A tale of two (LBNL) campuses
August 16, 2011, 11:56 pm
Filed under: Berkeley, Development, Public meetings

The first section of this post is mainly an exposition of events at the August 4th meeting regarding Lawrence Berkeley National Lab’s consideration of West Berkeley as a potential site for its proposed second campus. For those who attended or are otherwise familiar with the details of this meeting, you may want to jump directly to the more editorial section of this piece.

On the evening of Thursday the 4th, Lawrence Berkeley National Labs and would-be developers hosted a presentation and community meeting on the potential selection of a Berkeley Aquatic Park site for LBNL’s second campus. The event featured a veritable who’s-who of Berkeley activists, decision makers and business people. One could just as easily write a society column covering this event—but I won’t be doing that. (Vic’s Chaat does deserve a shout-out, however, for the delicious samosa and mango lassi they provided.)

The program began with lab presentations detailing the work of LBNL and the need for a second campus. With no intended insult towards the lab’s work, the presentation essentially boiled down to: “We invented Americium and a ton of other cool stuff and our latest inventions just might save the world,”—a sort of benign version of an offer you can’t refuse. In their presentation on the site itself, proponents emphasized the site’s close proximity to UC Berkeley and existing lab facilities, its accessibility by both mass transit and freeway, its stunning setting, and the cerebral, culinary, commercial, and cultural resources of the Berkeley community. Score a point for agreement on one front: Berkeley is awesome. (Future ballot proposition writers take note: Make your first statement, “WHEREAS: Berkeley is awesome.” You can probably secure some signatures/percentage points right there.)

The next portion of the developer pitch emphasized how Berkeley is special, i.e. tremendously sensitive and particular about every detail of a project. The developer’s presentation demonstrated how their planning process had been informed by Berkeley’s for better or worse tendency towards the fastidious. To their credit, the developer’s ideas seemed decently well-tailored both to the as-of-yet amorphous needs of the lab and to the likely demands of the Berkeley community. Some of the most notable proposed features of the plan included: a maximum of four stories on the site; a two acre increase in the size of Aquatic Park; preservation of view corridors down major streets and pathways; and the enhancement of public connectivity with the park. To bolster their credentials, the developer emphasized their experience in public-private partnerships in projects such as Mission Bay, Treasure Island, and Hunters Point. Interestingly, though the LBNL second campus will be much smaller than any of these projects, it will almost certainly face many of the same issues.

Several Berkeley decision makers also spoke or otherwise contributed to the discussion. City Manager Phil Kamlarz spoke to Berkeley’s highly educated population, high quality of life, and decreasing crime rates. Kamlarz also touched on the issue of property taxes, saying that developers were committed to working with staff to ensure no net loss of revenue for the city. In the end he expressed staff’s support for locating the LBNL second campus on one of the three proposed Berkeley sites. Despite some claims to the contrary, the promise of no net revenue loss is almost certainly an easy one to keep and staff’s support seems reflective of the second campus’s evident economic benefits. Despite his being abroad, the presence of Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates was nonetheless felt by way of a prerecorded video featuring his projected, Wizard-of-Oz-like visage. Suffice it to say, Mayor Bates was also gung-ho about the project.

Most fascinating, however, were District 2 Council Member, Darryl Moore’s statements, which were both pragmatic and highly impassioned. Speaking of how the lab could help fill the dire need for low-skill jobs in West Berkeley, Moore seemed to imply, at least obliquely, that project opponents were working against the interests of working class and minority Berkeley residents. In a statement that was anything but ambiguous, Moore declared, “How can we turn our back on this golden and great opportunity?” Finally, Moore made a practical argument for encouraging and welcoming the lab, pointing out that a report presented to the lab’s Community Advisory Group had shown the potential growth in annual tax revenue exceeding $55 million per year. (To be fair, the lab has clear motivation to present rosy figures, but it’s difficult to imagine a situation where the economic benefits of the lab fail to far exceed the current property tax revenue from the sites in question.) To make his point, Moore emphasized how Berkeley has more senior centers, pools, and libraries per capita than any other California city. Moore rightly pointed out that maintaining those services in our current fiscal and political climate will require the city to encourage just this sort of economic development. Ending his speech on an impossibly fantastical, albeit admirably hopeful note, Moore expressed his wish that we “sing out in one voice that we support our community.”

Finally, it was time for public comment and, to my own surprise, the entire process was civil, substantive and orderly—almost. Public comment cards, which were made available prior to and at the start of the meeting, were collected and shuffled, and speakers were then called up in the order of the shuffled cards. Time permitted only a limited amount of commentary, so each speaker was allotted two minutes. Among those speaking for the second campus, were quite a few notable people, including:

  • Meghan Pressman, the Associate Managing Director of the Berkeley Rep
  • Mark McLeod, Director of the Sustainable Business Alliance
  • Winston Burton, Economic Director of Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency
  • Tiffany Chia, Incoming ASUC Senator
  • Erin Rhoades, Executive Director of Livable Berkeley
  • Molly Fraker, Executive Director of the Berkeley Public Education Foundation
  • Deborah Bellush, Executive Director of the Biotech Partners program
  • Polly Armstrong, Co-CEO of the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce
  • Betty Inclan, President of Berkeley City College

Speaking to the challenges of the site, but not necessarily against the proposal were Norman LaForce, of the Sierra Club, as well as Marcy White; both echoed concerns regarding building height and potential impacts on migratory birds that use Aquatic Park. Speaking against the project were former Berkeley Mayoral candidate Zelda Bronstein and Pamela Sihvola of the Committee to Minimize Toxic Waste. Sihvola, no doubt still exercised by the controversy surrounding the demolition of the Bevatron, criticized the lab for what she views as its waste management misdeeds past and present.  Bronstein asserted that the anticipated economic benefits of the lab’s second campus were all “pipe dreams” and suggested that plans for the site were being misrepresented. Bronstein also criticized city council for “dismantling” zoning protections for artists and manufacturers—never mind that West Berkeley zoning remains incredibly restrictive for the conversion of space.

As of the conclusion of the formal public comment period, 31 speakers had made comments, of which 26 were in favor, two were against, and three were more or less neutral. In other words, this sample of the crowd was 84% in favor of locating the LBNL second campus at the Aquatic Park site—or at least somewhere in Berkeley.  This did not sit well with project opponents who seemed to feel that their minority status was the invention of some conspiracy rather than merely the expected result of having an unpopular position. As such, opponents demanded additional time to fulminate by all but storming the microphone, at one point using some choice four-letter words. (So much for keeping the meeting classy.) In a move born of admirable patience and, no doubt, a desperate desire to mollify naysayers and preclude further antics, opponents were given more time to speak. Whereas previous comments had at least been coherent, several of those that followed were less comment than invective. In all, an additional four members of the public spoke out against the project during this impromptu venting session.

While most of the initial skepticism/criticism leveled against the project was at least somewhat constructive, many of the final comments seemed low on reasoning and high on emotion. I believe that the latter observations have important implications for how the lab, the city, and the developer should approach this project. By and large, the most vociferous opponents of the proposal are individuals who have long-standing adversarial relationships not just with Berkeley’s largest educational and scientific institutions, but with Berkeley city government. I do not believe that even the most unmoving of this opposition is motivated by malice. Rather, the longevity of these conflicts would seem to indicate that these objections are instead rooted in perpetual distrust, genuine fear, and entrenched contrarianism. In previous battles, such as the Downtown Area Plan, decision makers have frequently sought to compromise with the opposition—a slow process which has produced mixed results at best and frequently failed to appease opponents. Though it will ultimately be LBNL which selects a site and controls development, I think that an approach different from endless compromise will be essential to collaboratively crafting the best possible project for the host city, the environment, and the lab.

At least at the Berkeley meeting, it was clear that opponents regarded the best project to be no project at all. Others who spoke of their reservations regarding the second campus seemed possibly amenable to project features or mitigations that would at least partially address their concerns. For those who are intent on not having a project, there is no reasonable amount of modification which is likely to alter that position. This may seem obvious, but Berkeley’s planning history has nonetheless been characterized by attempts to get buy-in from individuals or groups who have, from the outset, been disinclined to support plans or projects. This has frequently caused intolerable delay and made for planning processes where demands of the opposition take precedence over the more comprehensive needs of the city. By negotiating with those who are largely immovable, we can often find ourselves farther from what we originally wanted without actually having won any buy-in in the process. (Think the battle over universal healthcare.) If it becomes increasingly apparent that opponents of a Berkeley-based second campus will settle for nothing less than no project, decision makers should avoid engaging in a potentially futile exercise aimed at winning those opponents. Instead, those involved should pursue input and project features likely to garner the broadest civic and environmental benefits and thus, presumably, the broadest public support. Correspondingly, the lab must take seriously and respond to the concerns of the host cities, adjacent neighborhoods, and local environmental groups—ignoring them would be at the lab’s peril and would serve to squander both environmental opportunity and civic goodwill.

Whichever site is chosen, planning for LBNL’s second campus will require a careful balancing act. This may seem like cliché, but it is precisely this sort of balanced consideration that is so often lacking in Bay Area decision making. With all the steadiness of a slow-moving unicycle, our decision making has tottered along as if perched upon one heavily-greased, yet incessantly squeaky wheel. Let’s break that cycle. In a spirit of optimism,  we should work together to create plans that give all our wheels some grease and win the greatest possible environmental, community, and economic benefits.