Council Works to Save ‘Living Wall'

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The Berkeley City Council gathered for a special meeting yesterday to determine the best way to prevent transportation agencies from building a concrete wall between Interstate 80 and Aquatic Park.

The city has been trying to build a "living wall" covered with greenery along the freeway, but Caltrans has said it would be too expensive and would require certain seismic safety features.

In a show of unity, the seven council members in attendance voted unanimously to support allowing $3.5 million in current funding to lapse and be redirected for the next fiscal year in order to allow more time for Caltrans and the city to come to an agreement.

The council also voted to help fund a third party consultant to ensure that the wall's construction is agreeable to the city and Caltrans. The consultant would be hired by the Alameda County Congestion Management Agency, which is expected to consider Berkeley's recommendations at a meeting this afternoon.

Lisa Coronna, the city's parks and waterfront director, said the city and Caltrans need more time to design a mutually acceptable wall.

"At the last meeting (with Caltrans) it was very clear that there would not be an agreement between the city and Caltrans in time for the (Congestion Management Agency) meeting," she said.

Coronna said the Congestion Management Agency recommended that the third party engineering consultant review the design and estimate costs.

Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who requested the special City Council meeting, said he worries Caltrans will pick a project consultant who will reject the living wall and instead advocate one composed of concrete.

"I'm not willing to accept that we're going to lose," he said. "They could pick a consultant that says the living wall is a crackpot scheme. Ideally we would want the consultant to be someone who's worked on a living wall before."

Worthington proposed that the city and Caltrans both agree on the consultant. Other council members also expressed reservations about Caltrans.

Mayor Shirley Dean discouraged giving the agency any unnecessary concessions.

"We don't need to give a sweetener to Caltrans," she said.

Dean also said the Congestion Management Agency might not approve the council's recommendations.

The council previously voted to work closely with Berkeley's legislative delegates in dealing with Caltrans. But Dean said elected officials such as State Senator Dion Aroner and U.S Rep. Barbara Lee are being "deferential" to Caltrans instead of applying pressure.

Councilmember Betty Olds suggested that the city consult its legal department to see if it could challenge Caltrans' authority.

"Many years ago, when I was a young and fair thing, (Caltrans) told us that they could not force a wall on Berkeley," she said. "It's been seven years at least since we've started this project. To end up with this damn masonry wall is just too discouraging."

Echoing Olds' concerns, Councilmember Linda Maio said she wants to know when Caltrans will stop fighting the city's attempts to construct the living wall.

"I'd like to understand at which point they can still deter us," Maio said. "We have to put a lot of pressure on them because they're a big stonewalling bureaucracy."

Maio recommended asking a university professor that agrees with the city's position to speak before the Congestion Management Agency's board.

"Having university faculty involved makes our position so much stronger," she said.


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