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UC Lab Readies P.R. for West Berkeley Land Grab (News Analysis)

By Zelda Bronstein
Wednesday December 15, 2010 - 09:19:00 AM

Last Saturday afternoon I got a call asking if I was willing to take a survey about my opinion of local issues. I opt out of phone polls, except when they’re about local affairs—not because I think my responses are going to make more of a difference in the local context, but because I usually learn something about Berkeley politics that I wouldn’t know otherwise. So it was with this one, which turned out to be testing the waters of public opinion in preparation for Lawrence Berkeley National Lab’s coming incursion into West Berkeley. 

The survey took at least fifteen minutes—a long and expensive time for a poll. I was asked, among other things: 

What do you think of 


  • · the Berkeley City Council
  • · the University of California
  • · Lawrence Berkeley National Lab
  • · Save Strawberry Canyon
  • · the Lawrence Hall of Science
  • · the Committee to Minimize Toxic Waste
  • · the Department of Energy
  • · Chevron
  • · PG&E
Do you trust the federal government to fund scientific research? 

Do you trust private companies to do scientific research? 

What comes to mind when you think of LBNL? 

Deeply familiar with the plans of the Lab, UC and Tom Bates to turn West Berkeley into Emeryville North by dismantling the zoning that protects the district’s hundreds of artists, artisans and its industrial businesses and their thousands of employees, I said: “land grab.” 

I was also asked to respond to a series of statements, saying whether they made me feel very favorable, somewhat favorable, somewhat unfavorable or very unfavorable about the Lab. For example: 

The Lab: 


  • · conducts energy research
  • · creates health and safety risks to the city
  • · is a valuable asset to the East Bay economy
  • · is a trusted scientific institution
  • · is funded by the Department of Energy
  • · is funded by U.S. taxpayers
  • · is secretive
  • · supports K-121 education
  • · is an incubator for new uses
  • · pumps $900,000 into the local economy
  • · does important research that has resulted in the discovery of 16 elements and better understanding of dark energy
  • · is leading scientific research that will help deal with climate change and reduce dependence on foreign oil
  • · is managed by the University of California system
  • · does world class science that has yielded Nobel Prizes and National Medals of Science
  • · is, after UC, the second largest employer in Berkeley, providing thousands of good jobs
  • · does research in nanotechnology and synthetic biology
  • · is at the forefront of improving the quality of life in the Third World, for example, designing a small stove that can be used by refugees.
I was also asked to what extent, if at all, I agreed with other statements about the Lab—for example, that it 


  • · is secretive and not involved in the community
  • · emits contaminants into local creeks
  • · generates too much traffic and noise in neighborhoods
  • · uses dangerous high-powered lasers
  • · does nanotechnology research on molecules that are so small we can’t see them.
Finally, the payoff question: The Lab is seeking a new site somewhere in the East Bay. How do you feel about another Berkeley Lab in your city? (Very opposed.) 

Not coincidentally, on Monday I received a single-page, two-sided form letter dated December 6, addressed to “Friends and Neighbors of Berkeley Lab” and signed by LBNL Director Paul Alivisatos. The letter advertised the Lab’s scientific achievements and contributions to the community—except for the penultimate paragraph, which addressed the institution’s search for a second campus. It said that earlier in December the Lab had taken “the first step toward securing proposals for [its] second campus, and that it “hoped to develop a short list of possible sites by the end of February and make a final selection by June.” 

Some people think that the Lab is going to build its new facility at UC’s Richmond Field Station. Given the wording of the poll’s final query—“another Lab in your town”—I’d say the new facility is headed for Berkeley. Rumor has it that the Lab is eyeing the former American Soils site adjacent to Aquatic Park. The timing announced in Alivisato’s letter dovetails with the progress of current proposals to radically deregulate land use in my town’s only industrial/artisanal district. Approved by the planning commission on a 7-2 vote on October 13, the recommended zoning revisions are scheduled to go before the council in early 2011, just in time to facilitate the Lab’s land grab in West Berkeley.