Seismic Punt

UC ignores its own engineering report on shoring up the Golden Bears' stadium, but the fans don't care

Every time the coin drops to the field at the start of another football game at UC Berkeley's Memorial Stadium, school officials are hoping for more than a Golden Bears victory. "We all pray that there is not a quake on game day. It would be an ugly scene," says Mike Weinberger, associate athletic director.

He and his colleagues must have strong faith in the power of prayer, because in recent years, none of the extra money raised for refurbishing the facility has gone to strengthening the building, in spite of engineers' recommendations. Instead, it has been spent on more visible, revenue-enhancing projects like a Hall of Fame, new coaches rooms, and, most recently, a reception area for big alumni givers.

State seismic experts are critical of the university's head-in-the-sand approach. They say the university is exploiting a statutory loophole that permits it to drag its feet on retrofitting plans and is failing to give fans adequate notice of the risks involved in attending one of the six regular home games each season. The school, in essence, is betting that when a quake hits, the stadium will be dark -- and it is doing little to alleviate the dangers if it loses that gamble.

Although a university-commissioned study last year showed that the stadium needed reinforcement and trenching to prepare for the next shaker, the university has put off the project because of funding concerns, calling it a "low priority." Preliminary estimates for a full retrofit run upward of $20 million.

"I can't tell you exactly where [stadium retrofitting] is on the priority list," says Mike Boccicchio, the UC system's assistant vice president of facilities administration. "But I know my priorities have to be balanced with other priorities for the state. I have to assume some risk in life, but we'll do the best we can."

More than 170 buildings in the UC system have been retrofitted in the last several years as part of a massive campaign to upgrade facilities, Boccicchio says. But a number of factors make Memorial Stadium less likely to get any attention any time soon. It hosts major events only a few Saturdays out of the year. Most important, though, the stadium is not eligible for state education funding because it is not considered an "academic" facility. That means the university would have to tap into private donations and ticket sales.

To date, that money has gone elsewhere, like the recent $1 million spent to expand meeting areas and reception rooms. "All of that money was from private donations specifically for that project," Weinberger says. "I'm not even sure that if the university had the money, it would spend it to strengthen a building that's only used 36 hours out of the year."

"You have the opportunity to improve your facility with the plan that you're going to shore up [retrofit] in the future," says Assistant Athletic Director Mike Huff.

But Fred Turner, a seismologist with the California Seismic Safety Commission, says that the university should put safety before amenities. Ordinarily, state building codes require structures to be seismically strengthened before additions may be made. Turner says the school is shirking its obligations through a loophole that lets it develop and enforce its own building codes. "It would be nice if [the university] had a truly independent building code enforcement entity to ensure that there's no conflict of interest that occurs between code enforcement people and budgetary people concerned with getting things done on time," Turner says.

Turner also charges that the university is not doing enough to disclose the earthquake danger. The commission has recommended that the university put up warning signs, which the university has not done.

"I think they've shined us on," Turner says. "A prudent person would alert the general public upon entering. That's the legal argument. [Placards] are a small investment ... maybe someone truly concerned about earthquakes would not elect to go into the building." Season ticket holders do receive earthquake information with their tickets, and an evacuation message that mentions earthquakes is broadcast at the beginning of each game. But few sitting among the sea of blue and gold Oct. 27 to watch the Golden Bears against UCLA could be bothered by conflicts of interest -- or earthquakes for that matter.

"Living with earthquakes is a part of life in the Bay Area, and so is going to Cal football games," said Joe Rodgers, class of '54. "We're not going to stop going to Cal games just because there is a threat of an earthquake."

The Hayward fault last shifted in 1868, producing an 8.3-magnitude quake, Berkeley seismologist Robert Uhrhammer says. The stadium was built in the '20s. "The fault is capable of producing 7-magnitude earthquakes, and it will undoubtedly have them in the future." That's in the vicinity of the Loma Prieta quake, which hit during the 1989 World Series. More ominously, faults that have produced high-magnitude tremors in the past are more likely to have them in the future, he says. A rupture on the Hayward fault would rip the west side of the stadium farther to the west and pull the northeast side to the southeast, Uhrhammer says.

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