Activist Opposes City's Controversial New Park

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A Berkeley environmental activist said yesterday he is challenging the city's plan to build a skate park in an area marked by questionable air quality.

On Feb. 8, L.A. Wood filed an appeal with the Zoning Adjustments Board to block the council's decision to purchase 6.4 acres of UC Berkeley property located at Fifth and Harrison streets in West Berkeley. The city voted late last year to build a skate park and two sports fields on the property.

According to a report from the city health officer, emissions from local industrial plants and the I-80 freeway will put children who play at the park at risk, especially those who suffer from asthma.

Councilmember Margaret Breland, a strong supporter of the project, said more studies are underway to assess the park's air quality.

"If it's not good enough, we're just going to have to make it good enough," she said. "I want the skate park built."

But Wood said the city conducted an insufficient two-day sampling of the air quality in 1997 and does not plan to test pollution levels again until after the park is built.

"What will the city do if the study done after the park is built points to a more severe air problem and health risk than anticipated?" he asked. "It's the worst air quality in Berkeley."

Wood said his appeal of the city's use permit will be decided at next Tuesday's council meeting, but that he expects the city to go forward with the plan regardless.

"This is the time where real discussion needs to happen," he said. "By standing up to the project I'm giving them a last chance to do that."

The city should create an "Air Quality Enterprise Zone" in which industrial plants would be encouraged to curb emissions, Wood said. He added that the permission form parents need to sign before their children play in the park should inform them of the risks of odorless toxic chemicals and particulate matter in the air.

Councilmember Polly Armstrong said she supports building the field because studies show the air quality is acceptable.

"We have a homeless shelter for families on the site," she said. "I can't imagine if it's that bad that there would be families living there."

Armstrong said she regrets the park's location, but it is the best available option at this time. Parents of children who will play there support the site, she added.

"We have a dense city with virtually no place for children to play," Armstrong said. "Right now people are skateboarding on city streets."

Armstrong also said she expects the project to go forward as planned and that Wood's alternative suggestion to build the field on Allston Way would be unacceptable because gas tanks have been filled on the site.

The city's Commission on Disabilities ruled last year that more studies need to be done before the project goes forward, according to Virginia Vafa, the commission's secretary.

If the city overrules Wood's appeal, it is then expected to approve a contract with a non-profit organization to begin construction of the field.


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