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News Analysis: Public Relations (Again) Trumps Public Safety at UC Berkeley

By Gray Brechin Special to the Planet
Thursday October 16, 2008 - 09:45:00 AM
A bird's-eye view of Memorial Stadium from a vintage photo postcard.
Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association
A bird's-eye view of Memorial Stadium from a vintage photo postcard.
Memorial Stadium under construction.
Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association
Memorial Stadium under construction.

With the alacrity of a dying sloth, the San Francisco Chronicle waited until the University of California had evicted and arrested the remaining tree-sitters at California Memorial Stadium before asking what it should have at the top of the hour: Is the stadium safe, and can it ever be made safe enough to accommodate anyone, let alone 75,000 spectators?  

The front page of the Sept. 21 sporting section featured an article entitled “Stadium on the Brink” with a photograph of rotted wooden seats and the lead sentence that the structure would be “definitely the worst place to be, as a player or a fan or anybody else, during an earthquake.” Four days later, reporter Carolyn Jones detailed the latest plans to make safer a structure straddling a fault that is cocked, loaded, and ready to rip. She gave the university’s public relations front man, Dan Mogulof, final word: “We remain completely confident we’re compliant with [the] Alquist-Priolo [Act.]” insisted Mogulof. “We’re excited to finally move forward with this retrofit project. Our primary goal has always been safety.” 

If that assertion had any meaning for those still in the reality-based community, the university would have long ago closed the stadium to high occupancy events and moved its daily occupants—including its star coach Jeff Tedford—to a surge building where they would indeed be safer. Indeed, it would never have built the stadium and much else in Strawberry Canyon against expert advice in the first place.  

But that is not how an ever less public, ever more commercial university operates as it attempts to raise millions from loyal alums for the stadium retrofit while proceeding quietly and knowingly to build on extremely hazardous footings above it. “That’s the way the university operates,” says emeritus geology professor Graniss Curtiss in frustration. ”They take nobody’s advice, they do what they want to do.” It is presumably easier to beef up the university’s public relations and marketing arm that occupies the same safe surge facility as Intercollegiate Sports west of Hearst Gym.  

Cal Memorial Stadium was originally a bait-and-switch job that sundered previously good relations between Town and Gown while poisoning the academic grove itself. As the university began to solicit private donations in 1921 to build a football coliseum memorializing Californians killed in the Great War, it led alumni to believe that the stadium would be located near public transit on the southwest corner of campus, its long axis on line with Ellsworth Street. At its Jan. 7 meeting in 1922, however, the Regents decided to move the project to the constricted mouth of Strawberry Canyon, a designated nature area and much-loved passage from the campus into the Berkeley hills. Their ostensible reason was that land acquisition at the initial site would have been too expensive, but when interviewed in his late 80s by the Bancroft Library’s Regional Oral History Office, architect and seismic engineer Walter Steilberg recalled that a relative of one of the regents whom he called a “super salesman” persuaded the trustees to create a “dirt bowl” like those recently built at Stanford and Yale. Such a project in the canyon would require extensive blasting and land fill, but the “salesman” got a job in the process  

It could have been worse, Steilberg added. He credited himself with stopping the university from entirely tearing down Big C Hill by making a model showing the “horrible scar” that would result. The damage done by dynamite and hydraulic monitors in the opening months of 1923 was bad enough; a scrim of trees hides some of the scar on the hill sluiced into the canyon to make a podium for the stadium.  

Steilberg fought the new location, recalling that “many of the faculty, especially the engineering and scientific people, [were] opposed; and the geologists were shocked by the idea of putting it right on the fault line.” A committee of citizens bitterly opposed the university’s plans to sacrifice “one of Nature’s priceless gems to the purpose of commercialized ‘sport,’” warning that it “must bear the responsibility for the safety of thousands.” Panoramic Hill resident William Henry Smyth further wrote at the time that “last come the Regents who are interested and will be deemed responsible for the outcome in all its phases whether of glorious success or of tragic disaster flowing from the selection of the canyon site.”  

The director of the California Academy of Sciences, Dr. Barton W. Evermann, and Botany Professor Harvey M. Hall wrote a letter calling Strawberry Canyon an irreplaceable asset for study, “the largest and best equipped laboratory on the campus and the most valuable because no amount of money can buy another. Zoology and botany are of the first importance in the development of hygiene, medicine, and scientific agriculture. The university cannot do its work properly in these important fields if deprived of its most precious means of instruction and research.” The Regents ignored the letter: the botanical garden recently removed to the canyon mouth from campus retreated farther back into the hills.  

Steilberg recalled that campus architect John Galen Howard at first “emphatically” opposed the chosen site but eventually agreed to design it. He needed the money and, he probably felt, another architect would not have been as competent. Unfortunately for public safety, Howard’s stately Roman design succeeded so well that the vast coliseum in the spectacular site is consistently rated the most beautiful venue for watching collegiate football. So freighted is it now with sentiment, history, and fundraising potential that it has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. No proposal to condemn it is taken seriously.  

With no environmental impact reports to hinder its builders, the huge edifice was rushed to completion in just eleven months with lax supervision. Excavation began in mid-January 1923 and actual construction in May. It was ready for the Big Game on Nov. 24 of that year. Almost exactly one year later, the Regents sacked John Galen Howard as supervising architect of the campus while he was on vacation. His opposition doubtlessly contributed to his abrupt dismissal after a quarter of a century of service to the university.  

Many in the community and faculty knew that criticism of the stadium could be professionally hazardous, especially when Coach Andy Smith’s “Wonder Teams” were winning an unbroken string of victories in the early twenties. Nonetheless, several prominent architects and engineers spoke out, Steilberg among them. He never fully forgave noted architect Bernard Maybeck for failing to do so after Maybeck demurred, telling him, “That’s too controversial.” Philosophy professor Charles Rieber, whose house overlooked the canyon, embarrassed the university by very publicly leaving Berkeley to help establish the new southern campus in Los Angeles.  

Howard’s mammoth stadium nonetheless provided an unintended public service by giving generations of geology and engineering students a convenient and dramatic example of where and how not to build. As the Hayward Fault creeps north, it torques the structure, twisting its girders, popping its rebar, and spalling concrete. But the stadium and its neighboring buildings present other hazards that the University treats with insouciance.  

As my book Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin explained, the University of California’s public relations problems only began with the Memorial Stadium controversy. In 1939, the Regents gave star physicist Ernest O. Lawrence permission to move his growing “Rad Lab” into Strawberry Canyon above and east of the stadium. Lawrence was delighted, writing at the time that the nature reserve gave privacy and sufficient distance to alleviate the possible ill effects of radiation upon Berkeley below. With the coming of the World War II, the Rad Lab became a vital unit of the Manhattan Project, an ever-growing industrial complex in the former nature reserve of which few below were fully aware.  

Although the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is avowedly no longer involved in nuclear weaponry, the university’s other National Laboratories are. Photos of the publicly supported but publicly inaccessible campuses at Livermore and Los Alamos hang with the 10 better known units in the lobby of UC headquarters in Oakland.  

When infrequently quizzed on what business the university has developing and promoting new generations of omnicidal weapons 63 years after primitive prototypes erased two Japanese cities, its public relations department explains that it is performing a public service and serving national security, claims that the local press obligingly echoes. Three days before Christmas of 2005, for example, the Chronicle announced that the Department of Energy had renewed the university’s contract to jointly run with the Bechtel Corporation its Los Alamos campus “more like a business whose product is nuclear weapons.” The following day, the Chronicle’s lead editorial cheered for the home team: “The new seven-year contract is worth up to $512 million, but its greater importance to UC is the scientific prestige.”  

Unfortunately for the university, the labs’ record of poisoning its workers and host communities while threatening everything else with sudden extinction when something or someone goes wrong has required constant spin. When an Illinois woman recently sued the Board of Regents for her father’s cancer due to his exposure to radioactive waste at Los Alamos, a university spokesman replied that “Safety of employees and the community is a top priority for the laboratory and for the University of California and has been since the beginning of our management responsibilities at the lab.” That sounds familiar.  

The university does what it will because it can. Its unelected and unaccountable governing board operates with seigneurial disdain for laws such as California’s Alquist-Priolo Fault Zoning Act which the measure’s authors wrote to insure public safety by moving dangerous structures away from active earthquake faults and preventing the construction of new ones like the gym soon to rise where the oak grove was. As in the initial stadium controversy, the university continues to ignore expert advice from its own renowned faculty members, if they have the courage to speak up. Public relations omit what happens during an earthquake besides fault shear.  

While the tree-sitters were attracting public attention last May, Professor Garniss Curtis submitted an extraordinary letter (see sidebar) to the Regents based on decades of detailed geological research in the Berkeley hills. He did not mince his words, recommending “as strongly as I can ‘absolutely do not construct any building in [Strawberry and Blackberry] canyons.” The letter detailed the reasons for and evidence of enormous quake-induced landslides along the western front of the Berkeley hills. The Regents again ignored his advice and certified the construction of two more giant lab buildings on the unstable slopes underlying the LBNL and overlooking the stadium.  

I do not fault Carolyn Jones for failing to inform her readers what the university has suppressed about the dangers at Memorial Stadium when she reported on the latest “solution” to public safety there. Omission was in full flower at a presentation to Old Blues at Cal Homecoming Day on Oct. 4. As engineers reassured alumni that they had devised ingenious means to counter sudden fault shear by breaking it into sections, they neglected to mention the possibility of landslides onto the site, or that the quarter million cubic yards of fill on which the building could suddenly lurch westward if it liquefies in a major quake.  

Yet another salient fact was as absent from that presentation as from Dan Mogulof’s assertion that “Our primary goal has always been safety.” When Professor Jack Moehle assured worried alums that the chances of them dying in the stadium during a sudden fault rupture were miniscule because of the infrequency of its use, he neglected to mention that 20 years ago—and against expert advice—the university inserted locker rooms and offices into the structure’s dangerous western wall. Since then, hundreds of athletes and staff have been using the structure daily, Coach Tedford among them. 

Large capital investment resists change no matter what mistakes were initially made. But in the case of Cal Memorial Stadium and the labs perched precariously above it, those mistakes should not be compounded by ignoring them as well as what we have subsequently learned about the precarious geology of the Berkeley Hills. A great public institution has an equally great responsibility to protect the public’s safety. Public relations does not.