Downtown Berkeley marred by huge labs

In Feb. 2007, Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates said, “We are poised to be an international center for the development of new environmental technologies… That opportunity grew with the award of a $500 million biofuels research center to UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab two weeks ago.” Of course you’ve noticed Berkeley’s two new high-tech research laboratories looming over Oxford Street, at Hearst — one on the UC campus and one Downtown. Even though they’re big buildings, they remain mostly a mystery to everyone.

On the east side of Oxford Street stands UC’s Li Ka Shing Center for Biomedical and Health Sciences. It rises five stories (yet stands over 100 feet in height for electrical connectors, pipes and air ducts in the labs), spreading out over an area of around 200,000 square feet.

Opened in January, its vast interior is planned to accommodate innovative undergraduate coursework and training, as well as house scientists from around the world undertaking new biomedical research methods. Such science is expected to advance the university’s ongoing alliance with corporations to develop patents for both private and public interests.

It’s fascinating to learn that major donor Li Ka-shing is China’s richest citizen and that Forbes ranks him as the ninth richest man in the world. His fortune includes a majority holding in Husky Energy, the Canadian oil mining and exploration company that has entered into a multi-billion dollar joint venture with BP called the Sunrise Oil Sands Project (a major proponent of the Keystone Pipeline) in Alberta, Canada.

Across Oxford Street, in the Downtown area, stands the nearly finished Helios Energy Research Facility. This approximately 63,600 square foot building is also five stories tall and also rises above 100 feet. It will accommodate the university’s precedent-setting $500 million research agreement with BP — Mr. Li’s partner in the Tar Sands venture.

The agreement was negotiated in 2007, without informed public debate, by then-LBNL director Steven Chu and the current U.S. Secretary of Energy.

In exchange for corporate investments, the university would allow BP to use facilities, infrastructure and personnel to subsidize private, for-profit business. The agreement funds the Helios building’s Energy Biosciences Institute, and it also entitles BP to specify research priorities and manage and control research collaboration that might lead to significant discoveries (i.e., patents). It can be assumed that EBI intends to use genetic engineering to develop and patent genetically modified biofuels grown cheaply in developing countries and new types of genetically engineered microbes, including those used for extracting oil locked in the tar sands of Alberta.

A new Downtown Area Plan was approved on March 20 by the Berkeley City Council. The plan is guided by the secret City/UC Settlement of 2005, which mandated a new plan to accommodate the university’s needs (and anticipated oversized buildings), such as the Biomedical Center and Helios building.

These new buildings radically change the Downtown area’s direction and also deplete the city’s resources. The university pays no property taxes, and because the university barely compensates the city for its use of services and infrastructure, UC’s impacts weigh unfairly on Berkeley’s taxpayers. City infrastructure is already compromised, and its budget is increasingly a mystery, including a looming $310 million in unfunded liabilities. How can the council and Planning Department in good conscience support the expansion of a global scientific research park in our city on the behalf of the one percent for free?!

Stewart Jones is a former candidate for Berkeley City Council in District 8.