Robert Lalanne, UC's new vice-chancellor for real estate. Photo: UC Berkeley
Robert Lalanne, UC Berkeley’s new vice-chancellor for real estate. Photo: UC Berkeley
Robert Lalanne, UC Berkeley’s new vice-chancellor for real estate. Photo: UC Berkeley

You know UC Berkeley’s newly appointed vice chancellor for real estate has an open-minded attitude when he says tackling the issues at People’s Park might be a “fun challenge” and looks forward to “getting some things done” to help revitalize Telegraph Avenue.

Robert J. Lalanne, a UC Berkeley alumnus and trustee of the university’s foundation, brings 25 years of real estate and development experience to the new position, which was formally announced Tuesday.

As founder of The Lalanne Group, he has spearheaded commercial, residential and mixed-use projects in San Francisco and other Bay Area counties. He will oversee all of Cal’s construction projects, seek “innovative financing” for new buildings, be the point man for facilities and manage 500 employees.

All for nothing a year.

Lalanne will donate his salary back to the university, according to a university press release.

“Bob has been very successful and has been a significant donor to the campus,” said Dan Mogulof, a UC Berkeley spokesman. “He and his wife endowed a chair at the College of Environmental Design, among other things. The Lalanne Group, which he founded, is not doing any new development projects and he was on the path to semi-retirement. So, basically, he’s someone who was looking for new opportunities and ways to give back without having to be concerned about compensation.”

No salary has been set yet, but Lalanne’s predecessor, Ed Denton, who is retiring after 15 years, earns around $220,500 a year. Lalanne will start his new job in January.

Significant challenges ahead

Lalanne and the university are facing significant challenges. While the campus retrofitted 75% of its buildings with seismic issues during Denton’s tenure, and constructed 6.3 million square feet of new and renovated space — including Memorial Stadium and the Simpson Student-Athlete High Performance Center — funding for capital projects remains difficult. The state does not provide funds for new buildings so Cal has to raise money through private donations and innovative financing, said Mogulof.  (State support for university operation has dropped from about $600 million to $300 million in the last eight years, according to John Wilton, the vice-chancellor for administration and finance.)

Lalanne pointed to one upcoming capital project that he would like to duplicate elsewhere on campus. Construction will begin in January to turn Maxwell Family Field, the playing field near the stadium, into a 450-space parking garage with a field on top. The university brought in a third party to finance, construct and run the new garage. Cal didn’t have to expend any money on the project, and it will earn income when the operators pay rent and from a portion of the profits.

“The thought was we should be saving our campus capital for the public, academic mission of the school – the students, faculty, labs, classrooms and the like,” said Lalanne, who had a role in the concept as a member of the real estate advisory board of the UC Berkeley Foundation. “Why not third-party develop a parking structure where we use other people’s capital and expertise?”

One of his priorities will be to better integrate the various groups related to real estate and facilities, said Lalanne. For the first time, all the groups will report to the same person — him — and he will report to Wilton. There are numerous large projects on the horizon, including the development of the Richmond campus, which will eventually be home to a new branch of the Berkeley Lab.

Strained town-gown relations

There has long been tension between the university and Berkeley over the campus’ growth and its expansion into the city. The university is tax exempt and, when it acquires land or a building, that property can come off the tax roll. UC Berkeley owns two large office building in the downtown and many other parcels around town.

Cal does not always develop its property in accordance with Berkeley’s master plan, another sore point. For example, Berkeley increased the density permitted along Bancroft Avenue at the university’s request, according to city officials. But then Cal decided to build a one-story aquatic center on a parking lot there. During a public hearing, Berkeley planners told university officials the city did not think that was a good use of the site.

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

Wilton said the university is aware of the tension and has actively been working to resolve divisive issues. About six months ago, he resurrected a monthly breakfast meeting with Mayor Tom Bates to vet ideas and discuss potential problems. Now Lalanne will join them.

“We discuss all the plans the campus has, and all the wishes Berkeley has, because we are both joined in wanting to get the best for both the residents of Berkeley and the student population,” said Wilton. “We are having active discussion on how we can collaborate.”

One of those areas is Telegraph Avenue, which has seen its tax revenue decline over the years and is no longer the de facto “go-to” strip for students, said Wilton. Lalanne has extensive experience working with community groups and developing commercial areas, and those skills should be an asset, said Wilton.

“We can change aspirational goals into a reality, which would be a nice development,” he said.

Lalanne says he has already started thinking about ways to improve Telegraph Avenue. He has looked at Berkeley’s Downtown Plan, examined some of the Telegraph proposals designed by students, and has talked to real estate professors at the Haas business school as well as Telegraph Avenue merchants.

“I think there are very exciting possibilities and a willingness, with some of the property owners and the campus showing some leadership, to really, with Berkeley, together get some things done,” said Lalanne.

While Wilton said there are no plans to develop People’s Park at this time, Lalanne seemed to regard it as an interesting challenge.

“When I think of People’s Park I think of Bryant Park in Manhattan, in midtown, and great public spaces throughout the country like People’s Park, that are historic parks that have been improved,” said Lalanne. “I think it’s yet another fun challenge out there.”

The Lalanne Group, based in San Francisco, was involved with the planning and construction of several developments, including the Portside condominiums along the Embarcadero in San Francisco, the Potrero Center, Falletti Plaza and more than 1,300 multi-family units around the Bay Area. Lalanne has also served as project manager for Dinwiddie Construction Company, managing a number of major projects including the Crocker Tower and Galleria and Levi Plaza in San Francisco.

“It is a real honor and privilege to be asked to serve in this role for an institution I love and deeply respect,” Lalanne said in a press release. “My over-arching goal is to generate new resources and support for the public mission and academic programs of one the world’s greatest universities. Berkeley gave me the knowledge necessary for success in my real estate career and to now redeploy that learning and experience in the university’s service is extremely gratifying.”

The article has been updated to correct an inaccuracy. It originally said that state support for capital projects had gone from $600 million to $300 million. That money actually goes for operations, not construction. Also, under Denton’s term, the university retrofitted 75% of the buildings with seismic issues, not 75% of all of the campus buildings. 

New aquatics center raises parking, planning concerns (04.03.13)
New Sproul, design ideas provide optimism for Telegraph (11.19.12)
Can Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue get its mojo back (04.18.12)
Imagining a future for Telegraph Avenue without blinders (04.11.12)
Telegraph fire site owner plans for temporary resurrection (02.06.12)
Urban think tank: Student visions for blighted Telegraph lot (10.03.11)
City hands ultimatum to Sarachan on vacant Telegraph lot (09.07.11)
What about that vacant lot on Haste and Telegraph? (08.11.11)
Berkeley students want better stores, fewer street people (05.31.11)

Berkeleyside publishes many articles every day. To see all our stories in chronological order, and read ones you may have missed, check out our All the News grid.

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...