Field of Bad Dreams: In
its rush to create sports facilities at Harrison Park, Berkeley overlooked nasty environmental realities. It should have known
John Geluardi, East Bay Express, September 4, 2002
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
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
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 Woolley, 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.
The parents, led by Doug Fielding, president of the nonprofit
Association of Sports Fields Users, didn't hesitate to use their political
clout, Woolley says. "Fielding was heavy-handed, overbearing, single-minded,
and shortsighted during the entire process," she says. "It
was understood by the council members that this project was to be approved
quickly and questions about health hazards were swept away in the rush."
While assistant city attorney Cowan admits there may have
been missteps by his office, he says they were unrelated to pressure
from soccer parents or even the council. But Wood, a city-council candidate
who was largely responsible for forcing the city to conduct the current
air study, says council members had to suspect there were environmental
problems with the property. They simply didn't want to look too closely.
"The soccer parents rode over city process like a runaway train,"
Talk to the parents and you'll hear a different story,
perhaps surprisingly so. It is their children, after all, who will be
using the site. This difference in perspective stems from the fact that
Berkeley is sorely lacking in open spaces for recreation. Harrison now
hosts two of six soccer fields that are used to their full capacity
by the thousand-member local soccer club.
Despite the chromium-6 fiasco and the discouraging air
study results, the majority of soccer parents and homeless advocates
appear undaunted -- indeed, the soccer club adds members with every
season, according to its organizers. Living in a built-up urban environment,
they say, entails certain compromises. The parents argue that the benefits
of organized sports are evident in the health and attitudes of their
children, while the health hazard posed by exposing their children to
dirty air for a few hours a week during soccer season are uncertain.
Fred Hetzel, a member of the soccer club's board of directors,
says his two children will continue to play on the site. Hetzel says
he's spoken with the air district and is confident that playing soccer
a few hours per week isn't dangerous. "If parents saw their children
wheezing and keeling over on the field, of course they would be worried,"
says Doug Fielding. "Instead parents see their kids coming home
happy, red-faced, and exhausted, and that's what you want as a parent."
Homeless advocates take a similar position: boona cheema,
executive director of Building Opportunities for Self Sufficiency, the
nonprofit behind the Sherman Village project, says she'd be happy to
build it in Tilden Park where the views are great and the air is fresh,
but she doesn't expect that to happen anytime soon. "What do you
think the answer is going to be when you ask a homeless mother with
two kids if she would rather live on the streets or in safe, warm housing
in west Berkeley?" she asks.
Warm, perhaps, but how safe? The air study shows that
levels of a dangerous air pollutant known as particulate matter 10,
or PM10, exceeds state standards an average of eight times a month.
While the levels are measured in 24-hour averages, particulate pollution
appears to peak between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. -- coinciding with weekend
soccer games. But exactly how the high PM10 levels may affect the health
of young soccer players who pant up and down the field two to six hours
a week, or that of the families who may soon live on the site, is hard
to pin down.
State scientific and regulatory agencies including the
Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment and the Bay Area Air
Quality Management District agree that children with respiratory conditions
such as asthma and bronchitis should be closely monitored if they are
going to participate in sports or live in housing at the site. But,
they say, the risk to healthy children may be minimal.
"There may be a small increase in risk of respiratory
symptoms in healthy children, given the data I've looked at," says
Michael Lipsett, a public health physician with the Office of Environmental
Health Hazard Assessment, after examining one month's air pollution
data from the site. "What that would mean to the average individual
is hard to tell."
Lipsett agrees with Fielding that soccer parents must
weigh the benefits of playing organized sports at Harrison Park against
the potential hazard of what he described as a common air-quality condition
in the state's urban areas.
But it is also true that PM10 is particularly nasty. Associated
with urban automobile exhaust and industrial activity, the particles
consist of metals, soot, soil, dust, and liquids. They are about ten
microns in diameter, an ideal size for inhalation. "PM10 is among
the most harmful of all air pollutants. When inhaled, the tiny particles
evade the respiratory system's natural defenses and lodge deep in the
lungs. Health problems begin as the body reacts to these foreign particles,"
states the air district's Web site. "PM10 can increase the number
and severity of asthma attacks, cause or aggravate bronchitis and other
lung diseases, and reduce the body's ability to fight infections."
Lipsett's own agency was mandated in 1999 by the Children's
Environmental Protection Act to review state standards for PM 10 to
assure they adequately protected "the public, including infants
and children, with an adequate margin of safety."
As a result of that review, the California Air Resources
Board strengthened the annual standard for PM10 from thirty micrograms
per cubic meter to twenty; the new standards are expected to go into
effect early next year. Standards for the 24-hour average, the measurement
used by the Harrison Park air study, will stay the same. The air at
the Harrison site, however, exceeds limits set by both the annual and
Despite the troubling environmental issues, Parks, Recreation,
and Waterfront Director Lisa Caronna is still a Harrison Park booster.
"Knowing what is known about the property now, I would still support
this project," she says. "This project is a winner for the
residents of Berkeley."
Given her title, Caronna might be expected to say
as much. But in such disputes, unlike soccer games, the winners and
losers are rarely so clearly defined. For a nuance view, talk to that
young midfielder who plays soccer despite her asthma, or the homeless
mom with nowhere else to take her kids. While the long-term effect of
building city sports fields and transitional housing amid industrial
and highway pollution are yet to be determined, it seems clear that
what the city has produced is far from an out-and-out win. Sometimes,
when all options are considered, the rival players have little choice
but to be satisfied with a tie.