BP Lab Building On Hold, Computer Lab Funds Revised

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday November 20, 2008 - 09:57:00 AM

Plans for a $159 million biofuel and alternative energy lab in the Berkeley hills have been put on hold by UC President Mark Yudoff while the project is sent back to the drawing board. 

Yudoff and UC Regents Committee on Grounds and Buildings (CGB) Chair Leslie Tang Schilling have signed a letter which decertifies the environmental impact report and rescinds the regents’ approval of architectural plans for the Helios Building. 

That high-tech structure at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) is to be the site of much of the research conducted under the $500 million Energy Biosciences Institute, a controversial crops-into-fuel program funded by British petroleum giant BP. 

The CGB is scheduled to vote Tuesday on funding for a second new building planned for the lab, covering interest costs during construction of the already approved Computational Research and Theory (CRT) building. 

Yudoff’s letter on the Helios Building said that a redesign is needed “to address geotechnical issues identified subsequent to ... approval of the project.” 

But Stephan Volker, the attorney who represents Berkeley preservationists who have sued to block the project, said the university’s approval of the project before thorough engineering tests were conducted shows that “once again, the university has put the project approval cart before the environmental horse.” 

LBNL spokesperson Lynn Yarris said that new plans currently under way will call for a lower-profile design than the one regents had approved, one that “would be better matched to the topography” of the site overlooking Strawberry Canyon. 

“It will be shorter but longer,” he said, and less visible from most viewpoints. 

Yarris said conceptual drawings will be presented to the public at a scoping session to gather comments for a new environmental impact report (EIR), with the meeting to be held sometime next month. 

The target date for a new draft EIR is sometime in March, with construction to start in Spring 2009. “It will take three years to complete,” Yarris said. 

The new design is expected to cost more than the $198.2 million approved by the regents in May—though how much is uncertain, given the current volatility of the construction materials market, the lab official said. 

Yarris said cost increases would be offset by long-term benefits arising from a more cost-effective design. 


Computer building 

A second LBNL project also facing a legal challenge is up for reconsideration at Tuesday’s meeting of the UC Board of Regents in San Francisco. 

The CGB is scheduled to vote for a second time on approving external funds for the CRT building, which will be built at the opposite, northwestern end of the lab complex from the Helios Building. 

An action opposing that project has been filed by Alameda attorney Michael Lozeau. 

Approval of the $113 million building in May included a provision that costs of funding debt incurred to cover construction costs would come from lab operating funds. 

The revised approval before the CGB Tuesday added a proviso declaring that “LBNL operating funds are not guaranteed funds, and that their availability depends on Congressional appropriations” and federal Department of Energy (DOE) decisions. 

The revisions would allow the UC president to arrange for loans with interest-only payments during construction and allow the executive to ”create a contingency funding strategy to pay the debt service for the external funding” in event the cash isn’t available from lab operating funds. 

One unresolved issue is whether or not the DOE will house a supercomputer facility inside the new structure, calling into question a major potential funding source. 

Relocating the federal department’s National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center from its current location in a former bank building in downtown Oakland had been cited as a major reason for building the CRT facility. 

But while the DOE professes “great interest” in relocating to the CRT, in a March memorandum, federal officials “made clear that DOE was not making any present commitment,” according to the proposal CGB is set to vote on Tuesday. 

The proposal before the committee creates a plan to cover the $8.7 million in debt service costs during construction. 

The plaintiff in both lawsuits is Save Strawberry Canyon, a non-profit whose members includes Berkeley residents Sylvia McLaughlin, Lesley Emmington, Janice Thomas and Hank Gehman. Former mayor Shirley Dean is listed as the group’s legal agent on its filings with the California Secretary of State. 

Both actions contend that the regents acted improperly when they certified environmental impact reports on the projects and approved funding for buildings critics contend are located in an environmentally sensitive landscape that contains threatened species and faces the risk of serious damage from earthquakes along the Hayward Fault.