UC Berkeley’s Long Range Development Plan, or LRDP, and environmental impact report have long faced opposition from Berkeley neighborhoods, campus unions and a variety of other community organizations. They argue that the plan may cause major destruction of historic structures and open space, may cause housing displacement due to over enrollment and fails to consider a range of more reasonable and sustainable alternatives. The recent demolition of 1921 and 1925 Walnut St. and the University Garage by UC Berkeley has only added insult to injury. These historic buildings all deserved to be preserved, but campus’s Long Range Development Plan was carried out without regard for the touted environmental values of UC Berkeley. 1921 and 1925 Walnut St. were both reduced to piles of splintered wood and will be added to the landfill, rather than being recycled through reuse.
1921 Walnut St., a 112-year-old apartment building, had in each of its eight rent-controlled units beautiful architectural detailing that could have easily been reused in new projects. Its old growth redwood, pillared fireplace mantels, vintage mirrors and decorative tiles are just a few examples of easily salvageable components. Neighboring 1925 Walnut St., a classic brown-shingle residence with turn-of-the-century detailing built in 1901, presented another opportunity for sustainable salvage. The landmarked and unique University Garage was meticulously designed in the early 1930s by the respectable Walter H. Ratcliff Jr., Berkeley’s first and only city architect. All three buildings had a deep and beautiful history well-documented by the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association. Sadly, the only materials salvaged were some bricks from the University Garage.
The luxurious student residence hall with retail and commercial space that will replace these buildings is a $300 million project. Matthew Larkin, regional manager of the building materials recycling nonprofit The ReUse People in Oakland, says his organization could have offered at no charge a property survey to determine deconstruction costs. Nicole Tai, president of GreenLynx, a sustainable deconstruction firm, calculated that a large-scale salvage effort on 1921 Walnut St. would only have added up to $30,000. These costs are obviously infinitesimal related to the presently staggering cost of the construction project. And, of course, in this critical era of climate change, we need to calculate the broader cost to our future.
It is evident that UC Berkeley and its development partner, the Helen Diller Family Foundation, could have taken a different, sustainable course. The nearby Modera Acheson Commons project has several examples of new buildings that at least have had their façades preserved and new, higher construction done within their interiors guided by Berkeley’s Planning and Landmarks commissions. These projects by a Florida developer include apartments and commercial space and show, once again, that adaptive reuse can preserve historic integrity while providing new residential units. With UC Berkeley deciding not to preserve any buildings or their facades in its project, the minimal alternative of channeling beautifully crafted materials back to the marketplace for reuse should have at least been considered.
This demolition could only be called hypocritical when UC Berkeley is allegedly “one of the greenest public higher education institutions in the world,” according to Chancellor Carol Christ in her introduction to the UC Berkeley Sustainability Plan, published in November 2020. Notably, Christ also oversaw similar demolitions of a historic multifamily apartment house and a single-family home turned into an office building when she was president of Smith College. As in Berkeley, the razing of these buildings was met with community opposition from residents of Northampton. And as in Berkeley, their protests were disregarded.
This type of encroachment and resulting gentrification through university expansion has become a national phenomenon as detailed in Davarian L. Baldwin’s “In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower: How Universities Are Plundering Our Cities.” Baldwin details how in several cities university expansion has resulted in campus policing that targets communities of color, the suppression of university worker activism for better wages and a variety of other great inequalities. He advocates for a more equitable relationship between host cities and universities.
Although Cal recently won the Big Game against Stanford University, campus has lost the recycling game. Both Stanford and Palo Alto have deconstruction and building recycling policies that require salvage when buildings are renovated or demolished. The distinction between Stanford as a private university and UC Berkeley as a public university is clearly eroding. When a private university outshines its public rival in football, there is plenty of post-game analysis getting at how it happened. When UC Berkeley operates with a growth-at-any-cost model, its public mission is clearly compromised and needs to be deeply questioned.
Under UC Berkeley’s LRDP, the Oxford/Walnut Street site was designated Project #1. People’s Park, an irreplaceable open space, is designated Project #2. Given the proven lack of environmental sensitivity in these initial projects, what environmental destruction will be wrought in yet to be planned Project #3 through #8? Loss of affordable housing, historic structures and open space are deeply felt by any community. Change is inevitable, but when sustainable alternatives are unnecessarily ignored, it is especially damaging and wasteful.