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Thursday, November 10, 2005
Oakland Tribune: Preservation closer for a great stadium
IN A 1921 Oakland Tribune article, future University of California president Robert Gordon Sproul announced preliminary plans for a football stadium with a vision even Jeff Tedford might view as overzealous. Sproul trumpeted the blueprint for Memorial Stadium as "an architectural monument ranking with the greatest structures of all times." Footnote: Sproul was touting a football stadium that was supposed to be built more toward the center of Berkeley, approximately where the Cal's track facility, Edwards Stadium, now sits. But earthquake fault lines and nightmarish parking issues aside, 82 years of hindsight provide ample proof things turned out even better when the UC regents decided to save a few dollars and move the project — amid controversy, of course — to a parcel of land the university already owned near the entrance of Strawberry Canyon. While perhaps not ranking with "greatest structures of all times" like the Pyramids, Parthenon or Roman Colosseum, Memorial Stadium definitely ranks as one of the greatest athletic structures of all times — even most outsiders who experience it say that — and should be restored and modernized with the kind of pride, care and civic unity a historically significant architectural monument deserves. With that in mind, current Cal chancellor Robert Birgeneau will announce further specific details of the stadium's physical facelift today along with fresh information on the larger planned transformation of the entire southeast corner of the Cal campus, which includes the schools of law and business. Long considered nothing more than a pipe dream, the preservation of Memorial Stadium for the 21st century keeps inching closer to reality. At long last, Cal insiders are finally feeling truly confident about it. While there is still a long way to go, a significant percentage of the financing has been raised. Architects appear to have come up with a winning and dynamic conceptual plan for the stadium itself incorporating modern amenities, improved access and critical seismic safety modifications without wrecking its external beauty and historical austerity. From here, it must become a crusade of unity and purpose both on and off campus. Just as was the case in 1921, there are grave civic concerns as well as staunch outright opposition. Neighborhood groups are justifiably worried about permanent lighting that will be part of the renovation. There are quality-of-life issues about congestion, lack of parking, construction impositions, more noise and increased student and patron vandalism and drunkenness. But all concerned can't blow this chance to get it right on Memorial Stadium, because there is not likely going to be a better opportunity for such a mammoth project to succeed.
Forget about the revival and perpetuation of Cal's national football viability orchestrated by Tedford. That's important, but not enough is said about the structure itself and the absolute necessity to save it for future generations. Memorial is the best total stadium experience in America to watch college football and also enjoy a fall Saturday in a unique, wonderful city. For its size, the stadium itself is remarkably intimate. The hillside setting is sublime, the views in almost all directions spectacular, the historical aura palpable. As one who has been to many of the great stadiums in the land, there's simply no place I'd rather be to watch a football game, that's for sure. I feel Andy Smith, Brick Muller, Joe Roth, Pappy Waldorf, Chuck Muncie inside that bowl. I can only imagine how Cal grads adore the place and all the friendly ghosts they must encounter. Whether Tedford's ambitious football program had stimulated this renovation or not, something would have had to be done soon about Memorial Stadium. It has been deteriorating badly for years. The seismic issues would have had to be addressed, either by fixing the stadium or demolishing it. Such a fate is incomprehensible to me, and I don't even bleed blue and gold. Fortunately, Cal appears to be on the right course and well on its way to a grand, inspired new era for the stadium and its surrounding environment. The next big step is unveiled today, and if Berkeley can't get excited about that, something's amiss, particularly with No.1 USC in town on Saturday. Civic concerns are very real and duly noted but the good far outweighs the bad in this quest. Berkeley shouldn't fight this project. It should embrace the heritage of Memorial Stadium, sustain and build on the legacy and keep working toward the ultimate vision of Robert Gordon Sproul: "An architectural monument ranking with the greatest structures of all times." Believe it, even as the tired old bowl sits now, folks elsewhere — including across the universe at Stanford — are insanely jealous.