Commentary: Rebuilding Won’t Fix Stadium Safety Problems: By JANICE THOMAS

Friday November 26, 2004

My sincere hope is that the Daily Planet follows up with an article on the public safety issues surrounding Cal Stadium’s current location and proposed future location of the Stadium Rebuild Project. It is dramatic to put neighborhoods in an adversarial role against this university and its athletic program, but to do so is missing the point. We are not the best representatives of the public safety issue because of our clear self-interests, but at the same time, we perhaps better than anybody else are all too familiar with the public safety issues because of where we live.  

It is not our fault that the university persists in its denial about the problems with the Strawberry Canyon location. Anybody in their right mind would foresee difficulties too numerous to list in a short letter to the editor. Everybody knows about, but turns a blind eye to, the fact that the stadium is located at a virtual dead end, at the mouth of a canyon, near a state-designated critical fire zone, built on fill, where a waterfall once was. No other campus stadium comes close to having any one of these problems, and the combination of problems is unheard of.  

I will be requesting from this university a headcount of the number of students who do attend games. No matter how the stadium itself is rebuilt to be earthquake safe, no technical solution accounts for 73,000 people (approximately 75 percent of the population of Berkeley concentrated in this one location), evacuating the area. Any realistic scenario accounts for the human tendency to run, to flee, to do what others are doing, which might be correctly named “stampeding.”  

Never have I heard one word from the university, or the city for that matter, that the stadium is located near the most population dense area of the City of Berkeley. It is nice to minimize the problems by the university’s focus on Panoramic Hill, but any realistic scenario accounts for the fact that 73,000 individuals leaving the area will also interfere with emergency access to not only the Panoramic Hill neighborhood, but also to numerous student co-ops, residence halls, fraternities and sororities. But instead of protecting the students, this university uses the students’ enthusiasm to reinforce denial about the real risks associated with rebuilding at this location.  

Already, the City of Berkeley fails to protect the one neighborhood I know most intimately, the Panoramic Hill neighborhood, which is the canary in the mine shaft, if you think about it. As a result of this failure, the university’s environmental review documents historically underestimate impacts by counting on a fire department service that is simply not available to us. Instead, the perception is of a city that manipulates public opinion about budget issues by sacrificing public safety.  

No matter how UC Berkeley administrators package it, retrofitting old concrete means removing the existing concrete, transporting it out through predominantly student neighborhoods, and rebuilding, which means more trucks bringing materials in through two-lane residential streets. It is realistic to imagine air quality and noise impacts even worse than what we already endure with the construction of the Underhill and Northeast Quadrant Projects.  

Let’s call it what it is: a stadium rebuild and not a retrofit. It is not possible to retrofit 81-year-old concrete on a 22-acre site built on fill with a fault running lengthwise without extensive construction work that by any reasonable definition would constitute a new project.  

The map of Strawberry Valley prepared in 1875 shows the natural terrain, a ravine and a waterfall, which we would all do well to remember. This is the least reported fact, i.e. that the stadium is prominently situated near the headwaters of a watershed. How the construction will take place so as to not pollute Strawberry Creek will require significant public input. In the past, the city and university failed to protect the environment: To wit, the portable toilets on Rim Road are testimony if anyone has wondered: The sewers from stadium toilet use contaminated Strawberry Creek. 

The wild turkeys, that Joe Eaton wrote about in the same issue of the Planet as the neighbors versus athletics article, have been sighted on non-game days walking on Rim Road. But this was before the Big Game and the crowds roaming about Tightwad Hill and probable turkey habitat.  

Instead of being protective of the environment, and mindful of public safety, the university spin doctors brush aside each and every issue and somehow manage to blame “selfish neighbors.” This will work in the short-term, but it is not wise.  

Meanwhile, a sexy, magnificent, bright, radiant stadium awaits to be built somewhere else, where it can be used to generate revenue and for uses not limited to intercollegiate sports. The stadium rebuild does not have to be a zero-sum solution.  


Janice Thomas is a Strawberry Canyon resident.