The Race for Berkeley Lab Nears Finish

Lawrence Berkeley Lab officials plan to announce in November the winning bidder for its massive new campus.

California’s cities and counties have been rather ambivalent in recent decades about large industrial projects within their boundaries. Instead, the state’s tax system has forced cities to concentrate on big box stores, shopping malls, and redeveloped shopping districts filled with small retailers and eateries. Big factories and labs, by contrast, offer no direct sales tax revenues, and the property taxes are often disappointingly low. Sometimes the costs to a city — from utilities and infrastructure to traffic congestion — outweigh the benefits of playing host.

Yet when Lawrence Berkeley National Lab announced in January its plan to build a massive second campus, virtually every municipality within a twenty-minute drive of Blackberry Gate, the lab’s main entrance, made a pitch to UC leaders. By May, UC had whittled the list down to six serious contenders, from south to north: Alameda, Oakland, a joint Emeryville-Berkeley site, Berkeley, Albany, and Richmond. UC officials say they’ll announce the winner in late November. And several of the losing cities will lose more than just the contest.

When it’s all finally built, the second campus is expected to top out at 2 million gross square feet of lab and office space (by comparison, the Pentagon has 6.6 million square feet of floor area). Some structures will measure upwards of three-fifths of a mile long to accommodate experimental equipment. The campus will swarm with more than 1,000 scientists and other workers.

The competing city-developer teams are salivating at the opportunity to host the lab in spite of the fact that the campus alone will probably generate zero property tax and sales tax revenues. Why? Developers and city administrations say the lab can be tucked into larger development schemes including huge retail and housing projects where highly paid lab employees will live and play, and where for-profit spinoff companies will want to be. That synergy, in turn, will provide the sort of tax revenues that cities covet.

But the rush to host the second campus also has radically changed existing development decisions in several cities, in some cases displacing planned housing and commercial buildings, in others threatening to reintroduce long-rejected plans for intensive development or posing environmental problems. In fact, at least one of the proposals has already generated substantial local opposition.

Furthermore, if one city stands to gain a prestigious anchor around which to redevelop their waterfront, others stand to lose. According to UC, the first phase of the lab, which is to be occupied by 2016, will consolidate existing but scattered facilities in one location. Emeryville could therefore lose the Joint Bioenergy Institute unless its proposal is chosen. Similarly, Berkeley could lose the Life Sciences facility it currently hosts. No matter what, Walnut Creek appears to have effectively lost the Joint Genome Institute, a $70 million operation with 250 research staff, because it’s not among the finalists. In the second phase, Oakland could lose its downtown Scientific Computing Facility.

Richmond has been considered the front-runner for the second campus largely because UC already owns a suitable tract of land at its Richmond Field Station. Dan Kingsley of SKS Investments, the developer partnering with UC on Richmond’s proposal, said he sees the Richmond Field Station “as being the Mission Bay of the East Bay,” referring to UC San Francisco’s rapidly expanding bioscience campus that has attracted many biotech companies to the city.

Richmond City Manager Bill Lindsay touted the project as an opportunity for the city to capture $4.1 million in projected retail expenditures by lab employees who will shop nearby on their lunch breaks or on their way to and from work. That’s only if the city builds new retail space, however. Lindsay and SKS Investments have made clear that new housing and amenities will be major components of the project. On July 21, Lindsay told a public audience at a presentation concerning the city’s bid for the lab that Richmond’s general plan is currently being updated, and that changes to land use in and around the Field Station will reflect the city’s desire to build housing, commercial space, and generally use the lab as an anchor for wider development.

Oakland and Alameda were already planning large housing and commercial expansions prior to the lab contest. Oakland Harbor Partners and the City of Oakland are now proposing to slip the lab campus into the pre-existing Oak to 9th redevelopment project as “part of an overall waterfront renaissance,” in the words of Oakland Deputy Director of Planning and Zoning Eric Angstadt. “We’ve already gone through an EIR and an entitlements process,” Angstadt told lab staff at a recent public meeting. “Your project is here now.”

But if the second campus is “here now,” then Oakland’s previous plan is gone. As it was approved in 2006, the Oak to 9th Project located on the Brooklyn Basin peninsula (roughly East of the Lake Merritt Channel) included 3,100 residential units, 200,000 square feet of commercial space, and 27 acres of shoreline park. In his presentation to the lab and the community on July 27, Mike Ghielmetti of Oakland Harbor Partners clicked through slides showing that the lab campus would be built where all but about 500 or so units of this housing was previously planned. Ghielmetti’s slides also seemed to reveal that the Oakland lab campus would displace much of the proposed commercial space.

“Yes, the lab replaces the current proposal,” said Ghielmetti in a recent interview. “That’s the simple answer. But there’s probably 1,000 to 1,500 units in housing [and] some amount of commercial, over and above the lab that would be built on the remainder property.”

Alameda has proposed to build the lab on the former naval base that closed in 1997. The city would hand over 45 acres on Alameda Point to UC at no cost, something Alameda’s Economic Development Department justifies on a city website in the following terms: “[T]his keeps the city competitive with proposals from other finalists. The long-term economic benefits to the city from having the Second Campus located at Alameda Point lend credence to gifting the land, rather than selling it.” Indeed, because UC already owns the Richmond Field Station (and pays no property taxes there), other cities and their developers have been pushing to subsidize land costs for UC in order to remain competitive.

A number of other problems have cropped up at various proposed sites, including development and environmental concerns at Albany and West Berkeley. “Currently from the Sierra Club’s standpoint, the proposal for the Albany site is unacceptable given that it’s connected with this large development that the Stronach Group wants to build at the racetrack,” said Norman La Force, Chair of the Sierra Club’s East Bay Public Lands Committee in response to the first version of Albany’s lab project presented to the public back in August.

The Sierra Club and citizens in Albany have waged a struggle for decades to prevent the Albany shoreline from being paved over with dense buildings, beginning with their opposition to the massive Santa Fe Railroad proposal of 1985 to build a virtually new city along the Berkeley/Albany waterfront. These efforts culminated in the passage of Measure C in 1990, which restricted development of Albany’s waterfront to specific low-impact uses, like parks, and requires voter approval for any project proposed there. Voters and environmental groups have repeatedly blocked efforts by Frank Stronach (a billionaire Austrian-Canadian auto-parts mogul-turned-horse breeder and real estate magnate behind the current proposal) to build an upscale shopping mall and other dense and tall buildings at Golden Gate Fields.

“What Stronach is doing in Albany is using LBNL as a Trojan horse to get massive development on the Albany shoreline,” LaForce said in an interview. The Stronach Group’s initial proposal for the lab included an extra 2.5 million square feet of area for “private development,” as described by Stronach’s architect during an August 3 presentation to the public.

In response, the Albany City Council has voted to form a task force on the project. Due to public outcry, the Stronach Group seems to have retreated from this initial plan. On October 10, a new proposal was unveiled which appears to have reduced the footprint for intensive private development around the lab. But this second proposal still includes two massive hotel and conference centers, one a twelve-story tower in Albany, and another on the Berkeley side of the site.

Many in Albany, like City Councilwoman Peggy Thomsen, remain skeptical. “There are significant unanswered questions,” she said in an e-mail. The Sierra Club remains opposed to the project as proposed. “The development needs to be integrated into the park, not the other way around,” La Force said, referring to the shoreline park that Albany’s residents decided upon in the exhaustive Voices to Vision process last year.

Berkeley’s bid for the lab involves land adjacent to Aquatic Park, site of the old American Soils operation. But the Golden Gate chapter of the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club have both expressed concern that the proposal for this site, as currently envisioned, could severely harm migratory birds within the Pacific Flyway that use the marshes there for shelter, rest, and food. Arthur Feinstein, chair of Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club, wrote in a letter to lab director Paul Alivisatos that “at this point, the GGAS has expressed its position that the development of the site as proposed would create significant unavoidable negative impacts on the birds that use Aquatic Park. Unless those concerns can be addressed to the satisfaction of the Golden Gate Audubon Society, the Sierra Club could not support this site.”

Correction: The original version of this story erroneously stated that Berkeley’s proposal involves land within Aquatic Park. It is to be adjacent to Aquatic Park.


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