Posted Mon., April 28—From the beginning, the idea of converting an industrial property in the middle of our manufacturing district to recreational fields and a skate park, was pure folly.
Like the lie that requires another to cover up its dishonesty, the planning and rezoning of the park complex have led to a series of outrageous decisions, and of course, more of our tax dollars being spent to “fix” a multitude of mistakes.
It should surprise no one that the consequences of such an extreme shift in the area’s zoning are never-ending. The latest round of bad news from the skate complex is a request for its complete replacement, despite being only five years old. The city’s staff, whose bungling has squandered nearly a million local tax dollars, is now proposing a skate park bond for two million more.
Undoubtedly, none of the city’s so-called professional staff or council who signed off on the ill-fated sports complex ever thought their decisions would come back to bite them. Had this project been a private construction, many on the planning team would have been fired. From its opening days in 2003 when the complex was abruptly closed because of toxic groundwater seepage, Harrison skate park has been a gnarly ride for Berkeley. Now it appears to be in an irreversible backslide and headed for a wipeout.
Make it work at any cost
The first cracks in the skate park project were not seen in the concrete bowls, but in the planning process itself. This breakdown started a decade ago when Berkeley began negotiating with the University of California for the contaminated property at Fourth and Harrison streets. It was then that the city began meeting privately with Berkeley resident, Doug Fielding, and a former City Council member, Fred Collignon, who is also an associate professor of city and regional planning at Cal.
These two insiders were also responsible for organizing the very vocal special interest group of soccer parents and skateboarders that pressured the City of Berkeley to build recreational fields at the current location. Few elected officials were willing to voice any opposition to the project and thereby run the risk of becoming a political target.
Since that time, former council member Diane Woolley has offered some insight into the process. “Fielding was heavy-handed, overbearing, single-minded, and shortsighted during the entire process.” She also has stated, “It was understood by the council members that this project was to be approved quickly and questions about health hazards were swept away in the rush.”
As political pressures over the creation of the Harrison sports park mounted, the soccer lobby sought the special support of city manager Weldon Rucker. His “make-it-work-at-any-cost” stance quickly silenced all staff opposition. Rucker’s office even authorized funding for Doug Fielding to oversee the development of a site plan, months before the council had approved the project’s use permit. The city manager apparently also worked out a plan to forego a public bidding process for this municipal development. Instead, the contract was awarded to Fielding’s new group, Association of Sports Field Users (ASFU).
The city didn’t seem to care that this non-profit was barely a year old and had no track record. Further evidence of its influence was the fact that council enacted a special ordinance allowing ASFU to manage the project, with a ceiling of two million dollars! The council’s extraordinary action was the source of many problems and much confusion, forcing the city’s planning team to spend numerous extra hours in aiding ASFU’s development of the site.
A “comedy” of errors
Despite what Fielding has recently stated, the city did little to conduct an honest site investigation, including its failure to even complete a Phase One Study. Such a review would have looked at off-site problems that could potentially affect the project. This is why the toxic Hexavalent Chromium (Chromium-6) was not encountered earlier.
Another reason for this toxic surprise may be found in Berkeley’s own Toxics Department. The record reflects that our staff environmental expert, Dr. Al-Hadithy, was obviously aware of the Chromium-6 groundwater plume, but simply failed to speak up. This in turn allowed the excavation of the skate bowls to play out like the opening of an episode of the Beverly Hillbillies, only this time, instead of oil, “up through the ground came a-bubbling Chrome-6.” It was a very costly mistake that project proponents seem to have forgotten.
In the aftermath of the Chromium-6 crisis, the skateboard site was forced to undergo a redesign. During the initial review in 2000, Parks’ Director Lisa Carrona was publicly told that the new skate park plan was underestimating the challenge to isolate the toxic groundwater. Questions were also raised about site soils and the structure’s stability.
“When a swimming pool-like concrete structure, such as the skate facility, is built in a flood-zone area, long-term problems with the stability of the structure can be expected. No subsurface structures should be allowed at this location, especially the skate bowls.”
Today Carrona continues to be a cheerleader for the skate park. Even the Toxics Director Dr. Al-Hadithy has been quoted recently, saying that the cracks in the bowls are not due to the groundwater. This is absolute nonsense. His unqualified opinion is apparently an attempt to refocus liability costs onto the project’s subcontractors.
Air quality monitoring
The recent public pronouncements from ASFU’s founder, Doug Fielding, conveniently revise the air quality history of the site as well. Perhaps Mr. Fielding doesn’t remember calling the air monitoring stupid, or that because of that study certain members of the city’s staff should be fired. Nor does he seem to remember the many vicious attacks on those in the public who dared to call the site’s air quality into serious question.
For the record, the final monitoring report revealed that the air quality at the site was twice as bad as downtown San Jose. Playing at the soccer fields is comparable to playing in heavy traffic. More than one hundred times a year, the site exceeds the state’s PM-10 particulate standards. In fact, the air monitoring study forced the city to post warning signs and required parents to sign an environmental wavier acknowledging these conditions prior to their children being allowed to use the soccer fields.
Today there is no question that the site’s air quality is much worse than was found in the 2003 year-long study. It was noted that even during that period of testing, there was a noticeable increase in particulate levels, most of which is probably coming from the city’s own operations at the Second Street Transfer Station.
Last year the community monitored the air around the skate park for metal particulates emitted by Pacific Steel Casting, a foundry within a quarter mile of the sports complex. The Berkeley Air Monitors study showed unhealthy levels of nickel and manganese have also been impacting this municipal park.
Putting good money after bad
Even the city’s attorney’s office has got into the spin game over Harrison Park. They stated that perhaps their office made some “missteps,” but that they were in no way connected to the influence exerted by the soccer lobby or city council. The city has threatened to look into the possible liability of the subcontractors. This is very unlikely. The city knows full well that a real investigation of the Harrison site would only daylight the project’s ongoing problems and the city’s culpability in the skate park debacle.
From its conception, Berkeley’s skate park has had a history of bad government and poor choices, perhaps all made for the right reasons. However, good intentions can’t justify abridging our planning practices or ignoring the checks and balances of our zoning ordinances. Having a viable skate park could be a great asset for our city, but at this ill-chosen location, it is, and always will be, a serious health and financial liability.
L A Wood is a Berkeley resident and runs the civic watchdog website www.berkeleycitizen.org.