Lawrence Berkeley National Lab representatives offered a limited update on their hunt for a second campus site to members of the lab’s Community Advisory Group Thursday. But while lab officials maintained their poker face, members of the CAG and public audience – few of them Richmond residents – were eager to recommend Richmond’s site.
Richmond City Councilmember Jeff Ritterman appeared to be the only council member present from the cities vying for the lab, and the only speaker in the public comment session to speak in support of hosting the second campus. Other commenters rose to argue against particular sites, especially the Berkeley Aquatic Park West site and Albany’s Golden Gate Fields.
“We don’t in Richmond have quite the contentiousness around our site,” Ritterman said after the meeting, looking pleased at the praise of Richmond from other people in the region.
The lab is looking for space to consolidate three bioscience facilities, now scattered between Walnut Creek, West Berkeley and Emeryville. The lab also wants a site with enough space for a potential 3,000-foot-long building for “future large scale research activities.” Six developers have pitched seven possible sites, in Richmond, Albany, Berkeley, Emeryville, Oakland and Alameda.
Richmond has persistently wooed the lab, which Ritterman and others argue could have transformative economic benefits for the city. In July, 700 people turned out to support the city’s bid. (The lab’s Deputy Director Horst Simon included an image of the packed Richmond Memorial Auditorium in a PowerPoint presentation Thursday, prompting Ritterman to break into applause.)
Over the course of the night, community members expressed concerns about seismic stability, environmental impacts, and the displacement of existing businesses at several of the sites, while many mentioned Richmond Field Station as a preferable alternative.
With only about 30 community members – many of them Berkeley residents with objections to the West Berkeley and Albany sites – and a dozen CAG members present, it was hardly a representative sample of East Bay sentiment. And it is unclear how much influence the CAG has over LBNL’s final decision. CAG members expressed frustration that LBNL refused to discuss the specific pros and cons – or costs – of each project, arguing that they did not have enough information to provide real advice.
Simon argued, though, that conversations with developers are confidential, and that revealing too much information on the Lab’s assessment of the different sites would unfairly advantage or disadvantage developers by revealing negotiations to competitors.
But Simon did offer some limited insight.
CAG member Phila Rogers asked how LBNL could not give “heavy consideration” to the Richmond Field Station since the University of California already owns the land – meaning it wouldn’t cost anything and wouldn’t take property off the tax rolls. LBNL is a federal entity, and so it does not pay property taxes on its holdings.
Simon said that owning the land is an advantage but not a game-changer. “Having free land is important because it’s a $10 or $20 million issue,” Simon said. “But it is not a $100 million issue.”
In Simon’s summary, Richmond had three major advantages – the land, the welcome from the city, and enough room to accommodate a possible 3,000-foot structure. Some sites, including both in Berkeley, lack room for the larger building.
But he noted several drawbacks: the Richmond Field Station is relatively far from the main LBNL campus, there is bad traffic along 580, and UC Berkeley might have to find a new home for the programs currently occupying the site.
In Simon’s presentation, Alameda’s site had very similar advantages and disadvantages: the city wants the new campus, is offering the land – part of the Alameda Point former Naval Air Station — for free, and has room for the large building. Alameda has proposed its own additional development along the waterfront, but the site, like Richmond’s, is also relatively far from the main LBNL campus.
Simon also praised the Berkeley Aquatic Park West site, which is closest to the existing campus and to the amenities of Berkeley’s Fourth Street. But that site drew the most vocal objection from community members, who argued that the lab would have major environmental impacts and threaten local businesses.
“You do not start in West Berkeley with a reservoir of good will,” said one West Berkeley resident.
Several members of the public also argued against the Golden Gate Fields site.
Don Smith, a Berkeley resident, is a veterinarian at the racetrack; his wife, Gloria Haley, is a trainer there. He said he would hate to see the racetrack destroyed, adding that Golden Gate Fields provides some 1,300 jobs, from vets to grooms.
“It’s a community we’ve been part of 30 years,” he said.
But while others argued against the various sites, Ritterman stood up at the end of the presentation to make sure nobody had any doubts about Richmond’s welcome.
“I can tell you,” he said, “The ability to unite everybody in Richmond behind one thing – I’ve never seen it, except this.”
According to the current timeline, the Lab will announce a preferred site at the end of November. Construction would start in 2014.