Keeping Facts Straight in the Branch Library Debate (Commentary)

By Christopher Adams
Monday May 16, 2011 - 03:26:00 PM

As the debate over replacement construction of Berkeley’s South and West branch libraries continues to slide into personal attacks, I hesitate to enter the fray again. However, Bradley Wiedmaier’s opinion piece about the South Branch library seems to contain some serious errors which demand correction. I don’t know Wiedmaier and don’t want to impugn him or his motives, but I think his information is wrong. 

He states that a report prepared for the library by the architecture firm of Noll & Tam “strongly supported renovation” of the South Branch. I’ve looked for the evidence of such a report, without success. In August 2007 Noll & Tam prepared a report analyzing the possible move of the South Branch into a part of the Ed Roberts Campus, then being planned on a portion of the Ashby BART parking lot a few blocks away.This report was focused on how the branch would fit into to the ERC, but it did state that “The South Branch…is currently over-crowded and in serious need of upgrades to the building’s structure, envelope, and building contents.” It went on to state that “the construction, including the concrete floors, make layout improvement and technological upgrades extremely difficult.”  

A year later, in July 2008, Noll & Tam prepared a two-volume Facilities Master Plan for all four branches. Under Recommendations for the South Branch Noll & Tam stated this: 

The building’s overall condition is fair to poor. Conceptual designs indicate an attempt to stabilize and repair this building would be more costly than new construction…[A] structural retrofit will seriously alter the building that it is attempting to stabilize. In the end it may be more cost effective to demolish the entire building and build new. 

In his opinion piece Wiedmaier also claims that the South Branch “is a reinforced concrete, post and beam structure, which has been seismically tested. The alternating glass and concrete block infill are not the structure. The false presentation of the concrete block as the menace of disintegrating ‘cinder block’ was deployed to rule out renovation.” 

Perhaps the term “cinder block” has been used as a pejorative by some laypersons in discussions of this project, but not by professionals. Noll & Tam’s first report had no detail about construction of the South Branch, but their 2008 report stated: 

Since the construction of this facility, engineering research has shown that cantilever concrete columns encapsulated by partially grouted walls perform poorly in earthquakes, and there is concern that the building has the potential to collapse in a major earthquake…The results of recent reinforcement testing…show minimal reinforcing and grout in only the cells with reinforcing, confirming the impression that the building will not perform well in an earthquake... [A]ny seismic upgrades will change the design of the building by either eliminating some windows or by introducing visible walls. Also while a seismically upgraded building would be a major improvement, the renovated building will still be more likely to experience earthquake damage than a new building of comparable cost.  

Wiedmaier states that local community architects have not been involved in South Branch. I’m not sure what this claim is based on. Noll & Tam is a local Berkeley firm. As mentioned above, they first prepared a study analyzing moving the branch into the Ed Roberts Campus. It was another Berkeley architect whose offices are near the South Branch who articulated the neighborhood opposition to such a move, on the grounds that a free-standing branch was the only appropriate solution for South Berkeley, just as for other parts of the city. 

Finally, Wiedmaier seems to suggest that the reports on condition were part of some sort of scheme to enrich architects at the public’s expense. Of course there is no way to disprove such a vague allegation, but it should be noted that because Noll & Tam prepared the report on the condition of the existing branch libraries, they were subsequently prohibited by State law from competing for the design of any of the renovations.