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'Great day' as campus leaders cheer reopening of Memorial Stadium

By Barry Bergman

Among its myriad improvements, the newly refurbished, revitalized and retrofitted California Memorial Stadium features no fewer than 365 restroom stalls – one for every day of the year.

Video tour shows off newly renovated Memorial Stadium’s improvements: new field and turf, seismic reinforcements, press box, kitchen and lots of restrooms.

An even more impressive number is 640, which is how many days it took construction crews to turn a decrepit, 89-year-old arena used chiefly for home football games into a modern, state-of-the-art facility meant to serve the entire campus community not just on football Saturdays but throughout the week, all year-round.

Most impressive of all, perhaps, the massive, $321 million overhaul was accomplished without the use of public funds, and without altering the structure’s elegant neo-Roman façade, a reminder of its origins as a memorial to UC Berkeley community members who died in World War I.

“We have just arrived at a proud and great moment in the history of Cal,” exulted Chancellor Robert Birgeneau on Friday, speaking at a sun-dappled news conference staged on the new, 1.5-acre Lisa and Douglas Goldman Plaza, soon to become a multi-use public space. Birgeneau noted that when he became chancellor eight years ago, the stadium was high on his list of priorities, in desperate need not just of enhancements for student-athletes and fans but of a seismic upgrade as well.

It got all that and more, including the Simpson Center for Student Athlete High Performance, a gleaming underground training facility that has ushered Cal athletes into the 21st century, and brought joy and relief to Athletic Director Sandy Barbour and football coach Jeff Tedford, both of whom took part in Friday’s reopening celebration.

The project, said Barbour, “is the result of literally thousands – and in the case of our generous donors, tens of thousands – of passionate Cal faithful who believed in the need for facilities that provided conditions for success for our student-athletes, and who believed in the need for a stadium that provided a safe, secure venue for our community to gather.”

Barbour noted that campus leaders had explored a variety of alternative sites for a new stadium before deciding to renovate the aging Strawberry Canyon arena. The success of the project, she said, validates that decision, and makes it possible “to keep football on campus, so that it continues to be a valuable connection point for our students, our alumni and our campus community.”

“We’ve gone from having arguably – and no one here would argue it – arguably the worst facilities in Division I to certainly among the best,” Barbour said.

And while that will benefit student-athletes across the board, it’s likely to have an especially positive impact on the Cal football program, whose recruitment efforts have not been helped by substandard facilities. Tedford, who took over the floundering Golden Bears in 2002 and has since led them to eight bowl games, called it “a great day” for athletes as well as for football fans, whose game-day experience will now be enhanced by a concourse four times as big as the old one, spectacular views of the campus and San Francisco Bay, exotic food offerings and, of course, bathrooms galore.

Tedford & Wilton

Cal football coach Jeff Tedford, left, shares a laugh with Vice Chancellor for Administration and Finance John Wilton at Friday’s news conference. ( photo)

“When I first walked in there I got a little emotional and sentimental,” said Tedford, remembering the 19 months when tree-sitters and their supporters were a constant presence just yards from what is now Lisa and Douglas Goldman Plaza. He said that he’d always felt for the fans who had to be on the old concourse on game days, “especially the women waiting for the women’s restrooms. I think they’re going to be very happy with the renovation.”

“It’s just a great day for the fans,” he said. “We owe a great deal of gratitude to everyone who took part in this. It’s a huge step not only for the football program but all the other sports that share the building…. It really is a special time.”

The stadium renovation, begun after the Cal football team’s final home game in December 2010, fulfills a campuswide commitment to have the venue ready in time for next Saturday’s home opener against Nevada. In addition to the seismic retrofit, crews added 100,000 square feet of new turf surfacing, lowered the field by four feet to improve sight lines for fans in the front rows, replaced splintery wooden bleachers with aluminum ones and installed a new sound system designed especially for Memorial Stadium. The arena also boasts three new club levels and an expansive press box.

Birgeneau, recalling the lawsuits and seemingly endless tree-sit that stalled and threatened to scuttle the ambitious project, took note of what he called “unexpected difficulties” in getting the job done — “some legal, and some colorful, as only Berkeley can produce.”

There on the plaza, though, all that seemed long ago and far, far away.