LBNL: Move West Berkeley Biolabs to New Building on Hill

By Richard Brenneman
Wednesday January 21, 2009 - 07:41:00 PM
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory wants to consolidate lab operations now in West Berkeley with other research in this proposed new General Purpose Laboratory building above Strawberry Canyon.
Illustration courtesy of LBNL
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory wants to consolidate lab operations now in West Berkeley with other research in this proposed new General Purpose Laboratory building above Strawberry Canyon.

While Planning Commissioners are revising the West Berkeley Plan to attract new biotech labs, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) wants its own biolabs out of the neighborhood. 

LBNL, until recently headed by new U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, wants all its biotech labs “back on campus,” officials told a public meeting Jan. 14. 

Of the new three-story, 43,000-square-foot General Purpose Laboratory building, 60 percent would be allotted to offices and 40 percent to so-called “wet” labs, said LBNL project manager Richard Stanton. 

He and other lab officials spoke during a Jan. 14 session at the North Berkeley Senior Center held to gather public comments to be addressed in both a state-mandated environmental impact report and a federal environmental impact statement. 

The federal report is required because the lab will function under LBNL’s Department of Energy (DOE) programs, unlike the Helios Building, which is not under the DOE, said Mark Chekal-Bain of the lab’s public affairs staff. 

Research in the facility would focus on cancer and the impact of radiation on cells, the basic mechanisms underlying cancer, fundamental biology, neuroscience and environmental cleanup, said lab staff scientists Damir Sudar. 

The new lab is part of a broader project that will be examined in the environmental statements for what is dubbed the “Seismic Life Safety Phase 2B Project.” 

Included within that larger project is demolition of several existing buildings at the lab including Buildings 23 and 23B, the trailer offices at Building 21, and either Building 55 or one or more of nearby buildings 4, 5, 14, 16 or 17—with the either/or decision depending on available funding. 

Roughly the same square footage would be demolished as would be contained in the new biolab building. 

The project also includes a seismic upgrade to Building 85, the lab’s Hazard Waste Handling Facility to stabilize the structure, which is built in a landslide zone. 

Construction of the new lab would result in a net increase in 100 employees on the lab campus, most of them drawn from the lab facilities LBNL currently leases from Wareham Development Group at 717 Potter St. in West Berkeley. 

The lab leased 72,000 square feet in Wareham’s Aquatic Park Center in early 2005 shortly after Bayer moved out of the building. LBNL/UCB scientist Jay Keasling’s Amyris Technologies vacated part of the site last year, moving to a new building in Emeryville, which it shares with the DOE-sponsored Joint BioEnergy Institute, a lab Keasling heads which parallels in some respects work being done at the lab under the auspices of a $500 million grant from BP. 

The BP project will be headquartered in the Helios Building, which will be built not far from the proposed new biolab overlooking Strawberry Canyon. 

Lesley Emmington-Jones, one of the plaintiffs who has sued the university over its Long Range Development Plan (LRDP) covering development at the site through 2025, said the hearing went well. 

“They gave people a chance to make a second comment,” she said. 

Many of the speakers urged the university to consider another site for the facility off the hillside, which they said is susceptible to landslide, earthquakes and fires, and an important cultural and natural resources for area residents. 

Among alternative sites proposed were the university’s Richmond Field Station, a large site on Mandela Parkway in Oakland, another location in San Francisco or some other site in the Green Corridor designated by mayors from Oakland to Richmond as a site for future environmentally related research. 

While Sudar said locating the lab on the hill was important for enhancement of team science, Emmington-Jones said “team science is no excuse for building in an unsafe, environmentally sensitive site.” 

She and other plaintiffs including Daily Planet Arts and Calendar Editor Anne Wagley are fighting a legal challenge of the lab’s LRDP. Another suit challenged the lab’s proposed Computational Research and Theory (CRT) facility located at the opposite end of the lab. 

A ruling in Alameda County Superior Court ordered the lab to recirculate its previously approved EIR for the LRDP because it failed to include an analysis of the climate change impacts resulting from its massive construction program. 

The lab has appealed that decision. 

As long as the LRDP lawsuit is pending, the university is required to conduct separate environmental reviews of each LBNL construction project. Final authorization of the LRDP EIR would allow the lab to avoid separate EIRs by tiering off each project from the total construction outlived in the LRDP. 

The plaintiffs had also challenged the CRT project in both state and federal court, but dropped the state action to concentrate their efforts on the federal case, said Emmington-Jones. The lab has filed notice of its intent to declare the CRT eligible for construction next month. 

The public comment period for preparation of the draft EIR/EIS closes Tuesday. For more information on the project, see the lab’s website at http://www.lbl.gov/community/seismicsafety2/ 

If approved by the UC Board of Regents—tentatively slated for December—construction would begin the following month with the start of demolition, with a completion date of March 2015.