The Choice of Harrison
City of Berkeley Soccer Fields

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The Choice of Harrison
L A Wood,  Berkeley Daily Planet, February 6 2002

Last week, the Berkeley Parks Department finally agreed to post a public warning regarding the poor air quality at the Harrison play fields. This health notice, the second for this northwest Berkeley industrial site, was posted five years after the city artificially altered the property's zoning so as to allow the construction of a skate park and soccer fields. The city seemed determined to create a recreational area at Fourth Street and Harrison, despite the location being adjacent to Interstate 80 and in the middle of a light industrial zone.

Few were willing to speak to the folly of developing a city park next to factories and its real costs. We now know the Harrison park fiasco has led to more than a million dollars of Berkeley taxpayer's money being poured into the cleanup of toxic groundwater found on site, the skate park's subsequent redesign, and for oversight of the project. With the park still under construction, it's time to ask how much more this inappropriate location will continue to cost Berkeley taxpayers in
the future.

Long before being proposed as a soccer field, the Harrison Park parcel was actually surveyed by the Public Works Department as a possible location for some of its fleet and maintenance operations. Next to the city transfer station, Harrison was, and still is, an ideal place to centralize those types of city activities. It would also solve many of the city's longstanding zoning problems, especially those associated with its older maintenance facility in west central Berkeley, built in 1916. Currently, much of Public Works' activities revolve around the Corporation Yard site, which consists of numerous parking lots, small office and shop spaces, many converted from horse barns.

For over fifty years, city planning documents have both identified and supported moving the city's municipal maintenance yard and creating more open space for that area of District 2. In fact, the Corp Yard was presented as the alternate site in the discussions concerning the city's Harrison Park Project. However, the choice of the Corp Yard site was never taken seriously because the intense lobbying by special interests to create the play fields at the Harrison Street location had paralyzed both staff and council by decision time.One council member confided in me that it was like stepping in front of a moving train.

Ironically, our city manager, who was then Public Works director during the debate over the soccer fields vs the Corp Yard, actually led the charge to develop the Harrison site as park space instead of the city's maintenance facility. The choice of the Harrison parcel or the Corp Yard as sites for the creation of a sports park has really been a much bigger decision about the future of the Public Works maintenance operations than those made about play fields.

This reality is seen in the fact that the Corp Yard facility is in the middle of a residential (R2) zone, and essentially unable to expand its operations. Moreover, the council in the last decade has been absolutely
unwilling to fund a new maintenance facility or even acknowledge this very special need. Even if a facility were funded today, the availability sites in our densely populated city has all but dried up, leaving Public Works with only one affordable option.

Meanwhile, the city is now being forced to dump millions of dollars into a seismic retrograde of the current Corp Yard site. Despite all our city's so-called "safety" efforts and tax dollars, Public Works will be stuck with a non-conforming, outdated, outmoded yard crowded with old, unreinforced, masonry structures.

Unquestionably, both the city's administration and its councilmembers have failed in this critical long-term capital investment commitment to Public Works, its staff and ultimately, our community's public safety. This bureaucratic predicament comes, in part, from the feeding frenzy that descends on the city at budget time. Special interests, like those connected with the new Harrison Park project, are pitted against our city's long-term capital needs. In this arena, the needs of the Public Works Department have been so diminished as to be no match for the likes of the soccer parent's lobby, especially when staff are not supported by our elected officials.

This Public Works quandary is not new to those who were elected to guide our city's future. In fact, a council subcommittee was formed in 1998 to address this specific question of the appropriate location for the Corp Yard as well as other concerns of fleet management. Councilwomen Breland, Spring, Mayor Dean and former representative Wooley all ran to be included in this special advisory group of which I was the only non-elected member.

Unfortunately, except for myself, none of the others came forward to champion this important facility question of Public Works, and certainly not when it surfaced again with the Harrison Play Fields. Today's council members are well acquainted with the political reality that more votes are scored with soccer fields than with maintenance facilities.

The legacy of Harrison is not just about the losses being suffered by Public Works and the Corp Yard, but encompasses the development activities at the Harrison parcel as well. In the last half decade, the city has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on environmental monitoring and consultants so as to justify to others that there is no problem with a soccer field at this industrial site.

However, from the beginning, the air tests have shown a very different picture. Site conditions have worsened since 1997, and in the future, are certainly expected to degrade further. So, in essence, the Harrison park project and millions of our tax dollars have gone to create a children's park, which before it's construction is complete, will have been posted with a health warning about breathing the site's poor air.

Like good money following bad, now the City of Berkeley in conjunction with the nonprofit organization Building Opportunity for Self Sufficiency (BOSS) are planning for transitional family housing on a corner of the troubled Harrison site. This important BOSS housing project should never be located at the Harrison site for the same reasons no recreational use should be allowed there.

With millions of dollars slated for building housing on this environmentally challenged site, how can we ignore this real injustice! BOSS deserves much more. Unbelievably, council and staff have continued to deny the obvious: the R2 setting of the Corp Yard site is the best choice for the proposed transitional housing along with the play fields while the Harrison location clearly is better suited for the Public Works maintenance yard. This choice is not moderate, progressive or even green; it's just common sense.


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