Can Aquatic Park Survive? (News Analysis)

By Toni Mester
Sunday May 29, 2011 - 10:13:00 AM
This is the view across Aquatic Park to the property which formerly housed the American Soils company, with current and proposed building heights indicated.
This is the view across Aquatic Park to the property which formerly housed the American Soils company, with current and proposed building heights indicated.
This is a schematic diagram of property ownership adjacent to Aquatic Park in Berkeley.
This is a schematic diagram of property ownership adjacent to Aquatic Park in Berkeley.

The Berkeley City Council doesn’t know what to do with Aquatic Park, Berkeley’s largest - 102 acres of wetlands, lagoons, and uplands that provide recreation for humans, habitat for birds, and, in the view of the Council majority, a site for massive development. These uses are not compatible. The future of the park will be on the council agenda on Tuesday, May 31. 

On May 17, the Council passed two ecology-oriented consent items. One was a license agreement with Berkeley Partners for Parks for temporary tool storage in a container to be used by EGRET, the nature restoration project run by Mark Liolios, named a Cox Conservation Hero in 2010. Liolios works with students and other volunteers to clean trash, weed, mulch, and plant trees in Aquatic Park. 

The second was the funding to restart the half-completed EIR process for the Aquatic Park Improvement Program (APIP), a study of hydrology alternatives. The consultants writing the EIR went out of business, and the Council assigned the remainder of the contract, $137,044, to PBSJ, Inc. of San Francisco, an Atkins Company, where Erin Efner, the EIR project manager, had relocated. 

The EIR will study two alternatives, both including improved circulation among the lagoons and the Bay, intended to lower the temperature of the lagoons and raise the oxygen level, but differing on whether to allow storm water to enter the lagoons. According to Deborah Chernin, Principal Planner in the Parks, Recreation, and Waterfront Department who oversees the APIP process, the DEIR should be ready in September. 

Development Directions 

At the same time, the Council and the planning staff have been trying to lure the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL known locally as “the Labs”) to West Berkeley, and indeed two sites have been named among the six finalists in the competition for its second campus, one along Aquatic Park. 

This site is comprised of two adjacent parcels situated between Bolivar Drive on the west and the railroad tracks to the east. The northern larger block between Addison and Bancroft, where American Stone and Soils once operated, is owned by the Jones family, Charles and his son Jason. The smaller block, roughly half the size, between Bancroft and Channing, is owned by brothers, Steve and Michael Goldin, who are local furniture manufacturers. The families joined forces to submit a bid to the Labs for the combined site, approximately 12.5 acres, which they called The Aquatic Park Science Center. 

The Labs’ second campus site selection process concurs with the West Berkeley Project, a three year effort directed by the City’s Department of Planning and Development to revitalize West Berkeley’s economy, which has lost manufacturing over the past two decades. The Project has two primary functions, to redefine uses and allow R&D into formerly protected industrial space and to increase the development allowances for large master-use permit sites (MUPs) containing at least four acres under single ownership. 

Although some Council members have explained that it’s a coincidence that the Labs site selection and the West Berkeley Project are happening at the same time, it’s been obvious to most observers that City planners have had their eyes on the Labs when recommending greater heights and massing in the MUPs to allow for three floors of wet labs. Mayor Bates told the public after a lengthy hearing on January 25, “I would like to see the second campus here,” but that if Emeryville or Richmond were chosen, “It wouldn’t be the end of the world.” 

The proposed new zoning standards of 75 feet in height and the floor area ratio (FAR) of 3, an increase from the current limits of 45 and 2, would apply to the combined Aquatic Park properties. 

Site Constraints  

Given the size and other constraints of the Aquatic Park site, it is unlikely to be selected because the Labs’ second campus is projected to grow to 2 million square feet. Some of their criteria such as public transportation and proximity could be satisfied, but not others. One obstacle could be community opposition as Berkeley citizens begin to realize the impacts on the park. In any case, the attempt to lure the Labs would result in an inappropriately large building envelope in a sensitive area. 

Kriss Worthington was the first Councilmember to recognize a problem. At the January public hearing, he said “I do not want to mess up Aquatic Park, and that’s a really serious concern. I’d like us to look very closely at the impacts….” 

Worthington said that “The Aquatic Park piece has gotten little attention,” the reason being that the West Berkeley Project DEIR did not map the probable sites of the master use permits, although its massive traffic study was premised on their location. Responders did not realize that Aquatic Park was a potential site for large development, such omission obviating comments that would have required the publication of impacts on the views and the bird population in the FEIR. 

A disclosure: I questioned the hydrology of Aquatic Park in my comments on the initial environmental study as well as the DEIR, thinking that increased traffic would further pollute the lagoons from storm water run-off. My comments are the basis for one count in the lawsuit brought by Sustainable West Berkeley Alliance, of which I am not a party for reasons other than agreement or not with its contentions. 

Because information has been delayed, civic groups and environmental organizations are just beginning to react to the potential impacts. Seventy-five foot high buildings at the northeast corner of Aquatic Park, across from the pedestrian bridge, would block the view of the hills from the lagoon and the northwest edge of the park, dominate the view from the pedestrian bridge, and significantly alter the eastward vista from the brickyard, which is planned as the visitor center for the Eastshore Park. Since the Jones/Goldin properties slope to an elevation of 20 feet at the railroad track, the buildings would be even higher, depending on their footprints. 

Both properties on Bolivar Drive are narrow, from about 200 to 420 feet wide and slope up to the railroad tracks, presenting construction and storm water engineering challenges. All these constraints make them an inappropriate site for buildings on the scale proposed for the MUPs. The current zoning, MULI or mixed use light industrial, allows for 45 feet in height and an FAR of 2 but no set-backs. However, all the current buildings are set back with some parking along Bolivar Drive. 

Other Impacts  

Beautiful views of the hills are currently the assets of two public parks, their value acknowledged by Councilman Laurie Capitelli when he urged the Labs to locate to West Berkeley, “home to stunning views” in a letter dated February 28, 2011. Darryl Moore and Susan Wengraf drafted letters of their own, citing the advantages to the Labs and the City without mentioning the fact that any property acquired by the Labs would be taken off the tax rolls. 

On January 25, Capitelli asked staff to calculate the value of increased zoning allowances to property owners so that community benefits could be better estimated. But it would be impossible to compute what the loss of these public views would mean for current and future generations, degrading the aesthetics of the City at its central entry point. 

The impacts to the hydrology of the Park are too complex to detail here but would involve the perennial unsolved storm run-off problem. For the properties along the park, APIP recommends on-site solutions such as swales and bio-filtration systems like permeable paving, as well as restoration and replanting of the shoreline, which would require considerable building set-backs from the lagoon. 

These waters are federally protected wetlands and habitat, and the birds have their needs. The City’s own bird disturbance study (2004) found that the flush distance for most of the 15 species of the park’s water birds ranges from 90 to 150 feet, which would require significant protective set-backs.. 

In a presentation to their Community Advisory Group (CAG) in September, The Labs cited a “walkable community active at night.” This does not describe the constricted access to Aquatic Park, where two narrow streets cross railroad tracks that separate the rest of West Berkeley from the park. The birds would be disturbed by noise, glare, and night lighting, while the windows would present the potential of fatalities from window strikes, the number one killer of birds 

Traffic would increase near and around the park, crowding the bike routes. Even with robust transportation demand management programs (TDMs) the intersection at Allston Way and 4th would degrade to a failing level of service, according to the program EIR conducted last year, with back-ups likely at other key crossings. The majority of the 65 West Berkeley intersections studied would experience increased delays. 

The traffic impacts will be severe because R&D quadruples the number of workers to floor area, and the City wants to convert current industrial uses to R&D and build 1,900,000 square feet of new development, mostly office and R&D. The EIR estimates that the entire Project could generate 19,000 daily trips. 

Unrealistic Expectations 

Council and community may hold unrealistic expectations about what large development will mean for West Berkeley and the City as a whole. On January 25, Councilmember Moore enthused about job training that would propel struggling young people into the middle class. The Mayor wants the business and the revenues. Gordon Wozniak sees job opportunities. Everybody seems to have a different impression of what “revitalization” means, while nobody knows just how many current jobs might be displaced. One surety is that the number of EIR traffic mitigations indicates that most of the Project mitigation money will be spent on street improvements such as turn lanes and signals, and another is the rule of unexpected consequences 

Aquatic Park requires more than any development benefit can provide because of a history of neglect and abuse. In an email to Councilmember Linda Maio, applicant Jason Jones wrote, “There is such potential…bringing in all those people, and jobs, and attention to West Berkeley will improve the image of the park (currently it is seedy and kind of sad…), help spruce up the neighborhood, provide customers for local businesses, and finally make good use of our site.” 

The reason that Aquatic Park is sad and seedy is that the City treats it like a sewer, allowing polluted storm water and garbage into the lagoons, with more garbage blown in from the freeway. On November 27, 2007, the Council transferred $1.5 million earmarked for the sound wall to the Ed Roberts Campus because the wall “will cost well over $1.5 million and has lingered for years without any progress” in the words of the Mayor’s memo. Nothing has been done to replace these funds or seek alternative solutions to the pressing need of an I-80 barrier that would enhance human recreational use and better protect the bird habitat. 

Proposed Protections 

On Tuesday night (May 31), the City Council has a busy agenda including two major items regarding West Berkeley. One is opening all protected industrial space to R& D and the other is giving direction to staff regarding proposed new zoning for the master use permit sites. Despite the many significant and unavoidable impacts on West Berkeley, the Council is expected to adopt a resolution of overriding economic considerations. 

The only protection for Aquatic Park recommended by staff is the following weak proviso that gives discretion to ZAB and substitutes subjective judgments of what is reasonable for specific standards: 

Protecting Aquatic Park: Add the following Finding to the Master Use Permit requirements…. In order to approve a Master Use Permit that contains buildings within 100 feet of the boundary of Aquatic Park, the Board must find that the project will not unreasonably create shadows upon, or degrade the existing visual quality or character of, or pedestrian access to, Aquatic Park. 

The response of environmental organizations, which typically meet once a month, has understandably been slow in coming. The first to respond was Citizens for Eastshore Parks (CESP). In a letter to the Council dated February 18, they urged a set-back from Bolivar drive of at least 100 feet with a step-down from the current height limit of 45 feet and a step-up from 45 feet to the decided MUP height limit on the Peerless site east of the railroad tracks. 

On Monday May 23, a divided Northern Alameda County (NAC) group of the Sierra Club was only able to agree on the following proposal: The City of Berkeley must consider, at or prior to the project level, mitigation measures including the use of building materials and window design, and/or height reduction, to minimize any impacts on bird habitat. 

As awareness of the problems of Aquatic Park spreads, we can expect more input from concerned individuals and civic groups before the Council takes action on June 14. 

What is the future of Aquatic Park? Ultimately, its fate rests on Berkeley citizens, like Igor Tregub, a member of the Sierra Club NAC Executive Committee, who comments, "Some say that Aquatic Park is a diamond in the rough. But I am convinced that through sensible standards for hydrology, limits on adjacent West Berkeley development, and the creation of an I-80 sound wall, this diamond can shine on for a long time. In their absence, I'm afraid that the Park's health might indeed diminish." 


Toni Mester has been a member of the Sierra Club since 1979 and urges all disaffected former members to rejoin. We never promised you a rose garden.