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Deep-rooted conflict

Tree-sitters' losing fight at UC Berkeley was a small part of the clash between the school's priorities and those of its neighbors.

September 11, 2008|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

BERKELEY — She calls herself Dumpster Muffin and lived in a tree on the UC Berkeley campus for more than seven months. In her view, university officials are bullies who want to destroy nature for the sake of football.

A 21-year-old from Ohio, she gained local fame as one of the most outspoken of the tree-sitters who tried for nearly two years to save a grove of trees and block construction of a $125-million athletic center.

"This whole fiasco could have been avoided," Dumpster Muffin said. "It was just so bullheaded and arrogant. We've had enough of the university pushing people in this town around and it's time for a change."

Although few may share her belief that good meals can be found in dumpsters, she is not alone in her view that the university has run roughshod over the community.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, September 12, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Tree protest: A caption that accompanied a story in Thursday's California section about a protest by tree-sitters in Berkeley described the UC Berkeley stadium as Memorial Coliseum. It is Memorial Stadium.

Opponents of the project, including neighbors, oak lovers and the city of Berkeley, say the university neglected community concerns about traffic, parking and the loss of the grove.

"They have mismanaged this from Day One," said attorney Stephen Volker, whose lawsuit on behalf of neighbors and environmentalists succeeded in holding up the project for 21 months.

"They have never hesitated to take a hard line throughout this process."

Campus police rousted the last of the tree-sitters Tuesday from the top of a 90-foot redwood. Workers erected a seven-story scaffold around the tree, and police persuaded the four men to surrender. None were UC Berkeley students.

Though campus leaders expressed relief over the end of the standoff, they also conceded that they could have prevented some of their problems by communicating better with their neighbors at the outset.

"This is a case where we could have spent more time talking than we did," said Vice Chancellor Ed Denton.

For the university, there is much at stake in the plan to build a training center for student athletes on the site. The project is the first phase of an effort to modernize the cramped athletic facilities and renovate 85-year-old Memorial Stadium, home of the California Golden Bears football team.

At UC Berkeley, football has become big money. With alumni donations, ticket sales, television revenue and sponsorship deals, the program took in more than $28 million last year. Football Coach Jeff Tedford, who makes $2.8 million a year, is the highest paid employee in the University of California system.

But the quality of Cal's athletic facilities has lagged far behind. Inside the stadium, the athletes' areas are so antiquated that university officials call them an embarrassment and rival schools have used photos of Cal facilities as a recruiting tool, a UC spokesman said.

The locker room is overcrowded and crammed with gear, and ventilation ducts serve as shelves. The weight room is so small the football players work out in shifts. And some of Cal's women's teams have no locker room at all and sometimes change for games in their cars.

But the biggest problem facing 70,000-seat Memorial Stadium is invisible: The historic stadium sits squarely on the Hayward fault, one of the most dangerous in the state.

Talk about moving the goal posts. Seismic experts say half the stadium -- with one goal post -- is now traveling north at a rate of millimeters per year. The other half, and the other goal post, are heading south.

The "seismic creep" has shifted interior walls in the stadium so that some doors no longer close properly. Four concrete columns, which support hundreds of seats, are leaning and three are cracked at the top where they hold up crossbeams.

The university insists it is still safe to hold games in the stadium but classifies its condition as "poor." Under state law, the university is prohibited from building a new structure on the fault line. It can either repair the facility or demolish it.

For a decade, UC has been making plans to retrofit the stadium and improve the athletic facilities.

In 2006, the UC Board of Regents approved construction of the training center as the first phase of the renovation. The idea was to complete the 142,000-square-foot center, move the athletes and coaches out of the stadium, and then begin work on the stadium itself.

But a judge's ruling in the lawsuit filed by the Panoramic Hill Assn., the California Oak Foundation and the city of Berkeley prevented the university from proceeding. Meanwhile, Dumpster Muffin and her fellow tree-sitters took up residence in the grove.

The land in dispute is a 1.5-acre strip next to the stadium and across a busy street from the Haas School of Business and the Boalt Hall School of Law. Most of the trees there were planted in the 1920s when the stadium was built.

With 33,000 students and an ever-expanding research program, UC Berkeley has little room to grow. The area around the university is so congested that professors who win Nobel Prizes are rewarded with one of the campus' greatest perks: a designated parking place.

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