Public Comment

Commentary: UC Berkeley Ignores New Earthquake Safety Report

By Scott Wachenheim and Doug Buckwald
Thursday August 07, 2008 - 12:36:00 PM

It is not widely known that a new, updated seismic hazard evaluation method has been adopted by UC Berkeley as their new standard for review of their construction projects. This state-of-the-art evaluation methodology, developed by URS (a major engineering and consulting firm based in San Francisco), is detailed in the firm’s report, “Updated Probabilistic Seismic Hazard Evaluation and Development of Seismic Design Ground Motions.” It uses the latest data and research about fault hazards to predict building motions and possible damage during any major earthquake. 

The university repeatedly claims that the Student Athlete High Performance Center (SAHPC), planned to be constructed at the site of the Memorial Stadium oak grove, is designed to withstand expected ground motion in case of an earthquake on the Hayward fault. However, because the design of the proposed athletic center was completed before UC adopted the new standards, it is unknown whether or not the proposed structure would meet the updated standards. And not only that, the change that UC Berkeley planners made in the construction process—the elimination of the concrete beam intended to reinforce the west wall of Memorial Stadium during the excavation right beside it—has also apparently not been subjected to review under the new standard. 

Construction plans for the SAHPC, based on the out-of-date ground motion data, were almost entirely complete in July, 2007. However, on March 17, 2008, UC Berkeley’s Seismic Review Committee (SRC) “decided that the URS report should be the basis for seismic ground motion criteria for the Campus and LBNL.” At the time, this body recommended that the campus “review project-specific recommendations by structural and geotechnical consultants on the application of these basic criteria to individual projects.” In other words, they decided that the updated information should be used to review building plans because it is a better predictor of likely damage to buildings. This would seem to be the prudent course of action to follow. 

UC Berkeley officials claim repeatedly that safety is their top priority concerning this project. If that is true, it seems reasonable to assume that they would be anxious to utilize the latest and best data available to plan and construct their new athletic facility, located right near an active earthquake fault. Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the case—instead, they seem to be trying to push the project through regardless of the new safety standards. 

The design plans for the SAHPC were approved by the Regents Committee on Grounds and Buildings in a special meeting on December 5, 2006. At this meeting, the chair asked how structural safety is determined when a building is constructed on or near a fault. Vice Chancellor Ed Denton responded that “a performance-based design method is used that allows expected ground motion to be determined. Each element of the structure is then designed to withstand it. The campus has developed ground motion spectra for the entire campus. All its facilities are designed to the highest level of seismic resistance using the latest technology.” Because a higher level of data is now available to make such determinations, this representation may no longer be valid in terms of the SAHPC. Since updated seismic ground motion criteria now exist, the project-specific recommendations by structural and geotechnical consultants must now be updated and then reviewed by the Seismic Review Committee. In addition, it seems necessary for the Regents as a whole to reconsider these plans to see if the safety concerns are adequately resolved. 

Also, before the Regents Committee on Grounds and Buildings voted to approve the SAHPC project, they were informed (in the environmental impact report) that “Planning and construction of the Student Athlete High Performance Center (SAHPC) facility are the first phase of the project to make seismic corrections and improvements to California Memorial Stadium… The SAHPC begins seismic strengthening of the base of the existing west wall of the stadium…” Seismic strengthening of the stadium was to be accomplished in part by the “grade beam.” This strengthening of the stadium wall was included in the project from its inception right up until June 27, 2008—at which time the university dropped the grade beam in order to avoid the requirement to comply with Alquist-Priolo earthquake safety laws. If they had kept the grade beam in the project, the university would have been forced to establish a value for Memorial Stadium, which may prohibit them from retrofitting the stadium structure at all. They appear to want to hide the reality of the increasingly questionable plans to rebuild the stadium until they have forced the athletic center project through. 

UC Berkeley has already admitted that its own structural engineers stated that proceeding without the grade beam would “not be prudent.” The elimination of the grade beam should now be reviewed by the Seismic Review Committee in the context of the updated campus seismic ground motion report to see if it is indeed “not prudent” to proceed without it. 

In its September 27, 2005 meeting, the Seismic Review Committee specified that the project review of the Southeast Campus Integrated Projects (SCIP) be “return(ed) to SRC at appropriate intervals.” Because its last review was on July 12, 2007, the updated URS report and the elimination of the grade beam require that the project be returned to the Seismic Review Committee now. Additionally, the Regents were told, prior to voting, that “the project has also been reviewed by the UC Berkeley Seismic Review Committee, with independent structural review conducted at each stage of project development.” This supports additional independent structural review at this time, including peer review, given new updated seismic ground motion criteria and given the elimination of the grade beam. 

Furthermore, the substantial changes in the circumstances under which the project would be implemented and changes in the project itself call for an additional environmental impact report hearing and review. Before the hearing, all peer reviews, structural and geotechnical reports, and Seismic Review Committee determinations must be publicly reported to assure that the public is fully informed about these critical safety issues. 

The university is a place of learning. It has learned some valuable new information about earthquake safety in relation to its current plans to build a four-story athletic center and office complex right beside a crumbling, fault-bisected stadium. Will it choose a responsible course of action and put the new information to use? We hope so, because lives are at risk. The university has an obligation to the students, faculty, staff, employees, and the public who would use these facilities to insure that all possible steps have been taken to protect their safety. 


Scott Wachenheim is a former Berkeley public school teacher. Doug Buckwald is the director of Save the Oaks and a 28-year Berkeley resident.