Public Comment

Downtown for the 1%?

By Stewart Jones
Friday March 09, 2012 - 01:12:00 PM

We are poised to be an international center for the development of new environmental technologies… That opportunity grew with the award of a $500 million biofuels research center to UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab two weeks ago.

—Mayor Tom Bates, February 2007

Mr. Li, a humanitarian leader and visionary, acts upon the values that emanate from his own life.

—UC Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, October 2011

Of course you have noticed Berkeley’s two new high tech research laboratories looming over Oxford Street, at Hearst Avenue — one on the UC Campus and one in the Downtown. Even though they are big buildings they remain mostly a mystery to everyone. 

First: Li Ka-Shing Center for Biomedical and Health Sciences 

On the east side of Oxford Street stands UC’s Li Ka-Shing Center for Biomedical and Health Sciences, designed to fit into any high-tech research park. It replaces Warren Hall and an idyllic spot where old oaks once snaked above worn footpaths at the West Campus entrance. Its massive façade of stainless steel, expanses of blank concrete and green glass rises 5 stories (yet over 100 ft in height to accommodate electrical connectors, pipes, and air ducts in the labs on each floor), with one underground level (for animal testing), spreading out over an area of 200,000 sq. ft. 

Opened in January, its vast interior spaces are planned to accommodate innovative undergraduate coursework and training, as well as to accommodate scientists from around the world undertaking new biomedical research methods, particularly in the use of cultured stem cells. Such science is expected to advance the University’s ongoing alliance with corporations investing in and developing patents for both private and public interests. 

It is fascinating to learn that the major donor Li Ka-shing is China’s richest citizen and ranked number 11 on Forbes The Richest People on the Planet. Currently a resident of Hong Kong, Mr. Li built his fortune on supplying the world with plastic flowers (i.e. the largest manufacturer and exporter of plastics in Hong Kong). Today his fortune includes a majority holding in Husky Energy, the Canadian oil mining and exploration company that has entered into a multi-billion dollar joint venture with BP called the Sunrise Oil Sands Project (a major proponent of the Keystone Pipeline) in Alberta, Canada. 

Second: Helios Energy Research Facility 

Across Oxford Street, within the Downtown, stands the nearly finished Helios Energy Research Facility, another massive state-of-the-art research laboratory. This 63,600 sq. ft. building, again featuring an exterior of high tech glass and wall panels, is five stories, but rises 110 ft. to equal 8 stories. It is being constructed to accommodate the University’s precedent setting $500 million research agreement with the BP corporation — Mr. Li’s partner in the Tar Sands venture. 

The UC-BP agreement was negotiated in 2007, without informed public debate, by Steven Chu the Director of LBNL, now Secretary of the Department of Energy. The agreement launched a new paradigm for academic and scientific research at the University. It established that in exchange for corporate investments the University would entitle corporations to use facilities, infrastructure, and personnel to subsidize private for-profit business. Specifically, the UC-BP agreement funds the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) which will be centered at the Helios building, entitling BP to specify research priorities and to manage and control research collaboration that might lead to significant discoveries (patents). It can be assumed that EBI intends to use genetic engineering to develop and patent genetically modified biofuels grown on cheap land in developing countries (Africa and Latin America) and new types of genetically engineered microbes designed for multiple uses, including microbes to be used for extracting oil locked in the tar sands of Alberta. 

Are the Li Ka-Shing Biomedical Center and Helios Energy Research Facility the prototype for Berkeley’s future? 

As a matter of fact, a new new Downtown Plan will be on the Council’s agenda this spring. It is almost certain that it will be guided by the secret City (Mayor Bates)/UC Settlement of 2005 which mandated a new Downtown Plan designed to accommodates the University’s needs and anticipated oversized buildings, such as the Biomedical Center and Helios building. (It is worth noting that the Settlement could be nullified and voided at anytime if there were five votes on the City Council to do so.) 

Furthermore, the Biomedical Center and Helios buildings not only radically change the direction of the Downtown, but they also deplete the City’s resources. Because the University pays no property taxes and because the University barely compensates the City for its use of services and infrastructure, UC’s impacts weigh unfairly on Berkeley’s tax-payers. The City infrastructure is already compromised and its budget is increasingly a mystery, including a looming 310 million dollars in unfunded liabilities. How can the City Council and its Planning Department in good conscience support the expansion of a global scientific research park in our City on the behalf of the 1% for free?!