Oil, Out-Gassing and Mad Tea Parties

By Becky O'Malley
Monday July 14, 2008 - 12:22:00 PM

A recent correspondent took umbrage at my use, in an “Editor’s Back Fence” column on the Planet website, of a line from My Fair Lady to describe UC Berkeley’s main flack (or less colloquially, principal spokesperson) Dan Mogulof: “Oozing charm from every pore, he oiled his way across the floor.” Well, I listened to Mogulof at length on Monday night on KALW’s City Visions call-in program on UC’s stadium gym proposal, and I stand by my story, as we say in the trade. He’s an oily kinda guy. 

His fellow guests were the Chronicle’s Carolyn Jones, who seems to have (finally) gotten straight what the various lawsuits against the university are all about, and former Berkeley mayor Shirley Dean, who was a very model of intelligence and lucidity as she explained the controversy in depth. Both of them did their best to clarify the complicated situation for the host, who was more than a little confused by the admittedly complex legal struggle. At the same time Mogulof, on the other hand, did his best to throw fairy dust over the whole subject by repeated bathetic references to the 400 student athletes that the multi-million-dollar complex would be built to serve. He even played the gender card, saying sadly that some female athletes now had to change clothes in their cars, which he called a gender equity issue. 

Well, in the first place, if there’s really a shortage of locker rooms on the UC campus (do I believe that?), why are the girls the ones who are left out in the cold? From a privacy perspective, it’s a lot easier for boys to change into shorts sitting in a car without exposing private parts than it is for girls, who traditionally have private parts on top as well as on the bottom. Why don’t the boys just give their lockers to the girls for the time being? Nah, that’s too simple. 

Or how about this? Tuesday morning’s NPR brought news of a whole mess of travel trailers purchased by FEMA under Heckuva-job Brownie for the New Orleans hurricane refugees. Now they have had to be abandoned because they’re still out-gassing formaldehyde, not good for people who might live in them with the windows closed.  

MIT is currently having a contest for students to figure out how to re-use the trailers, which cost something more than a billion bucks. Here’s a really swell idea for some student contestant: How about turning them into dressing rooms for the poor pitiful Cal athletes?  

Someone called into the KALW program and suggested to Mogulof that portable buildings could be used for dressing rooms. He sniffed that this would cost some umpty-ump millions, way too much for temporary buildings. But UC might be able to get the FEMA rejects for a really good price. The out-gassing wouldn’t have to be an issue, because well-coordinated athletes must surely be good at quick changes, limiting their exposure, and in temperate California the windows could be left open most of the time (tastefully curtained for privacy, of course.)  

Umbrage will certainly be taken once more at these flippant suggestions by those UC alumni and alumnae who take their sports seriously. But very seriously indeed, folks, why is it part of the mission of a public university to spent untold millions of dollars on the care and feeding of 400 elite athletes? Does the Sorbonne do this? Does Oxford? The Indian Institutes of Techology, now well on their way to cleaning our clocks in high tech? Or even Harvard or Caltech or other American universities which we old-line Cal graduates would like to think are in our league? The Soviets used to throw big bucks at their national teams, but look what happened to them.  

Mogulof loves to use the 400-kid number in his attempt to tug at heart-strings, but what is the calculated cost-per-user of a multi-million dollar “Student Athlete High Performance Center”? On Monday’s program he even attempted to greenwash the whole project, using logic so tortured that I can hardly remember what it was. Oh yes, it’s planting three trees for every one destroyed in the construction. Aren’t they teaching arithmetic up there anymore? Exactly what’s the amount of carbon processed by a sapling, or any tree in its first 50 years or so, as compared to the efficiency of the mature trees which will be eliminated if UC has its way? And what’s the environmental cost of all that concrete?  

“Green building” is an oxymoron anyhow. The greenest building is the one that’s never built, followed closely by the one that’s already built. Why don’t Cal students play their games in the Oakland Coliseum, which undoubtedly has a full complement of locker rooms to serve all genders? In the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party logic of sports venues, the teams that now play there are already looking for clean cups in other places. 

Well-meaning local citizens with Cal connections have started orchestrating a “can’t we all just get along campaign” aimed at persuading the City of Berkeley to settle its lawsuit, preferably with a sweetheart deal like the one which ended its suit against the university’s long-range development plan. A few of them are even hinting that they realize that UC is looking ever worse in the public opinion sweepstakes, and are suggesting that the mighty U might give a little ground on its own side. It might be politic to toss the city a few bones, for example offer to pay for the expensive emergency services which will be needed when the Big One hits with a crowd in the desperately unsafe Memorial Stadium. 

Mayor Dean astutely articulated the real problem with the university’s current intransigent posture. There’s a better than even chance that they’ll get to build their glamour gym wrapped around Memorial Stadium, and then the Alquist-Priolo Act will make it impossible to fix the stadium itself.  

Before Judge Barbara Miller’s recent decision, university honchos were claiming that this law doesn’t apply to them, but she set them straight. Since the site is right smack on top of the Hayward fault, the stadium can’t be rebuilt in the same location. The permissible cost of retrofitting is limited to 50 percent of the value of the current building, which is not much, on an as-is basis, in its current parlous state, so most likely it can never be fixed.  

In that eventuality, the taxpayers would be stuck with a multi-million dollar white elephant, the new gym, in exactly the wrong location, next to a shaky structure sure to kill a lot of people when the quake happens. Those of us who really do care about what happens at our alma mater will have reason to be grateful to the plaintiffs and the protesters if they do manage to put the brakes on what increasingly looks like a foolish, expensive, embarrassing and even dangerous boondoggle. 

—Becky O’Malley