Take a half-dozen granola-and-sandals activists, give them surnames like "Runningwolf" and "Butterfly," stick 'em in a few trees, and sic the University of California on them, and you've got the makings of a perfect Berkeley story. And so the national press has waggled after the latest town-gown controversy, in which university officials want to build a $120 million athletic training center to boost their newly bemuscled football program, and crunchy eco-acolytes (and even a curmudgeonly ex-mayor or two) have put their bodies on the line to stop them. Last month, the city successfully snagged an interim injunction against proceeding with the construction, which would have done away with a smallish oak grove and apparently struck at the heart of a key part of what made this town the "third most sustainable city," according to the eco-wonks at SustainLane.com. It also would have highlighted UC's imperial arrogance, made dozens of squirrels homeless, contributed to global warming via the sweat of middle linebackers; you know the drill. But as usual, the most important element of the story the true folly of the university's plan went unnoticed.
The issue isn't really the training center, which could be located in any number of different areas in or around campus. It's the California Memorial Stadium itself, which is the heart of the sports complex university officials want to reinvigorate. The stadium is an 84-year-old seismic deathtrap, built right on top of the Hayward fault, and the western half of it is slowly moving north, ripping at the foundations. Officials need to build the training center so they can move their jocks and coaches out of the stadium before a massive quake hits and buries them beneath a pile of rubble that used to be bleacher seats. Fine and good; since they work there five days a week, getting them out of the complex would surely save their lives. But then Cal administrators want to do something truly stupid: spend a fortune retrofitting the stadium itself.
No one truly knows just how much that would cost. UC Berkeley spokeswoman Marie Felde claims that Cal's engineers haven't even done the math yet. "They're not that far into the design process," she said. "Nobody wants to guess." But according to Craig Comartin, a structural engineer who has studied the schematics for UC Berkeley, the project would probably cost in the order of "tens of millions." For Cisco de Vries, a spokesman for Mayor Tom Bates, the university's very refusal to finish designing the retrofit and related projects is exactly the sort of irresponsible and arrogant planning that prompted the lawsuit in the first place. "Until there's some understanding of what it will take for the stadium to be safe, how can we be making decisions involving hundreds of millions of dollars?" he said. "That's a big part of our concern. The mayor says we want them to figure out at the very least what they're going to do with the stadium first."
But this much we know: The university's stated objective is to save the lives of the approximately 73,000 fans who could be caught attending the Big Game when the Big One hits.
Take a closer look at those odds. Seismologists claim that in any given year there's a 1 percent chance of a major quake along the Hayward fault. Cal plays between six and eight games a year at the stadium, and once the training facilities and administrative offices are relocated, these games are the only times a significant number of lives will be at risk. In other words, the university is about to spend tens of millions of dollars to prepare for a disaster that has a one-in-25,000 chance of happening.
But where would we play football, you ask? Where would we watch Jeff Tedford's Bears crush Stanford's spirits for a generation? Funny you should ask. University planners don't just want to retrofit the stadium; they want to beef up its concession outlets and slap on some new lights, luxury boxes, and press offices. There just happens to be a facility that already boasts all of these amenities, and its owners you and me will be desperate for new tenants very shortly. It's called McAfee Coliseum, and now that the Oakland A's are planning to split for Fremont, Saturdays just happen to be free. With one lease agreement and given Oakland's pathetic history of giving away the store, Cal officials can count on that agreement being very lucrative indeed the university could have a massive football complex, complete with luxury boxes and garlic fries, for a fraction of what it would cost to modernize Memorial Stadium. And here's the bonus round: It's not sitting on a fault.
According to UC Berkeley's Felde, such a scheme won't fit in with the university's long-term plans. "When the campus looked at how to revitalize the southeast quadrant of campus, one of the main points was that the goal was to integrate the athletic experience with the student experience to a greater level than it is now," she says. And the fact that the stadium is across the street from the academic centers of campus is very important."
Well, it works for UCLA, whose stadium, the Rose Bowl, is located all the way in Pasadena. And moving Cal's games to the Coliseum wouldn't jeopardize Tedford's contract, which reportedly stipulates that the training center and only the training center be built. Felde claims the retrofit would be financed solely by alumni contributions and ticket sales, but make no mistake: Sooner or later you'll pay for this. When the Big One does strike, public money will be used to repair the stadium, and in the meantime, the redirection of ticket revenue would only increase the athletic department's multimillion-dollar budget deficit.
More than ten years ago, Oakland and Alameda County officials signed one of the worst sports deals in history to get the Raiders back, and it cost them millions and the departure of their baseball team. UC Berkeley planners have a chance to shake off the delusion that costly stadium construction projects are the only way to save their football program, and avoid the catastrophic mistakes made by their neighbor to the south. They just have to tell their alumni that beer tastes just as good in Mount Davis.
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