Public Comment

UC Berkeley Plans to Destroy Smyth-Fernwald

by Kevin Moore
Wednesday April 07, 2010 - 09:12:00 PM

Like yourself, I am also a strong proponent of protecting and restoring our natural environment…the streams, rivers, shoreline, hills, meadows, green open spaces and the wildlife upon which we here in the Bay Area all rely, not only for the pleasure and beauty they provide, but for their ecological necessity. I am familiar with your concerns in these areas, and am therefore writing this to you to make absolutely sure that you are aware of a situation taking place at this present time. I hope that you will agree that it is crucial that something be done to save a local environmental and architectural treasure in our community. 

This is regarding a parcel of land in the south Berkeley Hills known as Smyth-Fernwald. It is located at the highest point of Dwight Way at the far northwest corner of Claremont Canyon. It is bordered on the east by Fernwald Road, and on the west by Hillside Ave. The northern border is defined by a lush gulley through which the lovely and fragile Hamilton Creek runs. In the 1890s, the original owner, William Henry Smyth, named his property “Fernwald”, the German word for “faraway woods.” On these grounds stands the stately “Smyth House,” the Julia Morgan- enhanced residence of the original owner. The house currently sits empty, as does an adjacent structure owned by the University, which most recently housed a per-school. Nearby, a charming children’s garden still appears healthy and attended to. There is a small functional temporary office building on the property, and the 50+ student/family dormitories that are located east of Fernwald Road are currently occupied. The land was bequeathed by the owner to the University in 1926. For the full comprehensive history of this property (with photos) I urge you to go here . At the time the property changed hands, the Berkeley Gazette wrote the following: “The grounds, with their great trees, a splendid marine view, and beautified by a fern-clad gulch, are among the most picturesque in the East Bay District.” 

I am a wildlife photographer, and have been coming to Smyth-Fernwald for years to photograph birds, which are my specialty. I can attest to the fact that this fairly unknown parcel of land is an absolute treasure, not only in its beauty, but in it’s ecological importance. Sixty three trees of various species provide an incredibly rich habitat for wildlife. In the twilight hours I have observed deer grazing in the lower meadow. I have, and continue to regularly photograph and document over 20 species of birds which inhabit this property either all year or seasonally. This is an amazingly large and diverse number of bird species for an area of this size. Several of the trees are very old, large and magnificent in their stature. Some have obviously been around since the 1890s.  

Quite tragically, I have good reason to believe that these trees, as well as the rest of the property (including Smyth House) are about to be demolished by the University. I have spoken with passing University employees who have indicated this to be the case. Damage has already occurred to these grounds, and it is clear that a process of systematic destruction has now begun. The damage to which I refer is a 200 foot long eyesore of a trench which has been dug by heavy machinery, deeply into the front meadow section of the property. The digging took place on March 15th through the 17th. A chain link fence was placed to surround the trench. I ask you to please refer to my before & after photos . (please note: all photos, including wildlife, were taken exclusively at Smyth-Fernwald.) I was recently informed that the purpose of this trench is to provide for the placement of “seismic measuring” devices. The Smyth-Fernwald property does in fact sit directly on the Hayward fault.  

This is reminiscent of the motions the University went through before cutting down the oak grove at Memorial Stadium.  

The trench, most certainly, is for show only, and a pretense to complying with environmental law. It is merely a precursor to the destruction about to take place. With an army of highly paid attorneys, and with the assistance and enabling of a corrupt Berkeley mayor and his cronies, a belligerent University knows it can skirt Alquist-Priolo to do whatever it wants wherever it wants. As last year’s destruction of the Memorial oak grove so clearly demonstrated, the University is concerned neither with our environment nor our safety. It is a corporation concerned only with its profit margins. Smyth-Fernwald, with its absolutely stunning views of the Bay, is prime real estate. UC knows this, and has proven time & time again that it is perfectly willing to demolish our historical buildings, chainsaw our natural green spaces and bulldoze our ecosystem, to replace them with money generating structures that benefit UC only. 

Smyth-Fernwald is an aesthetic, architectural and environmental jewel that provides rich wildlife habitat, and supports an environmentally fragile creek. Its loss would be tragic and irreversible. It is an area that should rightfully be protected and turned over to the public trust. Berkeley cannot withstand yet another assault on the integrity of its natural beauty and vulnerable ecosystem. Something must be done immediately. Perhaps a law suite can be filed. Would this be possible? I am writing to you to elicit your concern, your support and your knowledge and ideas. We need to come together and act now to save this rare and precious parcel of land. If you can, please contact me as soon as possible at Spread the word. Time is of the essence. I will be most grateful for any help, direction or suggestions you can provide. 


Kevin Moore