Updated: Some Berkeleyans Do Know That Shoddy Construction Doesn't Belong Here--Not For Our Kids, Not in Our Backyard

Becky O'Malley
Wednesday June 24, 2015 - 09:34:00 AM

UPDATE: The Berkeley City Council, as predicted here, passed a version of the "significant community benefits" yardstick which exempts the RatBP project, so that it continues on the fast track which its well-wired promoter Mark Rhoades is demanding. What a shame. 


Observing from afar the investigation into the collapse of the Library Gardens balcony, I must concur with my colleagues at Irish Central that something in Berkeley is rotten to the core. The thing is, sensible people in Berkeley, some of them commonly denigrated as NIMBYs, have figured this out long ago. They have been sure for a long time that what Berkeley does not need is hasty, cheap and shoddy construction, particularly in buildings obviously aimed at students. 

The theory that university administrations are supposed to serve “in loco parentis”, in place of parents, for the young people they attract is more honored these days in the breach than in the observance, but in a larger sense the young people who flock to Berkeley because of its international reputation are all our children—we are all in loco parentis for them. Berkeley is our back yard, and we are all responsible if our world neighbors’ kids are harmed here. It just shouldn’t have happened here—Not In Our Back Yard. 

The NIMBY label should be considered a badge of honor. The NIMBYs in Berkeley and elsewhere are the adults in the room, the people who take responsibility for the civic fabric. 

In the correspondence that’s been flying around on the Internet since the tragedy occurred, it’s clear that savvy Berkeleyans have a pretty good idea of how it happened. Margot Smith of the Grey Panthers forwarded to me this letter which engineer Andrew Berna-Hicks, P.E., addressed to the Mayor of Berkeley and State Assemblymember Tony Thurmond: 

“It turns out that the beams used to hold up, or were supposed to hold up, the failed balcony that killed six young people in Berkeley were made of "oriented strand board" which is basically particle board. This type of construction is unacceptable. No support beams of any kind should be allowed to be made of this inferior material. This material is known to fall apart with even minimal water exposure. Ban it altogether.” 

The letter includes this definition of OSB: 

Oriented strand board (OSB), also known as sterling board, sterling OSB, aspenite, and smartply in British English, is an engineered wood particle board formed by adding adhesives and then compressing layers of wood strands (flakes) in specific orientations. 

The hastily assembled report from the City of Berkeley’s building department confirms his description of how the balconies of Library Gardens were supported by OSB. You can read it here. The description of how OSB was used for structural support appears on page 5. 

And it turns out that a Berkeleyan who is often excoriated for being a NIMBY exposed and condemned the dangers of OSB in a Planet Op-Ed all the way back in 2004. You can read the whole thing here. 

Gale Garcia described herself then as “one of those pesky Berkeley natives who thinks ‘smart growth’ is just developer propaganda.” 

In an open letter addressed to Berkeley Chief Building Official Joan MacQuarrie, Mayor Tom Bates, Planning Director Dan Marks, Housing Director Steve Barton and Planning Manager Mark Rhoades for submission to the members of the Zoning Adjustments Board, she said this: 

“I consulted my contractor friends about the technicalities of stucco construction. Each thought that the building standards with respect to exterior cladding had been lowered in the last two decades—probably due to pressure from the building industry—and that many of the materials used now are experimental. 

“While investigating stucco failure, I became interested in a product called oriented strand board (OSB), often used instead of plywood. It can be seen out in the elements at job sites, such as the shockingly large project at Shattuck Avenue and Haste Street. OSB is composed of wood strands and glue. The manufacturers claim it is equivalent to plywood, but it is known to absorb moisture with enthusiasm and is particularly susceptible to the growth of mold. “ 

After researching the topic, she ended with a call for action: 

“In [an] article written by an engineer about leaky condominiums, he explains the problem to be that designers, builders and regulators are unaware of the consequences of failing to achieve moisture control. He concludes: ‘What appears to be called for is a return to more traditional practices, in which the building has a drainage system and, therefore, can breathe.’ 

“I ask each of you to use your respective positions to bring the permitting process for multi-story stucco-clad buildings to a halt until the cause of these failures has been determined. Ms. MacQuarrie, please launch an investigation into the building practices currently used, and the reasons for the dramatic stucco failures in new construction of the last seven years. Mr. Marks, please do what you can to rein in a planning staff who never met a colossal edifice they didn’t love. Finally, Mayor Bates, do you want to be remembered forever for encouraging a rash of flawed, leaking and ultimately hated construction projects disfiguring this once beautiful town? The choice is yours.” 

Her question for the mayor is even more relevant today than it was way back in 2004, because stucco failures and attendant water damage have now gone from being simply disfiguring to being fatal. 

The city’s report on Library Gardens carefully documents how I’s were dotted and T’s were crossed according to all the rule books, but the building failed anyhow. A few changes (not backed, however, by any experiential data) are suggested, but they may be no more than band-aids—locking the barn door after the horse is stolen. 

It’s abundantly clear that both building codes and enforcement mechanisms with these new and untested construction methods must now be rigorously evaluated over a long enough period in a much more thorough way. No quick fix will do the job. 

But instead city officials and staff are poised to launch yet a new round of dangerous innovation, with marathon city meetings scheduled this week so that Berkeley can get started on the biggest building yet at 2211 Harold Way. It will be another cash cow—entitled by a local fixer for his Los Angeles financial backers and then transferred ultimately through a network of corporate structures to another faceless and irresponsible corporation like the ultimate landlords who now collect the rent at Library Gardens. 

It’s time for Berkeleyans to stop and evaluate what’s going wrong with the plans which have been made, in all good faith, for accelerated construction of structures which our city doesn’t seem to have the codes, the skills or the money to supervise properly. 

I have been on amiable speaking terms over the years with most of the councilmembers. Three of them already seem clear about what’s needed now. Two are usually spokespersons for the real estate and constructions industries, and I don’t expect them to change. But what about the other four? 

When Linda Maio, Susan Wengraf, Darryl Moore and Lori Droste are not sitting on the council dais, when they are taking part in the same civic do-gooder activities that I have participated in with them for the last 40 years, they have seemed to me to be thoughtful and compassionate people. Even at this late date I find it hard to believe that one or more of them will not listen to the voices of reason which are now being raised all over Berkeley in the wake of this unspeakable tragedy. What harm would it do, except perhaps to the pocketbooks of some out-of-town one-percenters speculating in the housing market, to take six months to thoroughly research how well codes and inspection procedures actually perform in Berkeley, and to fix what we can when we’re able? 

I have been told by a councilmember that unless hundreds of outraged citizens show up on Thursday, first at the special City Council meeting at Longfellow School at five o’clock, and are then transported (by winged chariots perhaps?) to the Zoning Adjustment Board at 7 at Old City Hall, approval of the project will go forward on schedule. Yet if city officials had listened in 2004 to just one prescient citizen, Gale Garcia, the Library Gardens tragedy might have been avoided. And they should listen now to the others sounding the alarm. 

Linda, Susan, Darryl, Lori, are you listening? The young people, students and others, who are the target market for Berkeley’s building boom are our kids too. 

Listen to what your neighbors are saying. Let’s do what we must to keep them safe. The choice is yours. 

Just to be safe however, if you’re one of those concerned citizens, you would be well advised to trek down to the two meetings to make your voice heard in person. I can’t be there myself, so speak for me. 





And if you really can't show up on Thursday, write letters. Sometimes they are read, or at least counted. The only address you need is council@cityofberkeley.info Or even visit your councilmember in his or her office.