UC Berkeley is planning to build a new Aquatics Center at 2222 Bancroft Way.
UC Berkeley is planning to build a new aquatics center at 2222 Bancroft Way. Image: UC Berkeley

UC Berkeley officials held a public hearing Wednesday night on plans to build a new aquatics center at 2222 Bancroft Ave., east of Oxford, and were told the one-story building is a lost opportunity for improving the area and would be too disruptive to parking.

UC hopes to start construction on the $15 million project in August to alleviate the crowding that now takes place at Spieker Pool. Currently, all 120 of Cal’s swimmers, divers and water polo athletes, as well as recreational swimmers, must use that facility, putting a severe strain on its capacity.

The new aquatics structure, which will take the place of a parking lot next to the Tang Center, will have three single-level buildings surrounding a 52-meter-by-25-yard pool and 46-foot high dive tower. The facility will mostly be used for training Cal’s four NCAA Division 1 squads and will not contain permanent seating. However, the university does anticipate holding a maximum of four meets a year there and will have the ability to bring in portable bleachers to seat 500 people. The university will also install a number of 30-foot towers to provide lighting for the rare night competition. The glassed-in dive tower will also be illuminated, producing a “soft glow,” according to officials.

“We have a need to double our water space,” Bob Milano Jr., Cal’s associate athletic director, told those who attended the hearing on the Subsequent Environmental Impact Report. “Our competitors all have two pools or more. We are asking for enough to allow our athletes to be successful in the classroom and in the pool.”

Screen shot 2013-04-04 at 9.05.08 AM
The new 52-meter swimming pool and 46-foot-high dive tower planned for the new UC aquatics center on Bancroft Way.

The new facility will free up space in Spieker Pool, which means there will be more room for community and youth groups to use the space, according to officials.

The public comment period on the EIR is open until April 24 at 5 p.m., according to Jennifer McDougall, a principle planner at Cal. The UC Board of Regents will consider the EIR at its May meeting. Construction is estimated to take 10 months, she said.

The main concern expressed by those at the meeting centered on the loss of parking in the area. The new aquatics center will be built on a lot that currently accommodates about 230 cars, and 171 of those spaces will be lost. Another 234 spaces have also recently disappeared nearby because the University Hall parking structure on Oxford is being torn down to make room for the new Berkeley Art Museum.

Les Ferriss, who teaches at the Bancroft Library, said he drives from Sonoma County to campus three times a week. He pays $800 a year for a campus parking permit but said it can be hard to find a space. Now things will be worse.

“Sometimes I spend 45 minutes driving around trying to find a spot,” said Ferriss.

Jane Goodwin works for Cal Performances at Zellerbach Auditorium. Sometimes she works late at night and needs to park close.

“The impact is going to be really serious coming up,” said Goodwin. “We can’t all take public transportation.”

The university’s long-range plan does call for adding additional parking but is currently in a phase where more parking is being taken away than added, said McDougall. The university currently has 5,700 parking spaces for its employees, according to Seamus Wilmot, director of parking and transportation.

To help the short-term squeeze, Cal has made arrangements with a number of the privately operated garages in Berkeley, said Wilmot. Cal has arranged to use 50 spaces in the Chase Building on Shattuck, he said. The Allston Way garage is offering discounted parking to UC faculty and staff on its sixth floor. The university has added stacked parking to the Ellsworth lot.

There are also some long-range plans in the works, said Wilmot. UC Berkeley is talking to the city of Berkeley about plans to redo the Center Street garage and reserve some parking for UC faculty and staff. Cal is also looking at building some small parking structures on the west side of campus, he said.

UC also has plans to redo Maxwell Family Field, the playing field right next to Cal Memorial Stadium, said McDougall. The idea is to build a two-level, 400-500 space, above-ground parking facility with a field on top, she said.

“Lost Opportunity for Bancroft Way”

The plans for the new aquatics center also drew criticism from Berkeley officials who do not believe it complies with the city’s Southside Plan. The University has long told city officials they needed more office space and the city zoned that stretch of Bancroft Avenue to accommodate those needs, according to Elizabeth Greene, the Berkeley planner who testified at the hearing. Height levels were set at 75 feet to make room for mixed retail and office space. Berkeley wants to make that stretch “a more viable and exciting place,” said Green.

This design “moves in an opposite direction than we were hoping to go,” said Greene. “The city sees this as a lost opportunity for Bancroft Way.”

John Caner from the Downtown Business Association and Roland Peterson from Telegraph Business Improvement District also called for Cal to create a structure that increased the vibrancy on Bancroft Way. They noted in a letter that Bancroft Way was “a key pedestrian link” between downtown and Telegraph Avenue and that it would be good to have retail or interactive pedestrian opportunities there.

University officials could not respond directly to comments at Wednesday’s hearing under CEQA law. They will provide written responses in the final EIR. But McDougall did say that, while the EIR noted it would be more environmentally sensitive to build the new Aquatics Center at Strawberry Canyon, where there is already a pool, that location would not serve the athletes well. The allure of the Bancroft Way space is its proximity to Spieker Pool across the street.

“It will be much better for the program to have the easy back and forth with Spieker,” she said.

The university does not think there will be large traffic impacts with the new aquatics center because it will mostly be used by student-athletes who will walk there, according to the Subsequent EIR.

Read UC’s Subsequent EIR Cal brochure on need for new pool.

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...