Monday, June 30, 2008

San Francisco Chronicle: UC compromises on key stadium issues

UC Berkeley made key concessions Friday in its long-running standoff with the city, tree-sitting protesters and neighbors of Memorial Stadium that the university hopes will clear the way for its plans to build an athletic training center next to the stadium.  In documents submitted in Alameda County Superior Court, the university says it will scrap all non-football events at Memorial Stadium and drop plans to attach a concrete support beam to the stadium's west wall, two roadblocks cited in a judge's interim ruling in the case last week.

UC's proposed judgment also asks Judge Barbara Miller to immediately lift an injunction that prevents the university from beginning construction on the center in a grove of oak trees next to the stadium, where tree-sitters have been roosting for 18 months in protest of the university's plans to cut the trees to make way for the training center.  Campus spokesman Dan Mogulof said the university made the concessions to expedite the $140 million training center, which was the target of lawsuits filed by the city of Berkeley, a neighborhood association and a group of oak tree advocates.  "The judge's ruling last week really focused our attention on our priorities, which are clearly, and as soon as possible, to get a new facility built for the 450 student-athletes who badly need it," he said. "We also wanted to be responsive to the needs and interests of the city and neighbors."

Miller is expected to issue a final ruling in the next few weeks. If she lifts the injunction, the university plans to begin construction a few days later, Mogulof said.  In her preliminary ruling on June 18, Miller sided with the university on most aspects of the case, saying the athletic training center would not violate the state Alquist-Priolo law, which prohibits building on earthquake faults.

But she sided with the plaintiffs on several points that could stop the project. Her primary concern was the grade beam, which she said was an alteration to Memorial Stadium and therefore was subject to Alquist-Priolo. The plaintiffs argued that without the grade beam, the training center could not be built safely.

Miller also questioned the value of Memorial Stadium. According to Alquist-Priolo, seismic renovations to a building on a fault cannot exceed half the building's value. The university says the stadium is worth $593 million.  But if the grade beam is removed, the value of the stadium is a moot point until seismic retrofit work begins, both sides agree. In their proposed judgment, filed Tuesday, the plaintiffs said the university should drop the project until it can prove Memorial Stadium is worth more than twice the cost of seismic upgrades and should cancel plans to host non-football events. Opponents of the project had mixed reactions to UC's filing.

"It's curious. They made it very clear they needed the (stadium) support beam to make the facility safe," said Michael Kelly, vice president of the Panoramic Hill Association. "From a safety point of view, removing it seems to be kind of shaky."  The university's structural engineers had recommended the concrete grade beam to protect the 1923 Beaux Arts stadium during construction of the athletic facility a few feet away. The stadium, which sits atop the Hayward Fault and is partially built on landfill, has undergone few repairs over the years and is cracked and crumbling in many places.

But any damage to the stadium during construction would be strictly cosmetic, Mogulof said. "This is absolutely, 100 percent not a safety issue," he said. "If there is cosmetic damage to the stadium, we will fix it when the stadium is renovated." Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates said the City Council will meet next week to discuss the case, but any decisions are premature until the judge issues her final ruling. "Our concern is and always has been safety," he said. "I just hope that by removing the grade beam they're not going to be causing problems for the western wall of the stadium."  City Councilman Laurie Capitelli said he was relieved to see the case moving forward, but was concerned about the plight of the tree-sitters, whose food and water were cut off last week when university arborists dismantled all but one of their platforms.

"We've got a volatile situation in the trees right now," Capitelli said. "One way or another, we've got to get them out of there safely. My hope, at this point, is that the judge moves quickly to issue a definitive decision so we can resolve this." Seven protesters remain in the trees, sharing a single platform about 40 feet up a redwood tree. Campus Police Chief Victoria Harrison spent about 45 minutes Thursday talking to the tree-sitters about their food and water supplies and waste disposal.  The tree-sitters refused to turn over their waste, which has been accumulating since last week, but did accept bottled water and energy bars on Friday, Mogulof said. "When the injunction is lifted and the legal coast is clear, at that point we will have reached the end of the judicial process," he said. "We hope and expect that anyone left in the trees will, at that point, abide by any and all court rulings."  The tree-sitters have said they'll refuse to come down until the grove is protected from development. About 44 trees are slated for removal to build the athletic center, but the university has said it would plant about 130 trees in their place.  In a separate project, UC next wants to retrofit Memorial Stadium, which also is likely to provoke a legal battle with neighbors and the city. Most of the plaintiffs want the landmark stadium razed and a new stadium built elsewhere.

The university would like to preserve the stadium, which was named by Sports Illustrated as the best place in the United States to watch a college football game and is on the National Register of Historic Places.


No comments: