Campus Briefs Community on Downtown Lab Project

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday October 15, 2009 - 12:57:00 PM

With a downtown UC Berkeley biofuel lab on the fast track for development, university officials are busily presenting their plans to the community. 

City planning commissioners were slated to get the most detailed look Wednesday, Oct. 14, after the Daily Planet’s deadline, though a more general version was offered to the public last Thursday. 

The structure will be the university’s first in downtown Berkeley under the campus Long Range Development Plan 2020, which calls for up to 800,000 square feet of new off-campus buildings in the city center. 

A lawsuit of the university’s plans resulted in the new Downtown Area Plan, which has been blocked by a citizen referendum campaign.  

Caleb Dardick, the university’s new community relations director, described the proposed structure Thursday night as “something beautiful that will address climate change issues.” 

The building will occupy the northeast quadrant of the site now occupied by the vacant seven-story building that once housed the local offices of the state Department of Public Health at 2151 Berkeley Way. 

The two-block-long site is also scheduled to house a new UCB community health campus, a project as yet unfunded and with no set date for construction. 

“It’s an exciting project for the campus, because they’re finally letting us build something downtown,” said Vice Provost Catherine Koshland.  

While the university has also announced plans to build a new home for the campus art museum and Pacific Film Archive, no date has been announced for that structure, which depends entirely on private donations, she said.  

Helios West, as the building has been dubbed, will house Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) research on genetically engineering microbes to harvest plant cellulose sugars and transform them into transportation fuels. 

That program has been funded by a $500 million grant from BP, formerly British Petroleum and once known as the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co.  

Other EBI research focusing on photovoltaic and eletrochemical means of energy production will be housed in a second, smaller lab to be built at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s campus in the Berkeley hills. 

The new downtown building will rise to 100 feet, including a 16-foot-tall rooftop parapet to mask the building’s mechanical systems, according to the information packet supplied to the Planning Commission. 

Consisting of five stories and an underground level, the building would be encased in a glass shell, with meeting rooms above the ground floor. 

EBI Assistant Director Susan Jenkins said one of the program’s goals is educational, because “when misinformation starts to be disseminated, it is not good for the activity and not good for the public.” 

Critics of biofuels—or agrofuels as they are sometimes called—have charged that they will compete with food crops in Third World nations and allege that backers have misstated the true energy and environmental costs of the fuels as well. 

Jenkins also said one goal of the research was to provide the nation with energy security, a goal which has also been cited by Pentagon planners, including now-retired Air Force General Charles Wald. 

Campus planner Jennifer McDougall told Thursday’s gathering that the design will include one key request from the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC), the citizen group which prepared the initial version of the downtown plan. 

DAPAC asked the university to include open space and a north–south public pathway in the middle of the site. Tentative plans for the site now include both the pathway connecting with Walnut Street at either end and a green plaza to the south of the new building. 

Sally McGarrahan, the building’s project manager, said the university is not providing any parking for the approximately 240 researchers and support personnel who will work in the building, though Jenkins said many bike to work or have parking available on campus. 

Christine Shaff, communications manager for the campus Department of Facilities Services, said the site will be enclosed by a fence during the first week of November for completion of the removal of hazardous materials from the old building. 

That work will continue into January, with demolition to begin the following month if approved by the UC Board of Regents, with completion set for June. 

Among those in the audience for the Thursday session were City Councilmember Jesse Arreguín, city Economic Development Manager Michael Caplan, downtown planner Matt Taecker, Planning Commissioner James Samuels and Puja K. Sarna from AC Transit.