Harrison Is Wrong Site
for City's Play Fields


Harrison Is Wrong Site for City's Play Fields
L A Wood, Berkeley Daily Planet, December 14, 1999

Who in their right mind would be willing to pay $3 million for a six-acre toxic parcel to create a soccer field for children? The answer is the City of Berkeley. Tonight the city is proposing to move forward to complete the purchase of the University of California-owned industrial site at Fourth and Harrison streets. Despite the location's acknowledged poor air quality and the unknown cost of site remediation, Berkeley continues to insist that this is a good deal, especially for the children. However, a closer look suggests another plan is in place.

For nearly 30 years, UCB has done little to improve the proposed Harrison fields. It's not too surprising, given the site's hydrology. In the rainy season, this parcel functions as a flood plain, comparable to areas of Berkeley's marina wetlands. The historic flooding has restricted some access to the property in winter. Moreover, the Harrison property has a toxic legacy of contamination from past industrial uses, ranging from chemicals to radionuclides. As would be expected, these site conditions have limited both potential buyers and redevelopment schemes. Yet, despite these impacts, there has been a several-year debate over the appropriate use of the parcel. This discussion has narrowed somewhat because the City of Berkeley both secured a purchase option for the site and proposed a zoning change to accommodate recreational use.

This move to radically alter the parcel's zoning status came as a surprise to many watching its redevelopment. Although the change was compatible with UC's redevelopment plans for Albany Village and the proposed UC retail project several blocks away on San Pablo, it is in conflict with the industrial activities and most Berkeley business interests in that area. The rezoning in l998 put to rest the question of possible site uses, but raised a more serious issue. Will the City of Berkeley follow a plan supporting heavy industry and manufacturing in that district, or adopt a UC area plan for gentrification? It appears the UC plan is winning out since Berkeley has agreed to pay top dollar for the stressed real estate, to reconfigure its industrial zoning classification, and to assume full liability for all past contamination and the cleanup of the Harrison acreage.

Another hurdle to UC's playing fields plan was the challenge that the site should be protected because it is in a wetlands area. Before this issue was to be publicly addressed the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) investigation, the face of the site began to change. UC began to stockpile more soils on site, grade the area and wipe out most of the evidence of the wetlands and its vegetation. Some of the soils that were dumped on the site reportedly came from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. This has added an extra layer of concern over the site's toxic contaminants.

Two weeks ago, just prior to the final legal decision of the wetlands question within CEQA process, and at the beginning of escrow, UC began to move 10,000 yards of contaminated soil onto the proposed playing fields from the Albany Village construction project. This action appears to have eliminated the wetlands question for good, but it has also served to place a cloud over the whole purchase agreement process. The question still remains as to whether UC acted illegally by the destruction of a part of Berkeley's dwindling wetlands. The simple fact is, nobody wants to buy a wetlands site if it has to stay a wetlands. It should also be noted that the imported soil is not suitable for playing fields and will very likely have to be hauled away at Berkeley's expense.

Harrison park The UC area plan and playing fields will afford a natural buffer to the Albany Village and is certainly a victory for the university's upscale development. Unfortunately, there seems to be no doubt that the Harrison project will cause unsolvable conflicts in Berkeley's manufacturing district, not to mention the potential loss of city tax revenues. This is too great a price for the City of Berkeley to pay just for a UC sports field. So, buyer beware, and taxpayer, that's you. Speak out and call your Councilmember today!

Strong Support for Park Project Activist: More Study Needs to Be Done
Judith Scherr, Berkeley Daily Planet, September 18-19, 1999

Teens said the new skateboard park planned for open space at Harrison and Fifth streets would be "phat." And older folks, especially a delegation from the First Congregational Church of Berkeley, talked about the benefits of play fields for the youth.

There was only one dissenting voice, that of an environmental activist who wants more thorough studies of the air quality at the proposed site.

Thursday's public hearing before the Parks Commission was a step toward approval of a "negative declaration," an environmental study of a project that is less thorough than an Environmental Impact Report. A negative declaration is written when it is thought that environmental impacts can be ameliorated.

A consultant will prepare responses to comments by the public -- the comments made at Thursday's meeting or ones submitted in writing by Oct. 1 and present them in a final report.

The Parks Commission will review the document at its Oct. 25 meeting and make a recommendation to the City Council, which will approve or deny the project.

The area is bounded by Harrison Street, the Union Pacific Railroad property, Codornices Creek - at the Albany-Berkeley border and Fifth Street. The city is in negotiations with the University of California to purchase the site.

Much to the delight of the creek protecting community, Codornices Creek will be re-engineered so that it is allowed to meander, rather than going in the straight line it travels now. This will improve the environment for the steelhead trout and lessen the creek's frequent flooding.

A 225-foot by 80-foot skateboard park is planned at the site, which would be open daily until 10 p.m. No spectator events would be allowed.

Teenagers Nick Calvert and Sam Gamble told the commission that every time they skateboard in public places, they got "kicked out." They were among a group of skateboarders lobbying the commission to go forward with the park without further studies.

Wyatt Miller, a member of the youth commission, added that the park had all the amenities needed by the young. "It's away from homes, it has great bus access, and it's close to McDonald's on San Pablo," he said.

A large multipurpose playfield, 350-feet by 230-feet, and a smaller multi-purpose field, 306-feet by 240-feet, would be used for a number of organized field sports, including soccer, lacrosse, rugby, field hockey and youth football.

Nan Jeasten from the First Congregational Church told the commission that the church and the city had identified a need for more playing fields. "It's time to move past studying," she said.

Environmental activist L A Wood however, called for more thorough studies. He said he was concerned by chromium detected in an ambient air study.

The study, conducted by Acurex Environmental Corporation of Mountain View, concludes: "The health risk results suggest that exposure at the lower Harrison Street location is no more significant than is seen in a typical, densely-populated, urban environment. Except for small diameter particulate material, all measured values were within the normal range of values measured in the Bay Area."

The report goes on to say that the particle value, "although higher than normal Bay Area ranges, is below the current National Ambient Air Quality Standards."

The study, however, was conducted only on two different days and Wood argued that a more thorough study should be conducted.

Sasha Chordus, mother of a child who would use the playfields, countered Wood's environmental concerns. "We're all exposed to pollutants wherever we go. The pollution question is silly," she said.

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