A rendering of the proposed softball complex at Levine-Fricke softball field. Credit: UC Berkeley Capital Strategies

A court ruling handed down last week adds a hurdle to UC Berkeley’s plans to redo its softball facilities.

In 2018, Chancellor Carol Christ announced that the university would expand its softball and beach volleyball venues to ensure that it was complying with Title IX, a federal law that prohibits institutions getting federal funds from discriminating on the basis of sex.

In a letter to the campus community, Christ noted that the facilities women athletes used were inferior to those Cal male athletes used. That could not continue, she said.

“If we are to remain true to our moral, ethical and legal commitments we must improve two of our women’s athletics venues,” Christ wrote. “To be clear, the University is not joining the athletics arms race that is occurring throughout the country but rather is working to provide our existing women’s teams with fields, courts, and associated amenities that are similar to what their male counterparts at Cal already enjoy while also meeting our obligations under the law.”

Later that year, Christ signed off on a plan to completely overhaul the Levine-Fricke softball field in Strawberry Canyon on the east side of the campus. In making that decision, Christ decided that UC Berkeley did not have to do a separate environmental impact report for the softball field because improving it was consistent with the strategic goals laid out in the university’s long-range development plan created in 2005. The project could be done by just adding an addendum to the LRDP.

On Friday, an Alameda County Superior Court judge disagreed with UC Berkeley’s assessment. Judge Frank Roesch ruled that Cal could not just do an addendum but must more fully examine the impact of the $26 million project.

The ruling is a victory for the Panoramic Hill Association, a neighborhood group representing those who live near many of Cal’s athletic facilities, including the softball field, Memorial Stadium, the Strawberry Canyon pool and the rugby field.

The Panoramic Hill Association had filed a lawsuit against UC Berkeley because the enormous project would have severe impacts on the area, impacts that needed to be examined in detail, it said in a press release.

Exisiting softball field at UC Berkeley.
The existing softball field at UC Berkeley. Credit: Cal Athletics

Currently, the softball field, built in 1995, has permanent seating for 350, though the university often sets up portable chairs on a nearby parking lot to increase capacity to 1,350 seats. The existing field dimensions and the lighting system do not meet NCAA requirements.

UC Berkeley wants to demolish the existing complex, including the majority of the parking lot, and build a larger field, permanent seating for 1,500, a two-story building to hold a 55-foot-high press box, restrooms, locker rooms for home and visiting teams, covered batting cages and six 85-foot-high towers that would illuminate the infield, outfield, bullpen and seating. The project would also reorient the direction of home plate.

“Calling a $26 million project, with extensive demolition and construction, ‘improvements’ is like tearing a house down to the studs and calling it a remodel,” said Janice Thomas, vice president for UC affairs of the Panoramic Hill Association. “Merely calling the project less than it was did not make it so.”

UC Berkeley abides by judicial rulings, said Dan Mogulof, a vice chancellor and spokesperson for the university.

“The campus is committed to complying with its obligations to analyze the environmental impact of its projects and does additional review when courts find the analysis incomplete,” he wrote in an email.

The decision does mean that completing the project will be postponed for at least a season. UC Berkeley has not yet decided if it will appeal, he said.

In a press release, the association also expressed concern that this project would be built in what the state of California has designated a Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone.

“Intensifying use in a very high fire zone is folly given the destruction we’ve seen over the past few years,” said Thomas. “Adding thousands of spectators would increase the risk of wildfire and create evacuation issues that would endanger thousands of lives.”

Christ has said the project will be funded with “undesignated bequests” from donors rather than using state funding or student tuition dollars. The athletic department will also fundraise for the project, she said.

UC Berkeley was also forced to do an environmental impact report on its proposed beach volleyball courts on the Clark Kerr campus after four neighborhood groups sued the campus. Cal had originally hoped to proceed with the project by also doing an addendum to the long-range development plan it prepared in 2005.

UC Berkeley is also embroiled in a lawsuit with the city of Berkeley and Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods over whether it can increase its student body by 30% by just adding an addendum to the LRDP completed in 2005. A ruling on that is expected soon.

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 Created California, published in November...