Public Comment

Battle for Strawberry Canyon Ever More Urgent

By Ariel Parkinson
Thursday September 11, 2008 - 09:52:00 AM

Suddenly, in Berkeley, we are back in the early 1960s. Half a century ago a large, ad hoc, well-funded assortment of owners and managers targeted for urban development (classrooms, malls, hotels, discount houses, condominiums) the “unused” shoreline, the land and water to the west. A similar group of movers and shakers has now mapped out for concrete and asphalt, equipment and people, the beautiful natural park with its year-round creek, that extends up Strawberry Canyon to the east. 

This time around, the managers of Lawrence Lab, backed by the University of California, want to augment the bulk of the stadium and swimming pools with several new, autonomous laboratories, as well as classrooms, institutes, and host facilities for the distinguished, the able, and the great who will visit, admire and work in them. 

But 50 years ago, the City of Berkeley, with its own consortium of respectable people of all ages and all walks of life, won a lengthy legal battle against the would-be despoilers of the great asset of the waterfront, as water and as land. The leaders of the fray, Sylvia McLaughlin, Kay Kerr (wife of UC Berkeley Chancellor Clark Kerr), Esther Gulick, all well over 50, became heroic, legendary figures, and their support group included students, faculty, poets, business, workers, industrialists. One knowledgeable assessment: “Those three women turned everyone in the bay region into a conservationist.” From the size and partisanship of the public hearing July 24 on further building in the area of the stadium, that time has come again: Close to 100 percent of the speakers supported natural landscape, protection of wild creatures, earth underfoot. 

And that is what the two great designers of the University of California had in mind. Both John Galen Howard and Frederick Law Olmsted emphasized the importance of the clear east-west corridor of stream and glade as the axis of the university and of the city. Placement of the stadium was the first big mistake, and Howard resigned as architect over the decision to put it at the canyon throat. It was, in fact, the high hills, declining into sloping forest, the great bay trees along Strawberry Creek, the life and volume of the stream, the oaks below, the constant splendor of the views over field and marshland to the bay and through the Golden Gate that made administrators and architects of the new College of California choose this site. 

The idea of three more labs in Strawberry Canyon, with ancillary facilities, is monstrous. Unbuilt-on lots and “investment potential” is available in south and west Berkeley, where it is, and would be an asset. University, build there. Rip up what is already concrete and asphalt. Retain as priceless what remains of their natural heritage for all the students of the University, for all the citizens of Berkeley, more than any other place or site. Insidiously, year after year, the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory has taken over more land for building, from strips of flimsy clutter to large blocks which seem to have been thrown at the hillside rather than constructed for the place. Even today, with so many errors of commission, about a thousand students a day run, walk, or amble up and down the leafy arcade of the existing trail, joined peacefully by the rest of us. 


Ariel Parkinson is a Berkeley artist and activist.