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Berkeley City Officials Push UC to Choose West Berkeley for New LBNL Site--
With No Public Review(News Analysis)

By Zelda Bronstein
Tuesday October 18, 2011 - 09:13:00 AM

Mayor Bates and his allies like to gripe about public process in Berkeley, complaining that an inordinate amount of citizen participation results in costly and unnecessary delays. But a striking aspect of our current civic affairs is the lack, if not total absence, of public process with respect to some of the biggest issues in town.

The problem of City employees’ budget-busting benefits, for example, was last agendaized, as they say in City Hall, at the council’s meeting on January 18, 2011 . The plan to spend $1.4 million to renovate the West Campus cafeteria into a meeting space for the council has never appeared on the public agenda of the council or any City commission.

Neither has the distinct possibility that Berkeley will house the second campus of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

The second LBNL campus is a very big deal. The first phase will involve 480,000 square feet of development; the second will bring that figure up to two million. Square feet aside, the presence of the second lab will raise land values and boost the “innovation” quotient of whatever place it occupies.

Twenty-three applicants responded to the RFQ that was issued in January 2011. Six made it to the final round.

One, from Wareham Development, would situate the new facility partly in Berkeley and partly in Emeryville, wholly in Berkeley or wholly in Emeryville . A second, from The Stronach Group, would locate it on the current site of Golden Gate Fields racetrack (owned by the Group), which is partly in Berkeley and partly in Albany . A third, from the Goldin brothers and the Jones family, would put the new campus alongside Berkeley's Aquatic Park . The other three possible sites are in Alameda (the former Naval Station), Oakland (the Estuary) and Richmond (the University of California Field Station).

Wherever it goes, the project will have an immense impact on the surrounding community. Accordingly, the second LBNL campus has been publicly vetted by every prospective host city—except Berkeley. 

I recently emailed Berkeley’s Public Information Officer Mary Kay Clunies-Ross asking why the project had never appeared on a council agenda. She emailed back that since the council sets its own agenda, she couldn’t answer the question “definitively” and then added that what she’s told other reporters is that “unlike the sites in the other cities, the Berkeley sites are all privately owned.” In a subsequent email, Bates’ Chief of Staff Julie Sinai elaborated on Clunies-Ross’s point. “None of the Berkeley sites are on property owned or controlled by the City of Berkeley and no development proposal has been put forward to the City for approval,” Sinai wrote. “If one of the three Berkeley sites is selected, City staff and the Council will assess what Council action may be needed to address the development proposal and its impacts.” 

This, then, is the party line. As per Sinai’s reply, the second campus is presumed to be a matter that concerns only City officials. Only council approval matters; no need to solicit the views of Berkeley citizens. 

Indeed, despite the fact that the second campus has never been publicly deliberated by the council, last summer Councilmember Darryl Moore and top Berkeley staff spoke glowingly of the Lab, the project and our city’s amenities at the LBNL-sponsored community meetings about the Emeryville/Berkeley and Aquatic Park sites. In a video played at those meetings as well as at the one about the Golden Gate Fields venue, Mayor Bates and Councilmember Linda Maio followed suit. Moore and Office of Economic Development Director Michael Caplan actually appear in the video promoting the Aquatic Park proposal. Given the Bates administration’s hostility to citizen participation, this chutzpah is hardly surprising. 

But the rationale about private property not coming under the council’s aegis, offered by both Sinai and Clunies-Ross, is bizarre even for the Bates regime. The City’s Zoning Ordinance is all about private property. It’s public property—most notably, the UC campus—that lies outside the City’s control. 

Every case brought before the Zoning Appeals Board, and, if the ZAB’s decision is appealed, before the Council, concerns private property. The fact that Golden Gate Fields is privately owned hasn’t stopped Albany from sponsoring an extensive public process about the The Stronach Group’s proposal for that site. 

Left in the dark by their own city’s officials, Berkeley citizens have had to scrounge information about the second LBNL campus from a hodgepodge of sources: a meeting of the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce ; a poll administered over the phone last December ; the LBNL Second Campus website, which features full-length videos of the six community meetings from last summer ; the website of the City of Albany’s Voices to Vision 2 public process, which deals with the future of that city’s waterfront ; the Albany Patch

As the foregoing list suggests, there’s more information available about the Golden Gate Fields proposal than the plans for the other two Berkeley locations. That’s partly because the disposition of the Albany waterfront is a highly (if not the most) controversial issue in that city. 

In 2006 Albanians bitterly quarreled over a proposal by the racetrack owner to build a mall and a casino at the site. The proposal for the second LBNL campus has also divided the citizenry and elicited stiff opposition from the Sierra Club, which objects to the proposed urbanization of open space. But the challenges aren’t just coming from environmentalists. 

The racetrack is a major source of revenue for the small city of Albany, generating $1.4 million a year in taxes. If the racetrack is replaced by the Lab, and the property remains in private hands, the site will continue to generate property tax, but the parcel tax that supports Albany schools will be lost. That prospect is a dealbreaker for Albany officials and residents. Local divisiveness could well diminish the chances that the site will be selected by the Lab, since one criterion for the location of the second campus is “a welcoming community.” 

With that criterion in mind, the Golden Gate Fields Development Team is aggressively courting residents of both Albany and Berkeley. Responding to complaints from Albany citizens, as well as demands from the Lab, it has revised its initial plan. 

The latest iteration includes a 12-story hotel to be built on the northern (Albany) portion of the site its function is to replenish the tax revenue lost from the racetrack. Phase 2 includes a second hotel to be built on the southern (Berkeley) portion. The developers have also rearranged buildings in an effort to provide more open space. 

These changes and others can be viewed and discussed with the developers at open houses at the racetrack scheduled for October 17, October 24 and November 1 from 4 to 7 pm. 

But The Stronach Group is also resorting to less transparent means of persuasion. On September 30, I was surveyed over the phone about my opinion of the Golden Gate Fields proposal, the Lab, the decision-making process for the second campus and Berkeley government and officials. 

This was a push poll, and a very pushy one at that. The questioner posed many hypotheticals—if you knew that the Golden Gate Fields proposal was designed by the same green architects who did the Academy of Science, or that this project would unpave one of the largest parking lots in Alameda County and so forth, how would you rate this proposal? 

At the end, I was asked if I wanted to change my mind about anything (I did not). I was also asked, who should finally decide? An appointed task force, the Berkeley City Council, or a vote of the people? I chose the third option. 

Last Friday I spoke to the head of the Golden Gate Fields team, Wei Chiu of Newell Real Estate Advisors in Palo Alto. I asked him if his group had sponsored the poll. He said it had, that the survey itself had been formulated and administered by Next Generation, and that the results were “overall very positive.” He also confirmed that The Stronach Group plans to run ballot initiatives in Albany and Berkeley in June, aiming to demonstrate citizen support for the project. When I noted that the Lab is supposed to make its final decision in late November, Chiu said that date “was only a guideline, not a hard date,” adding that the Lab keeps changing its deadlines. His hope is that LBNL “will reduce the group of six to a lesser number and delay the final decision.” 

Rumor has it that Tom Bates and Loni Hancock favor the Golden Gate Fields site. The September phone survey implied that the site’s leading rivals are the Wareham proposal for Berkeley and/or Emeryville, and the Richmond proposal. Wareham already houses some of the facilities that are going to be consolidated in the second campus, meaning, its supporters argue, that locating the campus there would save money and time. But the land in Richmond, the 90-acre Richmond Field Station, is owned by UC, meaning the Lab would have more control of its future there than in a place where it was a tenant, and that the project wouldn’t result in any loss of tax revenue. 

The RFQ bluntly states that “RFS by and large meets the parameters of the Site Attributes,” and that “Respondents to this RFQ should know that the University may choose to site the second campus at RFS and will be evaluating potential sites relative to their ability to better meet the needs of the University [which administers the Lab] and the DOE (which owns it). With regard to at least one of those attributes—proximity to the existing LBNL, Richmond is however less appealing than the Berkeley, Emeryville or Albany venues. 

Whether the Lab sticks to its November date for a final decision or extends the selection process, Berkeley officials need to get out of the backroom (and the film studio) and start providing their constituents—that means Berkeley citizens, not the developers, the Lab or the University—with an opportunity to find out what’s going on with the second campus and to tell their elected representatives, in mayoral Chief of Staff Sinai’s words, “what Council action may be needed to address the development proposal and its impacts.”