A Tree Grows in Berkeley

A Tree Grows in Berkeley

Feelings about the grove, the hill, the view and the team at Cal run deep.

Most of the attention about the proposed cutting of a grove of coastal oaks near U.C. Berkeley’s Memorial Stadium to make way for a sports training center has centered thus far on a rotating band of tree-sitters, including everyone from activist Zachary RunningWolf to former Berkeley mayor Shirley Dean. But under the surface of the conflict lies more than the roots of oaks—there’s a historic tension between neighbors and the university, an unpredictable fault line, the passion of Bears fans, the audacity of the Tightwad Hill crowd and much more.

The price is right: This is the view of Memorial Stadium from Tightwad Hill. Fans, who have watched Cal games from this hill for decades, are suing U.C. Berkeley over plans to build skyboxes on an elevated rim that would block their view. Photo by SpiralA Design.


Panoramic Hill is a sleepy, winding Berkeley neighborhood with spectacular views of a cobalt bay, a few hundred charming, landmarked homes and one big problem: Cal.

The neighborhood that butts up against the U.C. Berkeley campus has pushed the university to restrict Memorial Stadium’s use to collegiate athletic events and challenged other plans for campus expansion. Now the neighbors are in their biggest fight to date over Cal’s controversial plans for the southeast corner of campus­—a plan to retrofit and improve the stadium, add a student-athlete training center and build an underground parking structure. The Panoramic neighbors (and their Panoramic Hill Association) consider these plans to be seismically unsafe and fear that a beefed-up stadium will ultimately bring increased traffic and disruption to their community.

The Panoramic Hill Association, in conjunction with the California Oak Foundation and the city of Berkeley, has won a preliminary injunction to halt the project pending a full trial sometime this fall or winter. While the basis of the lawsuit (which consolidated three separate lawsuits) is the alleged violation of the Alquist-Priolo Act that limits renovations on a fault line, deeper issues relate to stemming U.C.’s desire to expand and its purported insensitivity to the host community. It seems Panoramic Hill is fighting for a place at the table when it comes to university decision-making.

“They thought only Panoramic Hill cared, that only Panoramic Hill would be freaking out, and that we were nothing,” says U.C. Berkeley neighbor Janice Thomas about the proposed southeast campus plan. “We’re a little neighborhood. What could we do against the University of California? But because this project is so over the top, we had a whole lot of allies.”

Meanwhile, football fans, Cal backers and casual observers cast the Panoramic folks as NIMBY-whiners who should have known what they signed up for (approximately six home football games a year) when they bought houses in the pricey hill neighborhood. Critics say the noise generated by the stadium and university won’t go away­—whether the new projects happen or not.

And, contrary to the vocal complaints of neighbors and tree-sitters, Cal officials say they have loads of support for the project, from Panoramic to the flats, from students to alumni.


A lot has changed since 1866, when U.C. Berkeley was established next to Strawberry Canyon, which lies between the hills to the east of campus. Some who know early Berkeley history pine for the halcyon era when Sierra Club founders picnicked along Strawberry Creek, frolicked in its waterfall and hiked under native oaks, bay trees and willows. Many of these naturalists built homes on the canyon’s southern slopes—that is, on what is now called Panoramic Hill. These days, the neighborhood isn’t quite as tranquil, because Piedmont Avenue, which turns into Gayley Road just north of the stadium, provides a corridor that is increasingly backed up with traffic—on any day, let alone football game days.

As U.C. Berkeley has grown in size and stature, the adjacent Panoramic Hill community has worked to check excesses. One of the neighborhood’s most successful efforts came in the early 1990s when Cal wanted to build a nearby facility to process toxic and radioactive waste. The new building was to replace Canyon Chemical Facility, as that older facility (situated on canyon land that now belongs to the botanical garden) couldn’t process the increasing amounts of hazardous materials that U.C. Berkeley had begun to produce. When the university released its draft Environmental Impact Report, Panoramic denizens formed the Committee to Minimize Toxic Waste and protested so energetically (basing objections largely on the quake-prone nature of the site) that the university built the facility on the west side of campus instead.

But that victory didn’t stem discontent on Panoramic Hill, where neighbors have continued to be irked by traffic and noise related to the university. That’s why they have forcefully and immediately rebuffed the stadium plans; if you think it’s bad now, they say, wait until Cal gets its way on this project.

One point of contention is the proposal to build an underground parking garage north of the proposed training center. Neighbors fear an already-congested north-south corridor could become even worse with a new parking structure.

They also worry that the sports-related noise will become untenable. Residents already grit their teeth when awakened by athletic practices and whistles on nearby fields, sometimes as early as 6 a.m.

“We’re constrained in many ways by class times and field space, and we have to do pretty creative things to get all our practices in,” says Cal Athletic Director Sandy Barbour. She doubted whether the occasional whistle would have a significant impact on neighbors and had never heard that particular complaint.

But Barbour confirms reports that Cal uses simulated crowd noise during practices. The purpose is to create noise levels similar to game conditions, so players will be prepared for that aspect of game days. Neighbor Thomas finds the noise disturbances infuriating, particularly the simulated crowd noise, which is “intermittent, and therefore the worst kind of noise to adapt to,” as well as “an assault on our eardrums. We know to expect 80-plus decibels during a game. But none of us bargained for this on a routine basis.”

Cal’s plan would also raise the rim of the stadium significantly and install large, view-blocking arrays that will enable the Cal team to play at night, a necessity for televised games. Neighbors wonder why retractable lights won’t suffice.

Some Panoramic residents are convinced that the university will hold more events at the stadium, including concerts, to earn revenue after expensive construction. Neighbors point to two examples of how Cal used the stadium for non-football events: a Raiders game that brought the team’s historically rowdy crowd to the hills in 1973 and an amplified Paul McCartney concert that rocked the house and, apparently, the town in 1990. Cal apologized to neighbors after both incidents and compensated some people for property damage.

The Environmental Impact Report for the southeast campus expansion in fact mentions the possibility of holding more events after the renovation and U.C. Berkeley spokesperson Marie Felde doesn’t deny the possibility. “We don’t know what the future will bring,” she says.

Even with this litany of complaints and concerns about the campus project, Thomas emphasizes that neighbors weren’t necessarily against the plans from the get-go. She says the university could have worked with the Panoramic neighbors, compromised and hammered out a plan that may have avoided a lawsuit.


Tensions between town and gown go beyond Berkeley to other U.C. campuses.

In January, after reviewing the University of California’s internal processes related to its long-range development plans, the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office released a sternly worded 30-page report that rebuked the university for its relationships with host communities. The report stated: “We generally found a lack of accountability, standardization and clarity. This unnecessarily creates tension between the university and local communities.”

The legislature has called for greatly increased oversight of the massive university system’s development, demanding to see U.C.’s plans long before they lead to the conflicts and lawsuits that they’ve engendered in recent years.

Shifting ground: A gap caused by movement in the Hayward Fault is visible when looking up at the stadium from the south end. Photo by SpiralA Design.

In February, Assembly Budget Committee Chair John Laird wrote U.C. Provost Wyatt Hume a letter with hard-hitting questions about U.C.’s decision-making processes. Dangling upcoming budget decisions as a carrot (because the budget committee decides how much money to give U.C. each year), Laird requested answers by a mid-March deadline. Hume’s response acknowledges that there is no appeals process, short of legal action, if community members disagree with university plans approved by the Regents.

Some residents of Santa Cruz—another U.C. host community—say that the university has overstepped bounds time and time again and has not been a hospitable neighbor. Since its 1965 inception as a liberal arts school with 650 students, Santa Cruz has grown to enroll 15,000. Some locals and alumni remain distraught about the expansion threatening a formerly pristine, redwood-rich campus. They regard Berkeley as a concrete jungle representing their future, much “like looking in the mirror and seeing how you’ll look in 40 years,” according to attorney Stephan Volker, who represents the California Oak Foundation in its lawsuit over the planned southeast expansion. He also represents plaintiffs in another pending suit against both Cal and the city of Berkeley regarding the 2005 Long-Range Development Plan, and he’s suing U.C. Santa Cruz in two more cases involving the university’s expansion plans in that city.

Panoramic Hill neighbors see the tussles with U.C. in other cities as a vindication of sorts that shows that the problem is bigger than Berkeley. Opponents resent not only what Cal has proposed to do but the way it has made such proposals.

“There’s never been any substantial dialogue with the community about this,” says neighbor Poppy Tanner about U.C.’s plans. She remembers that in past years, the university did discuss expansion plans with the community and even published the 1990 Long-Range Development Plan in the alumni magazine, but no longer.

Doug Buckwald, director of Save the Oaks at the Stadium, says whenever he and fellow activists have contacted the university to inquire about proposed activity they’ve been routed to spokespeople, rather than decision-makers. “You can’t contact people directly and get information,” says Buckwald. “The only way you find things out is in legal documents. When they make public statements, you can’t really trust what they say.”

Having tried to attend every public meeting, open house and official hearing related to the southeast expansion, Buckwald avers, “Hearings are orchestrated to make sure that public input doesn’t matter much.” He couldn’t believe that a December Regents’ meeting to approve part of the expansion project was held at 5 p.m. on a Tuesday in a San Francisco location that, he says, even Muni drivers couldn’t find on a map. He says the university should have held that meeting in Berkeley, to generate more public input.

Because some neighbors and residents have felt powerless in efforts to communicate and negotiate with the university about expansion plans, they believe their only recourse is to sue. Volker says the purpose of his suits is to “get U.C. to sit down in good faith and start brokering good solutions, instead of slamming anyone who dares to question their authority. People aren’t getting straight answers. They’re being blown off because the university knows it can get away with that.”


In filing suits against Cal for its plan to build a training facility next to its stadium, Panoramic Hill Association and the city of Berkeley have cited one major issue: seismic safety.

The Hayward Fault bisects Memorial Stadium, north to south. In coming decades, a major earthquake will likely occur on that fault, possibly causing catastrophic damage and numerous deaths. In January, after studying an 1858 quake on the same fault, seismologists asserted that when the big one happens, it’ll be twice as forceful as previously anticipated. Even a state-of-the-art retrofit can’t protect the stadium or its occupants during a hugely powerful quake, a fact that U.C. acknowledges in the Environmental Impact Report for the project.

The city would largely be responsible for dashing up to the congested stadium area and rescuing upward of 60,000 people if a quake happened during a home game. As rescuers would need to focus resources on locations with the greatest number of imperiled people, some residents fear that they would be left to their own devices. Those on nearby Panoramic Hill are particularly worried that they’ll be stuck on their steep hillside with its one narrow, looping road blocked by emergency vehicles at the stadium.

But Felde says Cal’s concern for safety is driving the entire project. “Almost all of the work we’re doing at the stadium is driven by public safety as much as anything,” she says.

In addition to retrofitting the stadium, Cal’s student-athlete training center is designed to enable emergency vehicles to drive onto its roof, even during games. The university also points out that plans ultimately include opening Stadium Rim Way during football games, to improve emergency access.

Still, plaintiffs and observers wonder why the university currently allows people to use the stadium at all after having determined a decade ago that it was seismically unfit. Cal officials say space is limited and there’s no viable alternative.

Although seismic maps imply that scientists know everything about the locations of fault lines, that isn’t exactly true. The Hayward Fault has shifted a few feet eastward over the years. Moreover, a fault isn’t simply straight like an interstate. Rather, it’s shaped more like a tree, with small “fault traces” shooting off to the sides. These are harder to detect reliably, so it’s currently unclear whether the proposed training facility would lie atop such an offshoot.

In studies for the Environmental Impact Report, Felde says the university determined that 95 percent of the land under the footprint of the proposed training center was deemed seismically safe, meaning there were no fault traces found. But the U.S. Geological Survey and the California Geological Survey still had questions about the safety of the land and called on the university to do further studies.

In January, the court ordered a new seismic evaluation, so Cal hired experts to bore down through about 40 feet of fill to reach the substrate, where fault traces would lie. Although the official results of those new borings had not become available as of this writing, Felde says early reports from geo-tech consultants show no fault traces.

The Alquist-Priolo Act is a 1973 law barring new construction on a known active fault or within 50 feet of one, or alteration of an existing structure on a fault if the changes would cost more than 50 percent of what the current structure is worth.

The draft Environmental Impact Report said, “The effect of the design would be for the addition to act as a base to the California Memorial Stadium.”

The university’s initial drawings showed the sports training facility as connected to the stadium. But the final environmental report says the stadium and training facility will be two separate buildings. Felde says that during construction it’s sometimes critical to shore up an adjacent building for the sake of safety while the other one is built. But, she says, the training facility was always intended to be a separate structure.

Because the final schematic plans have not changed much from initial ones with respect to the shared foundation, the plaintiffs interpret the pictures as showing that the two buildings will be connected and that the facility is indeed an addition to the stadium.

Under Alquist-Priolo, the construction budget for the training center would have been an extremely limited at just half of the aging stadium’s current worth. Cal has declared the stadium to be worth $594 million—what critics say is an inflated price tag.

The lawsuits to block the southeast campus plans also allege that U.C. Berkeley is not complying with the California Environmental Quality Act. The university is exempt from most local land-use laws, but not state law. One allegation that helped lead to the temporary order to block the project is that Cal did not adequately consider alternate sites for the training facility and parking structure, particularly sites on the west side of campus.

Cal disagrees, saying it did weigh other options before selecting its current controversial location. In an April 4 letter to Berkeley city officials, Save the Bay and Save the Oaks, university officials Nathan Brostrom and Karl Pister explained why several buildings (including the Berkeley Art Museum and Tang Center parking lot) were deemed unacceptable.

Meanwhile, some argue that Cal should find an alternative place to play football games—the Oakland Coliseum, for example. Proponents of this idea like that the Coliseum is near public transportation; it’s no farther from campus than U.C.L.A. is from Pasadena’s Rose Bowl, where the Bruins play.

But Brostrom and Pister, in their letter, said playing football games at the Coliseum is not financially viable because of the double burden of paying rent while losing income from concessions and parking. Moreover, it would hurt Berkeley businesses on game days, they said.

Retired Berkeley architect Christopher Adams says that if U.C. finds an alternative stadium, Memorial ought to be demolished because it’s so unsafe. “It has served its purpose,” says Adams, who strongly opposes the stadium expansion projects and wants the canyon restored.

But after pushing to landmark the stadium and then citing this landmarking in their arguments against Cal’s expansion plans, preservationists can’t easily say the stadium should be razed.

Many Bears fans are outraged at the suggestion of demolishing the stadium or moving football games off campus. The Saturday afternoon or evening games are events that involve tens of thousands of students and locals in what has historically been a community event; some say that having the stadium on campus, within walking distance for students and many residents, is part of the fabric of life in Berkeley.

People on both sides adore the stadium as an architectural treasure. Architect Paul Kelly, who supports Cal’s plans in the southeast corner, calls the stadium “one of the more beautifully designed and sited sports arenas that I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen quite a few of them. It’s also in this wonderful setting. And for anybody to consider moving it or tearing it down seems to me to be idiotic.” He acknowledges that the stadium shouldn’t have been built on a fault, but what’s done is done. Anyway, he says, only those seated on the western side of the stadium (described as “collapsible bleachers” by another expansion supporter) have reason to fear a quake. Kelly jokes, “I sit on the east side, so I’m not worried.”


For all the attention given to tree-sitters who have guarded a grove since Dec. 2, the arboreal situation is actually the most straightforward part of the stadium expansion controversy. If university plans go forward, a mature grove of coastal live oaks, redwood trees, cedars and conifers near Memorial Stadium would be axed or moved to make room for a training facility.

University officials say they will transplant some trees, including a mature redwood, and will spare streetside trees on the west side of the grove, but the exact number slated to survive varies in university statements. Even project proponents acknowledge that remaining trees could die if construction impinges on their root systems.

Buckwald, who started the Save the Oaks at the Stadium campaign, says that with just a line of 12 trees remaining along the edge of the road, “It’s not going to be a grove or an ecosystem or a habitat. It’s almost going to be a median strip.” A grove is an interdependent ecosystem that allows oaks to regenerate—a crucial fact in an area beset by sudden oak death syndrome. Because of this very problem, a Berkeley law prohibits the felling of mature oaks; Cal is exempt from that local law. It may be that the stadium oaks have some inherent ability to resist this syndrome and could serve as a source of renewal for a dying oak population. Other ecological arguments focus on the grove as an essential corridor for foxes, deer, raccoons and other furry creatures traveling to and from the hills behind the stadium.

When Cal proposes planting three trees for each one felled (though 75 percent of the new trees wouldn’t necessarily be oaks), opponents quickly note that saplings hardly compare to the functioning mature grove that now exists.

Most of the trees in the grove date back to the stadium’s construction in 1923. U.C. planted many of them to soften the hard surfaces of the stadium structure from the road. The word “old-growth” has been bandied about in rallying cries for the grove, but with the exception of a few trees that date back about 200 years, that term seems to exaggerate the situation quite a bit. So do claims that the trees are the sole remaining oak grove in the Berkeley lowlands; Live Oak Park, on Shattuck in North Berkeley, is an example to the contrary.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the stadium grove is landmarked. But because so many structures are landmarked in Berkeley, the label has become virtually meaningless; it doesn’t actually protect anything (buildings or trees) from demolition, but simply subjects such sites to closer scrutiny. Another claim by activists is that the grove sits atop an Ohlone burial ground and may therefore deserve legal protection. While this recently unearthed fact may well be true, it’s a claim that seems tainted by political expediency.

Passersby don’t seem to share these particular concerns. Rather, they wonder about the tree-sitters’ excretion habits. (The answer: protesters lower buckets to the ground, where kind souls dispose of the contents.) Beyond that, most people seem to view the trees as they would any patch of nature. Beautiful and sacred to some, the grove is a last “stand” against rampant destruction of our natural environment. The grove is also part of what people love about the stadium and about the whole Cal campus—the leafy setting that many campuses don’t offer. Others see the trees as scraggly and unimpressive, undeserving of all the fuss.


Amid this controversy, Bears football fans remain focused on the team’s success. More than 5,000 fans (including students, alumni, locals and others) signed a petition to proceed with Cal’s construction of the training center at the grove.

Season-ticket holder Tim Moellering says most of the football fans he knows are upset about the delayed plans and frustrated by the tree-sitters. He says fans don’t fret much about their own safety, given they spend just a few hours at Memorial Stadium on select Saturdays and are willing to cross their fingers that a big earthquake won’t happen just then. Fans do want the stadium renovated, he says, but that’s to please a successful Coach Jeff Tedford. “It’s about keeping the coach,” says Moellering, a Berkeley High School teacher and coach.

Everyone considers Tedford an enormous boon to the team. Shortly after he signed on in 2002, Cal began setting attendance records for home games. For the first time in decades, fans could utter the words “Rose Bowl” with a straight face.

Both proponents and opponents widely believe that Tedford threatened to leave unless Cal built the training facility. But according to Athletic Director Barbour, he’s said no such thing. “Coach Tedford has never talked about leaving if he didn’t get anything. He has talked about the need for an upgrade in our facilities. It’s about being fair to our student-athletes on campus and giving them the best chance to compete,” says Barbour. But she adds that Tedford needs to believe Cal is committed to being successful; otherwise, he may go somewhere that is committed.

With a more successful team comes a greater possibility that Cal can reach the Rose Bowl, which the team hasn’t accomplished since 1959. A stronger team also lands more television appearances, earning revenue for the university.

No one disputes that recruiting efforts would benefit from a high-end facility, and the general consensus is that it should be built somewhere (though not necessarily where Cal intends to place it). According to Barbour, some prospective students have told Cal that they chose other universities “because we don’t have adequate facilities.”

In many ways, the facility brouhaha boils down to questions of values and priorities.

Moellering says this particular controversy is complicated by the fact that people see sports as politically right-wing and possibly associated with traditional American values when that’s not necessarily true. “Sports should be one of those things that tends to unite people who might come from opposite political spectrums,” says Moellering.

Football has become a major university priority, and many expansion opponents see this shift as a simple matter of economics. When Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger cut funding to U.C. in 2004, the university had to seek other revenue sources. A successful team will likely bring more donations to the university than a weak team; according to Cal Athletics spokesman Herb Benenson, “Donations to the athletic department have risen significantly in recent years, including record totals the past two years.”

But some alumni wonder why academic excellence can’t be an even stronger motivation for alumni giving and grants. “I feel that the university is completely setting its priorities wrong,” says neighbor and alum Adams. He and neighbor Hank Gehman cite the Ivy League schools, CalTech, Johns Hopkins and U.C. San Diego as universities that prioritize academics over football but nevertheless thrive financially, thanks to strong alumni giving and grants. “People don’t give money to the football team. They give because they really appreciate the education they got,” says Gehman.


The chutzpah award goes to Dan Sicular, who is suing Cal on behalf of Tightwad Hill. Those who sit on the hill (a steep bit of land that lies northeast of the stadium and that belongs to Cal) during football games have enjoyed panoramic bay views, nearly unobstructed views of the field, the freedom to drink alcohol

and to smoke, and, above all, the cost-free experience, since the 1920s. All

this could change if Cal adds proposed skyboxes to the eastern side of the stadium, raising the seating structure above the rim by as much as 25 feet.

When Sicular commented on the draft Environmental Impact Report that U.C. first published, he noted that the final report should point out how new seats will affect the view from Tightwad Hill. Nevertheless, Cal was noncommittal in its response, saying that the changes “may obscure portions of the view of the stadium playing field from some places on Tightwad Hill. However, the field would remain visible to a large degree.” In the report, the university also indicated that people don’t really have a right to be up there anyway.

Despite their penny-pinching natures, Sicular and other tightwads have pooled money to cover attorney costs. And an anonymous group called The Committee to Send Dan to L.A. funded his trip to a Regents’ meeting. “This is entirely contrary to the cheap spirit of Tightwad Hill,” he says.

The stringencies of preparing a lawsuit also mark a large change from the unruly, lawless atmosphere of the hill. But don’t imagine Sicular as a frivolous person involved in a frivolous suit; he speaks gravely about environmental law, the proper procedure for publicizing development plans and omissions of key information when Cal released stadium-area expansion plans to the public. Most notably, says Sicular, documents have neglected to mention that cheapskates have reveled on Tightwad Hill for 80-some years, a tradition that gives the hill historic and cultural significance and that should therefore be preserved, according to California environmental law.

Sicular has worked hard for his constituents, gathering 1,089 signatures in support of his views. “I was hoping that with enough signatures on the petition, it would demonstrate that it’s not just one wacko up on the hill. There’s a whole bunch of us!” he says. “I had some kind of idealistic idea that the Regents would be responsive to—or at least would consider—public opinion.”

Sicular struggled with whether to file the suit and saw it as a last resort. “I’m suing my alma mater. And that’s very painful,” says Sicular, who has a bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate from U.C. Berkeley. He now works for a San Francisco environmental consulting firm, and through this work he has gained familiarity with the environmental quality laws that serve as the basis of his lawsuit. Because of his ambivalence about suing Cal, he filed on the last day possible.

His suit has not been consolidated with the ones that the university faces from the city, the Panoramic Hill Association and the California Oak Foundation. That’s most likely because his is much narrower in scope. Moreover, those other three sought to stop immediate action (the cutting of the trees and the construction of the training facility), whereas the elevation of the eastern rim of the stadium is well in the offing. Had those other groups not sued the university, Sicular speculates that he would not have filed, as he didn’t want to be the sole reason for delaying Cal’s construction plans: “I don’t think any of us wanted to see that happen, because we support Cal football.” But once the other plaintiffs sued, the plans were obviously going to be put on hold anyway, so he filed the fourth suit.

Sicular is well aware that people use such suits to delay or kill proposed projects.

“That’s not what we’re trying to do. We’re Cal football fans. Our interests are having a good competitive team. We all love Coach Tedford. And all of us want a safe stadium.” But not everyone has interpreted his actions that way. He has received hate mail from people accusing him of delaying the stadium renovation and therefore standing a chance of driving away the coach.

Many people have also refused to take Sicular and his nonpaying friends seriously in their grievances about losing free views. “That’s the knock we’ve gotten,” says Sicular. “I like to think that because we are part of an important Cal tradition, we’ll get more respect for that. But I can’t control other people’s attitudes.”

Sicular may well get the last laugh. As he points out, if there’s a major quake during a game at the stadium, he’ll be in the safest place—high up on Tightwad Hill.

Eve Kushner is a Berkeley freelancer and a regular contributor to The Monthly. Her nonfiction book Crazy for Kanji: A Student’s Guide to the Wonderful World of Japanese Characters is due out this summer from Stone Bridge Press. Visit her at www.evekushner.com

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