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A tree sitter perched on top of one of the many trees in the Oak Memorial Grove in front of the Cal Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, CA August 23, 2007. (Laura A. Oda/The Oakland Tribune)
BERKELEY — They wear bandannas on their faces and rarely speak from the tree perches where some have lived for more than a year.

The public doesn't know their names because they use pseudonyms, such as Otter and Chewing Gum, to protect their identities from police and University of California, Berkeley, officials.

But almost everyone from Bolinas to Bakersfield and from Alameda to Atherton knows about the tree sitters of Berkeley — a handful of nonstudents who live and sleep on suspended wooden platforms in the trees they are trying to save from being razed to make room for a $125 million sports training center for the Cal Bears football team and 12 other sports teams.

The tree sit may be the public face of the 15-month, town-grown controversy over the training center plans, but opponents of the plan — including the city of Berkeley, an environmental foundation and a neighborhood association — say larger issues are at stake if the university moves forward.

Those issues include the wisdom of building a new complex on an earthquake fault that scientists say is overdue for a major temblor, the livability of the neighborhood and more traffic congestion.

"While the trees are important to a lot of people, they are not the reason the city filed a suit in this case," Acting City Attorney Zach Cowan said. "The city has been primarily focused on public safety and emergency response, and to have a planning process by the campus that was rational."

The city of Berkeley is one of the four entities that sued the university to stop the sports training center project, which plaintiffs believe would be seismically unsafe and cause more noise and traffic. Three of the four lawsuits were consolidated and testimony in the cases continues today in a Hayward courtroom. The plaintiffs come from diverse backgrounds — The California Oak Foundation, the Panoramic Hill Association, and a group called Save Tightwad Hill all sued.

But the lawsuits follow similar themes: The university did not do the appropriate environmental studies or adequately consider alternatives to the grove site where the training center is to be built.

The university also wants to renovate Memorial Stadium in later stages of the renovation, but money for that project has not been secured.

The plaintiffs contend that the sports training center would be unsafe because it would be attached to the seismically unsound Memorial Stadium. Neighbors fear noise, traffic snarls and additional fan craziness with added stadium events. The Tightwad Hill group doesn't want to lose its free view of games from a grassy knoll.

"Folks are worried about the noise and traffic," said Jerry Wachtel, president of the Panoramic Hill Association.

"The roads are narrow and choked. During a football game you either stay home and don't leave, or you leave in the morning and you don't come home until late at night."

He said residents worry the university will hold more events at the renovated stadium, thus adding even more traffic and noise to the neighborhood.

Construction has been held up for more than a year by a court injunction that bans any changes to the building site. University officials say the project is now more than $6 million over budget because of the delay.

Trial resumes

What will happen next in the closely watched saga will take a step forward today as Alameda County Superior Court Judge Barbara J. Miller considers expert testimony as to why the planned sports training center should be considered a "separate structure" from the seismically unsound Memorial Stadium, which straddles the Hayward fault.

"From the very beginning, the campus knew it needed to build a separate structure," because anything less would have been seismically unsafe, university spokesman Dan Mogulof has said.

"That was the task assigned to our architect, and that is exactly what they delivered," Mogulof said. "We are confident that engineering experts will confirm that the student athlete high-performance center is in no way, shape or form an addition or alteration to California Memorial Stadium."

This is the first time Miller has considered the case in court in about five months. 

A trial for three of the four lawsuits (not including Save Tightwad Hill) was held in the Hayward Hall of Justice in October and a decision was expected in January.

But in a surprise move in December, Miller issued preliminary findings that rejected UC Berkeley's claim that a law called the Alquist-Priolo Earthquake Zoning Act does not apply to its plan to build the student-athlete center near the stadium. For safety reasons, the 1972 act prohibits "alterations or additions" to existing structures to be built on earthquake faults where the cost of the alteration or addition exceeds 50 percent of the value of the existing structure.

That order says the university "never considered" whether the center was an alteration or an addition to the stadium for purposes of compliance with the act, or whether the cost to construct the sports center might violate the act because it is more than 50 percent of the value of the stadium. Stephen Volker, an attorney for the California Oak Foundation, said plaintiffs are confident that further evidence to be presented in court will show that the center is an alteration of and an addition to the Memorial Stadium. It's not clear how long oral arguments, which begin at 1 p.m. today in Hayward, will continue.

While opponents have found a number of reasons to criticize the project, UC Berkeley officials say they desperately need a centrally located, state-of-the-art sports training center, with enough space for locker facilities, weight training, sports rehabilitation and medicine for the university's 300-plus athletes.

"At the end of the day, it's to address modern-day athletic needs, which today (the stadium) just can't serve," said UC Berkeley attorney Mike Goldstein in a recent speech at the Berkeley City Club.

Athletes agree.

"We have the smallest amount of space between all the Pac-10 (Conference) schools and yet we are producing championships. I would think we could do so much more with more space and better facilities," said Cal volleyball player Kat Reilly, who is also president of the campus Student Athlete Advisory Council.

There seems to be no shortage of anecdotes about a lack of space and outdated training facilities.

Members of the women's softball team change into their uniforms in their cars.

Athletic Director Sandy Barbour has admitted that because of the shabby facilities, she steers clear of the visiting athletic director after games. One time, after a sizable earthquake last year, she got into her car in the middle of the night and drove to the stadium — just to make sure it wasn't rubble.

Cal Bears football coach Jeff Tedford makes his case for new training digs by telling of a time when a piece of concrete from the stadium fell right into his parking space.

"This isn't about bells and whistles," Tedford said in an interview last year. "This is about being functional, this is about giving all the student athletes the environment to reach their full potential, giving all these athletes a safe place to work."

That might all be true, but, opponents say, the university should pick another, safer site.

Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates said the city sued because Memorial Stadium, which sits just 50 feet from where the training center is scheduled to be built, is unsafe.

It's tough to get in and out of the area under normal conditions. A big fire or an earthquake would create havoc for the city, which provides all the fire and public safety services to the campus.

"It's absolutely clear the stadium is a seismic risk," said Bates, a UC Berkeley alumnus who played football on the Golden Bears' 1959 Rose Bowl team. "We could end up with a big, high-performance facility and no stadium."

Seismic risks overlooked

Opponents also say the university went about the planning process all wrong.

"A lot of times the city doesn't like what the university is doing but we don't sue," Cowan said. "They can usually explain: This is what we are doing and here's why and here's why it's best for us, the university, even if you don't like it. In this case, it just makes no sense."

They also say the university did not properly consider the seismic risk.

Research released earlier in the year shows that some scientists say the Hayward fault may be even more dangerous than previously thought.

By analyzing gradual changes in stress on the deepest parts of faults in the area, geologists found that several faults, including the southern portion of the Hayward fault, may be more primed to rupture than previously estimated.

The most recent USGS assessment of earthquake probabilities from 2002 gives a 62 percent chance of a magnitude 6.7 or greater temblor somewhere in the Bay Area in the next 30 years. Together, the Hayward fault and the Rodgers Creek fault account for 27 percent of that probability, more than any other fault in the area, including the San Andreas, which has a 21 percent chance.

One of the main reasons research shows a much higher risk on the Hayward fault is because researchers used the average time between the last five earthquakes on that fault, which is about 140 years.

The official USGS probability estimate used the average interval between the last 11 quakes, which was thought to be about 170 years at the time of the estimate.

"If the worst comes to pass and there is a big game during the next quake, those deaths are on the UC regents' hands and they will have to deal with it financially as well as morally," said Jesse Townley, chair of Berkeley's Disaster and Fire Safety Commission.

Staff writer Doug Oakley and managing editor of newsroom technology Rob Lindquist contributed to this report.