Berkeley’s Freeway Sports Park
Who in their right mind would ever think to create a sports field on
the shoulder of an interstate freeway that is often in gridlock and
whose daily auto capacity exceeds 250,000 vehicles? It seems no one,
except the City of Berkeley which is now proposing the Gilman Street
“Freeway Fields”. As it turns out, the site designated for
this recreational facility is connected to the East Shore Regional Park.
Unfortunately, it is that narrow portion that is directly adjacent to
I-80, separated from the busy highway by only the frontage road and
a chain link fence.
The city, which is both the project developer and the permit regulator,
has dismissed the site’s undeniably bad air quality. Planners
have been less than honest about the potential health impacts to the
Freeway Field users, the majority of whom are children. The Gilman Freeway
Fields, like a number of other West Berkeley projects, has created serious
conflicts over air quality and land use. The Gilman Street project is
the most extreme example. Berkeley’s proposal to build five sports
fields at this site throws all caution to the wind in the hope that
the wind will literally blow the right way.
Upwind and Downwind
Anyone who has visited the proposed site knows that during every season
of the year, there are days, and even periods of each day, when there
is no wind or when it blows west, towards the bay. So, it may come as
a surprise that the city’s project consultants have argued that
the Freeway Fields would be upwind from auto and industry emissions
when the fields are in use.
Although the city’s consultants acknowledge there are days when
the fields would have no wind, or would be downwind, from freeway and
industry pollution, the health risks were assessed as if the proposed
fields were only impacted by bay winds. This conveniently avoids any
discussion of the health consequences for those children on site during
the times when freeway and industry emissions do impact the proposed
location. What annual percentage of days with emissions permeating the
fields is acceptable from a public health perspective? Ten percent?
Twenty percent? Thirty percent? More? Park users have a right to know
what the real health impacts are!
The Freeway Fields project has moved through city planning without provoking
as much as a whimper from the planning commission or staff about the
site’s poor air quality. Perhaps it is because the mayor has placed
the Freeway Fields on his “progressive” agenda. Certainly
project consultants must be aware of the political pressure to make
the project work. This is city planning at its worst. In a more normal
rezoning process where the developer isn’t in the cozy position
of also being the permit regulator, such a significant change in land
use would require scientific proof about the health and safety of the
Land Use and Children
Some in Berkeley may remember the fiasco surrounding a similar project
several years ago. The Harrison soccer fields, not far from the proposed
Gilman Street site, were suspected of having poor air quality. However,
like with the Freeway Fields now, the city argued for the rezoning of
the Harrison site based on the idea that the air quality wasn’t
that bad, providing children didn’t spend too much time there.
This notion was also supported by the city’s public health officer
who publicly stated that the benefit from recreation outweighed any
health concerns. The city must have been dismayed when the onsite air
monitoring of the Harrison soccer fields revealed a much more extreme
picture. The PM10 particulate matter was shown to exceed the state’s
health standards more than 100 days a year, forcing the city to post
the soccer site with health warnings!
The California State Air Resources Board (ARB) recently updated its
land use guidelines for new sensitive land uses, including those associated
with congested freeways (100,000 vehicles/day). The ARB identifies playfields
at the top of its list of sensitive land uses, and clearly states that
locating playfields in high traffic freeway emissions areas should be
There are numerous studies confirming the association between highway
emissions and respiratory problems, including asthma and bronchitis.
These problems are all of potential concern at the Gilman site, especially
for those already at risk. Before the Freeway Fields are constructed,
the City of Berkeley needs to understand more about the site’s
exposure levels from both mobile and stationary sources of air pollution.
Unquestionably, Interstate 80 is at its worst during the late afternoon,
and is often in a total gridlock for hours. Because the fields would
be used the most during the weekday afternoon commute, the worst air
emissions would occur when the most children are exerting themselves
on the playing fields. And it won’t get better. Freeway traffic
and auto emissions at this air quality “hot spot” are only
expected to increase.
For those who believe that the Gilman Freeway Fields are sufficiently
buffered from air pollution sources at a mere 500 feet or less from
I-80, they should be aware that a study released this year by the California
Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment and the California
Department of Health Services suggests that concentrations of freeway
emissions can impact downwind receptors up to 1500 feet before diminishing
to background levels. That amounts to five football fields, end to end.
With the promise of millions of dollars coming from the state’s
Department of Parks and the East Bay Regional Parks District, the City
of Berkeley will certainly move forward to build the Freeway Fields.
Why haven’t these agencies, which are in the business of parks,
voiced their concern over sports fields being sited on a congested freeway
exit? The city should be required to monitor the air quality on site
for at least a year before development of the proposed sports fields.
Not to do so is irresponsible, and perhaps criminal!
Berkeley’s Freeway Sports Fields - Tom Bates Regional Sports Complex
L A Wood Berkeley Daily Planet, October 14, 2005