UC Berkeley's sordid history of expansion

In light of the University of California Berkeley’s latest push to bulldoze the Oaks at Memorial Stadium, now is a good time to look back at the history of UC as land grabber. Since the inception of UC Berkeley, over 100 years ago, the university has continued to follow its demented dream of manifest destiny despite the concerns and protests of local residents and the common good.

Using its tax exempt status and its tireless need for continued growth, it continues to take over more land and impinge on the health of the city. As a state institution, rather than part of the city it is also exempt from city laws including the moratorium on cutting down mature live oaks, and other city environmental laws concerned with building more livable cities. This exemption also applies to off-campus buildings owned by the University.

While encouraging car use and allowing the natural landscape to disappear, UC still has not taken any steps to show responsibility for the effects it has on the environment.

This is especially clear in UC’s latest plan to destroy the oak grove located below Memorial Stadium in order to expand its sports complex. Never mind that it sits on the volatile Hayward earthquake fault and diminishes the Strawberry Creek watershed in which it sits, once the area’s major water source and the former site of beautiful waterfalls. Mere groves of trees won’t stop an entity responsible for the development of the H Bomb.

Looking at the history of UC, nothing much has changed among the decision makers and power holders. Throughout the 20th century, their hope was to be at the forefront of nuclear research, the heart of science experimentation, an “Athens of the West” and the most prestigious and honored campus of learning around no matter what stood in their way. Luckily UC has seen a history of protest among students and residents alongside its history of growth. This manifested in the creation of an Ethnic Studies department, forced divestment out of apartheid South Africa, created the free speech movement and a continued culture of resistance.

Originally built to hold 5,000 students, UCB has grown to over 30,000 in a town with little undeveloped land left. Funny that Frederick Law Olmstead, the University’s original landscape designer proposed a college that would be an integral part of the surrounding environment of rolling grassland and tree lined creeks, a beautiful part of the “country” they had sought outside urban San Francisco.

One of the largest expansions of campus happened in the 1960’s when UC decided to take over a whole block of Telegraph Ave to build Sproul Plaza and Zellerbach Hall and then flatten several more blocks to make way for twelve high rise dorms and parking structures. Although there had been complaints voiced by neighbors in the past, this large wave of construction really fired up residents who were witnessing the destruction of their neighborhoods and fueled the creation of People’s Park in a flattened, muddy lot abandoned as a dorm site.

UC has continued its growth spurt with construction of over 40 new buildings built since 1980, including the heavily funded Animal Research Lab which carries out vivisection and extensive testing on animals. In the 1990’s a Human Genome Center and hazardous waste storage facilities were constructed in environmentally sensitive Strawberry Canyon. Soon after, a six-story nanotechnology research facility followed with few in Berkeley even aware of the project. The most recent long range development plan (LRDP) projected to 2020 threatens to devour downtown and what makes Berkeley such an interesting and unique place.

Mayor Tom Bates described the LRDP as giving UC Berkeley “a blank check” to begin a building boom the equivalent of constructing 23 new structures the size of the city’s six-story Civic Center building. Currently, UC owns 35 percent of Berkeley property making it the city’s largest landholder and the fact that it is exempt from paying taxes has been the source of increased friction with its neighbors. Due to their exemption the city is often left to deal with the pollution and congestion that continued development entails and the city must pay the bill for the UC’s sewer and fire department usage.

Thanks to the actions of community activists and four pending lawsuits, UC may not get away with its latest plan to raze a grove of oaks and redwoods. The struggle is only a small part of stopping the behemoth from spreading its tentacles to what is left of our city.