Cal's Tentacles Extend Out from Campus 

Berkeley's historic town-gown dispute promises to heat up as Cal prepares to set in motion huge new development. Are its critics up to the challenge?

The University of California at Berkeley is about to do something stupid. Nothing in the same league as, say, giving Michael Milken an MBA or forcing its faculty to sign loyalty oaths, but any grad student in its urban and regional planning department could warn outgoing Chancellor Robert Berdahl of the folly he is about to indulge in.

As part of a historic plan to expand its teaching, research, and administrative capacity, the university has announced a proposal to build a hundred units of faculty housing in the hills near the Lawrence Hall of Science, wiping out a grove of eucalyptus trees and whittling away at the unique belt of parks and forest land that stretches from Tilden Park to the Oakland-San Leandro border. God knows we need more workforce housing, but any fool can tell you that scarring what's left of the East Bay's open space and choking narrow access roads with up to two hundred more cars flouts the very values such housing is meant to preserve.

Andrea Pflaumer lives near the proposed housing project and has emerged as one of the opposition leaders. Pflaumer and two other neighbors recently wrote to UC Berkeley officials, laying out some very sensible objections: increased traffic would endanger bicyclists who cruise through the treacherous, serpentine roads; and the university has no obligation to compensate the city for straining its aging sewer and storm drains. Unfortunately, many of their other points were just plain silly. In case of an crisis, they wrote, that land is needed as a staging area for a temporary hospital run by the Red Cross. Since the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory is decommissioning its nuclear particle accelerator, Pflaumer suggested using that land as faculty housing, despite the fact that the federal government would never let that happen. They even doubted that housing is really a problem in the East Bay -- ignoring inconvenient facts like real-estate prices and immigration projections. Finally, Pflaumer argued, you never know when terrorists might blow up the lab. "If there were a terrorist attack on Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, we need a buffer zone between the existing neighborhoods and university property," she says.

As a rule, NiMBY opponents of development are selfish, petty jerks. Pflaumer isn't one of them -- the university's plan ignores every basic tenet of smart growth, and she's right to fight it. But Pflaumer suffers from the second NiMBY character flaw: the willingness to use any argument, no matter how specious or fraudulent, as long as it serves her ultimate goal. "It was like throwing spaghetti to the wall and seeing what sticks," she concedes of her strategy. "Sometimes you have to be alarmist to get people's attention."

Unfortunately, Berkeley residents no longer can afford this tactic. This faculty housing fight is just the first skirmish in what will be a sixteen-year town-gown war over Berkeley's future. The university is about to embark upon a massive campaign of construction and development, building office towers, administrative complexes, and parking facilities that could indelibly change the face of the city. If Berkeley residents want to influence any part of this ambitious plan, they must abandon their old methods, pick their battles, and act like grownups. Nothing less than their credibility -- and their city -- is at stake.

In April, UC Berkeley officials released a draft of its 2020 long-range development plan, a blueprint for spectacular growth. The plan calls for the construction of up to two million square feet of new facilities, roughly half of which will arise off campus. To accommodate the flood of new students born during the demographic boom known as "Tidal Wave II," UC Berkeley will build 2,600 new dorm beds. Officials project that they will have to increase their parking capacity by 30 percent, adding as many as 2,300 parking spaces in the immediate campus area. It's a remarkably assertive document, one that aims to reshape the heart of the city. Unless Berkeley's leaders find a way to nudge this plan in the right direction, the streets will gridlock, whole square blocks may be taken off the tax rolls, and the downtown landscape will be blighted by glass-and-steel behemoths that would please Le Corbusier's black heart.


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