UC Berkeley suspends Global Campus project in Richmond

Despite UC Berkeley's $150 million budget deficit, community working group continues negotiations

By Lorenzo Morotti, Associate Editor

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 The indefinite suspension of the $3 billion UC Berkeley Global Research Campus Project in South Richmond due to a lack of funding shocked many people in the East Bay community.

But UC Chancellor Nicholas B. Dirks’ announcement on Aug. 26 did not surprise those who were involved in the project’s Community Working Group, or who were aware of UC Berkeley’s $150 million budget deficit when it was announced in February.

Contra Costa College Vice President Tammeil Gilkerson is the college’s sole representative on the UC Berkeley Global Campus Community Working Group (CWG) and the lead of its Education Subcommittee for 11 meetings, each.

“The (Education) Subcom-mittee became my child,” Gilkerson said. “But UC Berkeley could not agree to make an investment based on its budget deficit, so we cannot start the (construction) work.”

She said while the project is not canceled, it is impossible to know when UC Berkeley, the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab or the City of Richmond will find the funds locally, or from the state, to lift the suspension so the 40-year project can begin to materialize.

But until then, Gilkerson said the CWG will continue to negotiate community agreements with UC Berkeley, the LBNL and other city, state and national constituencies in terms of the project’s education, funding procurement, local hire and workforce development, housing and displacement policies.

The CWG is made up of constituencies from UC Berkeley, the LBNL, West Contra Costa Unified School District, CCC, the City of Richmond, local faith groups, non-profits, labor, business and national housing organizations while negotiating community agreements.

“I was disappointed, and I voiced my disappointment at the (Community Working Group) meeting last (week),” Gilkerson said. “I was not very surprised, but it makes sense why a lot of people were.”

Dirks’ announcement came six months after UC Berkeley’s $150 million budget deficit was publicized, and nearly two years after the CWG held its first meeting on September 25, 2014.

Since the CWG’s first meeting, a broad spectrum of people throughout the community have become more involved at various meetings to make sure UC Berkeley’s project plans and policies are in accordance with the City of Richmond’s Bay Specific Plan, Gilkerson said.

This plan entails a drastic redesign of approximately 220 acres of an area located south of Highway 580 to create a sustainable shoreline district with businesses, housing and recreation options — UC Berkeley Global Research Campus Project (140 acres) is linked to the site and the City of Richmond’s project.

But in lieu of the suspension, UC Berkeley and LBNL have provided public statements that promise to continue negotiations with the CWG, boost educational outreach into Richmond, and San Pablo K-12 schools and community colleges, and a possible “large-scale construction” project at this site.

Gilkerson said these groups are negotiating legally binding language to write into the project master plan, so once the project can move forward it will have collected enough input to have a sturdy foundation of community agreements that will not impact Richmond negatively.

“The project is likely to continue at this site,” she said. “Richmond’s south shoreline is a prime piece of real estate for redevelopment projects, but this is a lengthy (40 year) project.”

Local minds, global solutions

In Dirks’ open letter to the Richmond community on May 28, 2015, he said, “We have the opportunity to become the first American university to establish an intesrnational campus in the United States, right here in the East Bay.”

He said the campus would unite the Richmond community with academic and private organizations from around the world to research global issues such as climate change, medicine and public health and find solutions.

Fortunately, some local minds are already seeking to solve some of those global issues.

UC Berkeley graduate students at the Richmond Field Station are analyzing permafrost soil samples from Alaska to determine the rate that carbon gasses are being released into the atmosphere — one of them is CCC alumnus Robin Lopez.

While Lopez said he is restricted from speaking about the decision to suspend the UC Berkeley Global Research Campus, he can talk about his experience as a graduate and undergraduate student working with the LBNL at the Richmond Field Station.

“The work we do at the lab is interdisciplinary, but my primary project is to develop a climate model system for the Arctic,” he said. “My specific role is to analyze permafrost samples shipped from Alaska. From these samples I measure how much water is being released at different temperatures, and we then compare that to real world temperatures to see how much organic matter is being released.”

He said doing research at LBNL as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley is “exciting” because you get to choose what field you want to pursue. He said the uncertainty of conducting research experiments is what made him stay out of the engineering industry.

“Uncertainty is key. The people who embrace uncertainty are much more passionate about their profession, and are a valuable resource to an institution or community,” Lopez said.

“That’s why I didn’t go into the corporate industry. They will pay you substantially well, but at the end of the day it is about being a Richmond resident and giving something back to the community I came from.

“I love to give back, and if the (Richmond Field Station) enables me to do so through scientific research then that’s what I am going to do, and that’s why I am happier now.”

CCC HSI STEM Manager Mayra Padilla said UC Berkeley’s decision to suspend the project that would have created a larger and more modern research facility in Richmond came just before the restructuring of the STEM program to be geared toward growing fields in environmental science.

But because the project is suspended, Dr. Padilla said it will be more difficult for students like Lopez to get undergraduate experience close to home.

“There are a lot of resources at UC Berkeley and it is not too far away. But if it were in our city it would make it more accessible. CCC tends to be underrepresented in scholarly programs at UC Berkeley because other community colleges, like Laney College and Berkeley City College, are closer and have more contact and access to their resources.”

Public statements from Dirks, the LBNL have promised that negotiations and expanded community outreach in Richmond will continue, but the project will likely not keep Dirks’ vision of a global research campus community.

In his Aug. 26 weekly report, Richmond City Manager Bill Lindsay said because of this promise, “I believe Richmond should view this ‘suspension’ as a new chapter for ultimate development of the underutilized site that is the Richmond Field Station — not the end of an aspiration to see development of the Richmond Field Station as the Global Campus.”

Funding purgatory

CCC biological science Chairperson Katherine Krolikowski has attended some meetings and has followed the development of the project since it was originally proposed by the LBNL in 2012, before its own budget crisis allowed for UC Berkeley to pick up the project in 2014.

Krolikowski said while the Global Campus negotiation focuses more on preparing K-12 students who want to enter the scientific field, the decision to suspend the project is an unfortunate setback for STEM and the Center for Science Excellence programs.

“I do not have a sense that this project is not going to happen — it is going to happen, but just not in this version,” Krolikowski said. “UC Berkeley still owns the right to build on the site, but because the Chancellor (Dirks) is leaving, the project was stopped to let the next chancellor pick it up.”

But she said one of the big issues aired at the meetings was that the procurement of investors to fund the project has to come from all groups involved, but it is nearly impossible for small businesses in Richmond, or the neighboring city of San Pablo, to navigate the complex bureaucracy of UC Berkeley procurement rates.

The 21-member Community Working Group is still scheduled to meet on Sept. 27 at the Richmond Field Station in Building 445 at 6 p.m.

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