Public Comment

Fix Memorial Stadium Before Building Athletic Center

By Doug Buckwald and Shirley Dean
Thursday July 10, 2008 - 09:49:00 AM

It does not take a degree in engineering to notice that California Memorial Stadium is in very bad shape—it just takes common sense. Even a casual observer cannot help but notice the cracks throughout the structure; the cavities where concrete has fallen away revealing rusted reinforcement bars; the support columns that are leaning and separating; the warped and splintered bench seats; and the weathered metal plate that covers the expanding gap in section KK caused by fault movement. The Hayward Fault that runs from goal post to goal post is slowly splitting the stadium apart and the effects are clearly visible. The geological reality is that two giant pieces of the earth’s crust, the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate, are slowly sliding in opposite directions, building up a tremendous amount of strain. When the Hayward Fault next suffers a major rupture, and there is no doubt that this event is imminent, the stadium itself will be severely damaged.  

The university is well aware of the dangerous condition of Memorial Stadium. Its own seismic evaluation rates the structure as “poor,” and notes that it will experience “significant structural and non-structural damage” that would create “falling hazards” in the event of a major quake. This would present “appreciable life hazards” to the athletes, coaches, and members of the general public who use the facility. 

So, if the stadium is the big safety problem, why is the university delaying efforts to attempt to retrofit it until some unknown date in the future? Instead, the university plans to try to make the stadium safe only AFTER first building a brand-new $140 million gymnasium, classroom, and office complex directly adjacent to it. This new building would be located just below (and would wrap around) the stadium’s most dangerous section, the precarious west wall—a wall poised to fall on top of it in the next big quake. Shouldn’t the stadium safety issue be resolved first? This is a particularly important question because it is not certain whether or not this can even be done within the strict monetary limits of the Alquist-Priolo earthquake safety law. 

Unfortunately, safety concerns were disregarded from the stadium’s inception. In defiance of expert cautions against building on an earthquake fault, construction proceeded on landfill that is subject to liquefaction and was completed in 1923. By the mid-1970s, though, engineers and geologists had learned much more about fault hazards and they became increasingly persuaded that the stadium was in a highly dangerous location. Within the last 10 years, these concerns have become more urgent, as scientists have determined that a major fault rupture will occur sooner than expected, sometime within the next thirty years. The Hayward Fault has been designated the most dangerous in the State of California and warnings have been issued that a seismic event on it will result in substantial damage, injury, and loss of life. 

In spite of this alarming prognosis, the people who use the stadium have not been alerted to these dangers. There are no signs posted about the “poor” seismic rating of the structure. Dangers are not noted on the football tickets that are sold. There are no brochures handed out at football games providing earthquake safety information. It is actually a very complicated task to get people out of a huge structure like Memorial Stadium, but the university has even neglected to perform the recommended emergency and evacuation drills that were recommended many years ago by their own people.  

Paradoxically, these significant earthquake dangers are the very things that university officials are now highlighting to try to gain community support for their proposed new athletic center. They claim that the students and staff must first be moved into the proposed new building before they can try to fix the stadium. But, according to this questionable logic, that means a wait of possibly two years while the proposed athletic center is constructed—and possibly much longer if the recent court decision is appealed, which seems likely. So, if the danger is so acute, why the delay? Why not move these vulnerable athletes and coaches into temporary facilities as soon as possible, try to retrofit the stadium, and then work on adding a possible new athletic center? This is a common sense approach that does not put the cart before the horse. 

The university says that safety is their number one concern. It is our priority as well. If university officials care about the safety of the young men and women and staff who use the stadium every day, they can move them out into temporary facilities immediately. We have repeatedly asked them to do this. After all, there is a campus program that is intended for this very purpose, and it has enabled the relocation of numerous campus programs over the past ten years to facilitate the seismic retrofit of unsafe buildings.  

It is not just Cal students and coaches that are put at risk by the continued use of Memorial Stadium. Every summer, UC Berkeley runs athletic camps for schoolchildren, including boys and girls as young as eleven years old, who use the field and facilities at the stadium. If the stadium were part of a public school system, there would be no question about prohibiting children from occupying it. It would be deemed too unsafe.  

A little known fact about Memorial Stadium is that it is the largest venue for football in the entire Bay Area, with a capacity of up to 80,000 people. Under the best of circumstances, dealing with such a large crowd can be a daunting task. In an emergency situation in a compromised facility like Memorial Stadium, it is literally a disaster waiting to happen. It is long past time for university officials to engage in straight talk about the seismic hazards at the stadium so that reasonable decisions can be made now about the safest way to proceed. To put it bluntly and simply: The stadium is in a dilapidated and dangerous condition—find out if you can fix it in accordance with the law! Move people out of the stadium and get on with doing the work that is necessary to make that essential determination. That course of action has nothing to do with the trees, the lawsuits and the like, and it should have begun in earnest years ago.  


Doug Buckwald and former mayor Shirley Dean are both Cal graduates and longtime Berkeley residents who are active in civic and university affairs.