By Kristin Bender
BERKELEY — Legal wrangling over University of California, Berkeley's plans to build a high-end sports training complex near Memorial Stadium will come to a head today when arguments begin in three cases seeking to stop construction.
Berkeley city officials sued in December to stop plans for the Student Athletic High Performance Center to the west of the stadium because it is near the Hayward fault and could crumble during a major earthquake. Geologists say the fault has a 25 percent chance of being triggered by 2030. The California Oak Foundation, on behalf of a group of tree sitters who have been living in a grove of trees since December, also sued the university to stop construction, as did the neighborhood Panoramic Hill Association, citing concerns about increased traffic in the area. The three lawsuits will be heard together beginning at 9:30 a.m. today in Dept. 512 at Alameda County Superior Court in Hayward. A ruling could come as early as Thursday. UC Berkeley offered to settle the suit with the city earlier this month, but the City Council shot down the offer. Mayor Tom Bates said the settlement offer was flimsy and did not "seriously address the city's concerns about public safety." University spokesman Dan Mogulof said the fate of the proposed sports complex is now up to the judge. "We're really looking forward to having all the facts in this very complicated case reviewed by an impartial judge," Mogulof said. Bates agreed.
"I'm kind of relieved that a decision will be reached shortly," Bates said. "The issues we got into the lawsuit will be addressed, which is dealing with public safety and taking a good look at what should be built near the Hayward fault." A win for the university would mean UC Berkeley will proceed with construction of the center as soon as possible, Mogulof said. "We've been continuing to work over the summer on all the things (the university) needs to do so that construction can begin as soon as possible after the court decides the case," Mogulof said. A legal win for the city and the other groups will depend on the judge's exact ruling on various points. But the university could be required to recirculate its environmental impact report on the project and go back before the UC's governing Board of Regents for approval on a revised project. Other outcomes are also possible. Bates said he hopes the university will be required to address the public safety issues and retrofit the stadium — at a cost of at least $140 million — before or concurrent with construction of a sports training facility. A fourth group, called Save Tightwad Hill, vying to preserve a grassy area behind Memorial Stadium where football games can be watched for free, has also sued, but that suit will be heard separately later this year. The lawsuits aren't the only high-profile opposition surrounding the university's construction plans. Since December, a group of tree sitters have been living in the oaks that are slated to be razed to make way for the sports training center, and the start of the trial comes as sitters try to bring increased attention to their cause.
On Friday, 30 people scaled an 8-foot chain link fence surrounding the grove, and 21 of them were arrested for trespassing. The tree activists compared themselves to students who helped launch the Free Speech Movement 40 years ago. Members of a group called the Free Speech/Free Tree Student Coalition demanded that UC Berkeley remove the fence, which university officials erected Sept. 1 to separate protesters from thousands of Cal fans expected for the Bears' football season opener against the University of Tennessee. The tree sitters today will hold a memorial ceremony for those who died in World War I. The event, which will include a reading of the 1,800 Californians who died in the war, begins at noon in an accessible portion of the grove north of the International House on Piedmont Avenue, just west of the stadium.
California Memorial Stadium was dedicated in 1923 "to the Californians who died in the Great War," and tree activists say the oak grove is therefore sacred ground. Singer and songwriter Country Joe McDonald will sing at today's event, former Berkeley Mayor Shirley Dean will speak and a Unitarian minister will give a eulogy. Organizers will raise the American flag and sing the National Anthem. Meanwhile, last week UC Berkeley filed a lawsuit of its own. The university sued the tree sitters, saying they are causing a safety hazard by using camping grills and dropping items from the treetops. The university sought an immediate court order to remove the protesters from the grove, but a judge refused to grant it, saying he wanted to hear the case in its entirety Oct. 1.