Field of Bad Dreams 

In its rush to create sports facilities at Harrison Park, Berkeley overlooked nasty environmental realities. It should have known better.

As the fall season begins later this week, hundreds of pint-sized members of the Albany/Berkeley Soccer Club will flock to two recently built soccer fields at Harrison Park in west Berkeley. But before they hit the field in their brightly colored jerseys, they'll have to file past a grim reminder of urban living: A three-foot-square sign, posted by the city at the park's entrance warns players and their parents that the air quality at the field "occasionally does not meet state standards," and that high levels of airborne particulate matter could have an "adverse health impact" on children with respiratory problems such as asthma and bronchitis.

The warnings are the result of an ongoing $40,000 air-pollution study that began at the field just more than a year ago. The results to date are not pretty: Pollution levels at the 5.6-acre park are twice as bad as those measured by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District in downtown San Jose, and three times as bad as in downtown San Francisco, according to Nabil Al-Hadithy, Berkeley's hazardous materials supervisor.

Playing soccer on the site, in other words, is like playing in heavy traffic.

Harrison Park has proven a dubious enterprise, at best, for a city that prides itself on environmental awareness. It could be argued, in fact, that city officials acted less than diligently when they bought the land from UC Berkeley two years ago as the future site of twin soccer fields and an 18,000-square-foot skate park. Now the city is considering a bid to build the Ursula Sherman Village, a multimillion-dollar, family-oriented homeless facility that will house up to 132 people, many of them children, at the site. If approved by the Zoning Adjustments Board, this long-term housing facility will be incorporated with Harrison House, a nightly shelter that has been on the site since 1975.

What makes the site controversial? For one, the park sits at Fifth and Harrison streets in the heart of an industrial district; Interstate 80, with its diesel-truck traffic, is close by, as are the city's Solid Waste Transfer Station, Pacific Steel Casting, Berkeley Forge and Tool, and other significant contributors to air and ground pollution.

Indeed, there was many a red face on the city council and in at least three city departments when the wheel-loaders digging out the skate bowls struck groundwater laden with chromium 6, the notorious carcinogen that made Erin Brockovich a household name and helped win Julia Roberts an Oscar for Best Actress.

But this was no movie. The subsequent cleanup and redesign cost Berkeley an estimated $300,000 and delayed the project for more than a year. (The skateboarding facility is scheduled to finally celebrate its grand opening on September 15.)

Faces around City Hall became redder still when it came to light that the city's own Toxic Management Division had known for a decade that a plume of chromium 6 from a nearby engraving shop was lurking nine feet below the surface, just thirty feet south of the proposed skatepark. "Full information is always better, and, in retrospect, sufficient information did not get to everybody in the proper time," says assistant city attorney Zach Cowan, who helped fashion the purchase agreement with the university. "There wasn't bad communication; there was no communication."

The city's lapses, however, went beyond the poor interdepartmental dialogue. During the rezoning process, which began in 1998, and also the city's negotiations with Cal in 2000, the city attorney's office failed to order a "phase one" environmental study. While phase ones aren't mandatory, they have been the standard in land and commercial real-estate transactions since the 1980s. Any bank involved in such a land deal would have required one, but no bank participated in this case: The city bought the land directly from the university -- "as is," one might say.

There was yet another oversight: The city's Parks, Recreation, and Waterfront Department neglected to order a California Environmental Quality Act survey of the skatepark site -- another standard, though not mandatory, study -- before excavating for the concrete bowls. While Berkeley did conduct other environmental tests on the site that showed acceptable risks, phase one and CEQA studies are project-specific and would have raised red flags, says L A Wood, a member of the city's Community Environmental Advisory Commission.

How did the oversights occur? When it comes right down to it, say critics of the Harrison Park development, the city got railroaded: A well-organized and politically potent lobby of soccer parents pressured the nine-member city council to rush into the $4 million land deal without first addressing serious environmental questions.

Diane Wooly, a former councilwoman who represented District 5 throughout the process, says the pressure to approve the project was "immense." Soccer parents, she says, represent a large voting bloc in Berkeley, and the majority of the council was afraid to ask hard questions about environmental safety. Only she and councilman Kriss Worthington voted against the rezoning and purchase.

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