to research on renewable transportation fuel. The building would, of course, be “a model of ‘green’ construction.” 

Rogers said her group coalesced out of an event last summer, organized by the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, that explored Strawberry Canyon as a cultural landscape, with walking tours led by Gray Brechin and others. Rogers and others followed up by taking Robin Freeman’s Merritt College class on the creeks of the East Bay. Save Strawberry Canyon’s leadership includes 

Lesley Emmington and Janice Thomas, both associated with BAHA; former Berkeley mayor Shirley Dean; and the legendary Sylvia McLaughlin, one of the founders of Save the Bay. 

This was shortly after the UC Regents approved the LRDP (sorry, this is going to be thick with acronyms.) Last fall, Emmington, Thomas, and other plaintiffs filed suit, claiming that the EIR for the plan was deficient in addressing air and water quality, endangered-species issues, greenhouse gas emissions, and possible alternative sites, among others. They get their day in court on May 21. 

Meanwhile, UC issued draft EIRs on CRT and Helios late last year, with comment periods during the winter holidays. Neither report has been finalized yet. The regents are scheduled to vote on both at their May 16-17 meeting at UCLA. 

That’s the bare-bones version. It all comes down to conflicting visions for the Berkeley Hills: are we going to have an even denser techno-scientific complex, or can we preserve what’s left of the hills’ open space for its scenic, cultural, and wildlife values? 

Strawberry Canyon was recognized as something special as far back as 1865, when landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted described it as “a unique and most valuable appendage to the general local attractions of the neighborhood.” When the East Bay Regional Park District was carved out of surplus EBMUD lands in 1934, the canyon, although university-owned, was considered an integral part of the matrix of parklands. 

Despite the wave of construction that began with the Radiation Laboratory, the university continued to make gestures toward preservation. In 1968, prodded by UC professor Robert L. Stebbins, a renowned authority on reptiles and amphibians, UC designated portions of the Canyon as Ecological Study Areas. 

A 1976 report by Garrett Eckbo & Associates seconded Olmsted: “The varied and rugged topography of Strawberry Canyon … has favored the establishment of a rich diversity of plant and animal life, such that Strawberry Canyon today is one of the finest natural areas of comparable size in the Bay Area.” 

The Helios Building would abut one of the Ecological Study Areas, and preempt undeveloped land that has been considered for ESA status. And both projects-and whatever else the Lab has in mind, with its wooly visions of scientific “hill towns”-would eat up huge swathes of habitat that sustain the diversity that so impressed Eckbo.  

Strawberry Canyon is not Terra Nullius. It’s home to birds of prey, migratory songbirds, bats, snakes, and tiny blind invertebrates that hide under rocks. Some of these species have protected state or federal status; others should. For all of them, and for anyone who cares about biodiversity, UC’s plans would mean an irreparable loss. 

I’ll have a lot more to say about the endangered-species issues in future columns.  

For now, if you want more information, write Save Strawberry Canyon at PO Box 1234, Berkeley 94701. I understand a web site is in the works. Or email Phila Rogers: philajane6@yahoo.com. The EIRs for the LRDP, CRT, and Helios are on the lab’s site: www. lbl.gov/Community. And they make very interesting reading.