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Judge’s Ruling Blocks UC Berkeley Gym Project

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday June 19, 2008 - 04:01:00 PM
UC Berkeley Police raided the Memorial Stadium grove tree-sit Tuesday morning, cutting down the lines that linked trees and removing equipment used by the activists who are protesting the planned axing of the collection of coast live oaks and other trees to make way for a four-level high-tech gym and office complex.
Richard Brenneman
UC Berkeley Police raided the Memorial Stadium grove tree-sit Tuesday morning, cutting down the lines that linked trees and removing equipment used by the activists who are protesting the planned axing of the collection of coast live oaks and other trees to make way for a four-level high-tech gym and office complex.

An Alameda County Superior Court judge’s ruling has forced a halt to the planned construction of a gymnasium complex next to UC Berkeley’s California Memorial Stadium. 

While the ruling upheld most of the university’s plans for their Memorial Stadium gym, it also held that key parts of the decision approved by the UC Board of Regents need revision. 

Stephan Volker, one of the attorneys suing the university, hailed the judge’s ruling as a victory. 

Judge Barbara J. Miller decided that three key features of the planned stadium gym violate the Alquist-Priolo Act governing construction on or near earthquake faults. She rejected the university’s contention that the law doesn’t apply to them. 

The judge also said that the approval by the regents failed to adequately consider earthquake risks and noise and traffic from special events planned at the university. 

Though she upheld most of the university’s contentions, the judge’s decision halts the uiniversity’s plans to move forward on the project pending further environmental review. 

“We are ecstatic,” Volker said. 

The ruling late Wednesday comes at the end of two turbulent days at the site of an ongoing protest next to the western wall of Memorial Stadium. 

Arborists, backed by UC Berkeley campus police, armed with pistols, batons and at least two cherry-pickers, raided the ongoing tree-sit at Memorial Stadium Tuesday morning, cutting lines and threatening arrests. 

Then, soon after a press conference where UC Berkeley spokesperson Dan Mogulof announced police weren’t going to seize tree-sitters from the branches, the civilian crews snatched one tree-sitter from her support line. 

By Wednesday morning at least five cranes and “cherry-picker” lifts were in place, including a massive new crane that towered over the oak grove as arborists with chain saws took down at least two branches while a reporter watched. 

UC Berkeley officials have tightly managed public perceptions of the event, closing off Memorial Stadium, the only place with a clear view of events on the ground,to public access. The university has plans to cut down the grove to build a four-level high tech gym and office complex dubbed the Student Athlete High Performance Center. 

The tree-sit, which began in December 2006 on Big Game day, has led to a steadily escalating conflict between protesters—who want to preserve the grove and a site that some claim may hold Native American burials—and a university eager to improve its aging athletic facilities to better accommodate alumni fans who are a major source of donations. 

Critics also question the university’s decision to build next to a stadium that sits directly atop the earthquake fault that federal geologists predict will cause the Bay Area’s next major earthquake. 

University officials have steadily escalated pressure on the activists occupying the grove, adding first one and then another barbed wire-topped fence to keep out the protest supporters who keep tree-sitters supplied with food and water and haul away their bodily wastes. 

Campus police tried Tuesday to keep supporters and the press off the sidewalk on Gayley Road. 

“It’s a crime scene,” said one officer. 

As members of the crowd yelled at the officers, the police in turn videotaped the protesters. 

This Berkeley Daily Planet reporter was threatened with arrest after he questioned an officer’s order to leave the rim of the stadium, the only place where activities of the officers could be monitored. 

As the reporter was leaving, he was shoved in the back by a university officer and would have fallen down the concrete stairs had not he been grabbed by Doug Buckwald, one of the long-time supporters of the tree-sit. 

Officer C. Chichester, badge 36, told this reporter, who was carrying valuable camera gear, that if he were arrested, “Who knows what would happen to your camera equipment when you’re in jail?” 

The stadium rim was the only place from which a journalist could have a view of the events unfolding in the grove below. It was from the rim that the reporter saw one of the cranes brush a support line, from which a tree-sitter was suspended between two evergreens at least 50 feet apart. 

Millipede, the treesitters suspended from the line, screamed in terror. She was the same tree-sitter arrested hours later. University spokesperson Dan Mogulof said she had bitten one of the workers. 

Zachary Running Wolf, the first of the tree-sitters, said she and other protesters had been terrified when the arborists placed a saw next to the lines from which the tree-sitters were suspended between the trees. 

Had the line snapped, the protesters would have been hurled to the ground in a potentially fatal fall, and for that reason the reporter objected to the forced move. 

Asked why the reporter and spectators were being moved, Chichester said, “Well, there are people down below and perhaps they feel threatened.” 

The stadium rim was blocked by police crime scene tape during the encounter. 

Asked the grounds for a potential arrest, Chichester said simply, “You’re trespassing.” He declined to cite a statute, and said, “You’ll be informed of that when you’re being booked at the jail.” 

License plates and all identifying signs were covered on almost all the contract equipment brought to the site to aid in the university’s operations at the grove. 

In addition to the cranes and cherry pickers, the university was bringing in new portable lights, and a communications van and a diesel fuel truck were also on hand. 

The fuel truck, from Pacific States Petroleum, was the only vehicle with visible license plates and corporate name and logo. 

Meanwhile, Judge Miller issued her decision late Wednesday in the lawsuit filed jointly by City Councilmember Dona Spring, the city itself and a group of environmental and neighborhood organizations challenging the stadium project itself. 

That ruling targets the decision of the UC Board of Regents to approve the gym, a stadium seismic retrofit and other projects in the southeast campus area. 

At least 40 uniformed officers participated in Tuesday’s raid, as well as at least five arborists in civilian garb. 

By Wednesday, police were also circulating among the throng who had gathered on scene to support the tree-sitters or simply watch the unfolding spectacle. Previously officers had largely remained behind the portable barriers that have blocked off the sidewalk along the eastern edge of Piedmont Avene/Gayley Road adjacent to the stadium. 

Officers Tuesday had also closed off the northbound lane of Piedmont between Bancroft Avenue and Stadium Rim Way and the roadway remained closed Wednesday, with the roadblock staffed by Berkeley city police. 

The most visible symbol of the protest Wednesday was Muffin, a blonde woman standing in her box-like perch atop an evergreen at least 50 feet above the ground. She stood, facing the massive crane that had been brought in hours before, as a crew of arborists in a basket suspended from the crane carried on work largely invisible to spectators below.