The Battle for Lawrence Berkeley Lab

At least five East Bay cities are vying to host Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's second campus, but Richmond appears to be the favorite.

It’s not every day that a city has the opportunity to attract a project so large that it could represent a force of economic change for an entire community. But it’s happening right now in the East Bay. At least five cities are supporting proposals this week to become the home of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory‘s new second campus. The giant development will house numerous high-paying, green-tech jobs, and is expected to create scores of technology spin-offs that promise to boost economic activity and generate plenty of new revenue for the winning city.

As of late last week, the five cities expected to generate bids for the new campus by the Friday, March 4 deadline were Richmond, Berkeley, Emeryville, Alameda, and Walnut Creek. Richmond is considered the frontrunner because the University of California already owns at least ninety acres at its Richmond Field Station. The other cities, however, believe they still have a shot and argue that they have what it takes to become the winning bidder.

Lab officials are expected to whittle the applicants to a short list by mid-April. At that point, the finalists will engage in deeper negotiations with the lab before a final decision is expected in June.

To understand what’s at stake, one only has to look at what a second campus could potentially offer. The two-hundred-acre main campus in Berkeley’s Strawberry Canyon has reached its capacity for expansion. The lab employs 4,200 workers, including scientists, engineers, and students. It also pumps an estimated $700 million into the East Bay economy, according to statistics from the lab. In addition, it produces spin-off companies that develop technologies that emerged from the lab. Berkeley’s Office of Economic Development estimates that fifteen to 25 emerging technology innovations are licensed each year.

Although the federally funded lab will not pay property taxes (a major downer for all the candidates), the main campus boasted a budget of nearly $718 million in 2010. In other words, it creates lots of good jobs.

Clearly, Richmond had the advantage going into the process. Although the Richmond Field Station site has environmental clean-up issues, the lab has made it clear that it meets the basic requirements outlined in its “request for qualifications.” In addition to being plenty large enough, the site is not far from the main lab, and is in relatively close proximity to stuff that highly paid scientists want to eat and do. The site also is close to the Bay Trail and offers sweeping views of San Francisco Bay.

Still, Richmond Councilman Tom Butt expects the competition from other communities to be fierce. “Everybody is out there trying to find a silver bullet,” Butt said. “Everybody’s got an angle they’re trying to sell.”

Alameda also appears to be a contender. The city’s angle: A large tract of land on Alameda Point free of charge. The former Naval Air Station has tons of available space for development, not only for the campus, but for spin-off companies, residential, and whatever else is needed.

The city is proposing to put the new lab campus on the point’s south shore, on land currently being cleaned up by the US Navy. Alameda Deputy City Manager Jennifer Ott contends that in addition to the land giveaway, the site’s relative proximity to the main campus and its terrific views, along with the city’s low crime rate, give it an advantage. The city also argues that its nasty legal battle with SunCal, which was going to develop Alameda Point and is suing the city for $100-plus million, will not impact the campus project. “We think we’re more competitive [than Richmond],” Ott said.

One would think Berkeley would be the natural choice for the lab expansion, but there are a few barriers the city would have to overcome. Berkeley doesn’t have a plot of empty land large enough for a single second campus, and the city’s industrial district — West Berkeley — is evolving. The city council is considering changing the zoning rules currently protecting artisans and manufacturers to encourage new technology start-ups.

Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates said the zoning changes are not related to attracting the second campus, but he believes the move would be “favorably received” by the lab, providing potential for related businesses to establish themselves in West Berkeley. “We’re not doing it for that purpose,” Bates said of the zoning changes. “It’s just a signal that we are really interested in research and development.”

At least three private developers, including Wareham Development — a major proponent for zoning changes — are drafting proposals. Although there are a few plots that could be used for development, such as the American Soils property along Aquatic Park, Bates hopes the lab would consider being flexible and scatter facilities throughout West Berkeley instead of looking for one chunk of land.

Wareham, meanwhile, is also teaming up with TMG Partners on a proposal for Emeryville. The city is already a hub for bio-science, hosting at least 35 companies, and has been successful at attracting tech start-ups. Emeryville also is business-friendly, and it’s closer to the main campus than either Richmond or Alameda. “The overall culture [of the city] really supports bio-science and biotechnology,” said Emeryville Economic Development Director Helen Bean.

Between the Emery Station Greenway, Emery Station West Building, and additional properties owned by Wareham and TGM, there is a potential for at least 23 acres worth of development. However, that may not be big enough for the lab and, like Berkeley, would require it to house other facilities throughout the city.

Walnut Creek, meanwhile, may be a long shot, although the city is a hub for the medical science and biotechnology industries, and is hoping to attract the campus to its Shadelands Business Park. The city has yet to discuss the proposal in detail with property owners, but Walnut Creek Assistant City Manager Lorie Tinfow said they’ve gotten a sense of what is viable and potentially open for development. Walnut Creek is hoping to bank on its green-tech strengths, the proposed location’s proximity to the BART station, and the city’s business-friendly climate to attract the campus. However, Tinfow conceded that the distance to the main campus may be a drawback for the lab, particularly during rush hour.

Wherever the second campus ultimately lands, it will be a multi-phased project that will take up about 2 million square feet of space (about 46 acres). The first phase would consolidate four satellite facilities spread across the East Bay into one central location of about eleven acres: the Joint BioEnergy Institute in Emeryville, the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center in Oakland, the Joint Genome Institute in Walnut Creek, and the Life Sciences Division in West Berkeley. The second phase could involve the construction of a facility that would be about 3,000 feet long.

Lab officials may well move forward with the Richmond site, but lab spokesman Jon Weiner said that because this is such a long-term project, they wanted to make sure they didn’t overlook a stronger candidate. “We need to do our due diligence to make sure that we haven’t missed anything,” Weiner said.


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