New environmental report shows impact of green policies

students at Sather Gate

Despite increased enrollment, the campus has reduced environmental impacts. (UC Berkeley photo by Steve McConnell)

Back in 2005, UC Berkeley took a look into its future. The administration needed to renew its legally mandated Long-Range Development Plan (LRDP) and to forecast for the following 15 years its probable environmental footprint as a result of its operations, anticipated development and student population.

That future is here now, and a just-released Supplemental Environmental Impact Report (EIR) has good news for both the campus and the city of Berkeley. While those who compiled the LRDP a decade and a half ago did not foresee the UC Regents’ 2015 decision to greatly expand UC Berkeley’s student population, they would surely be heartened that the campus is meeting and beating the environmental impact projections they made in 2005.

The university’s current LRDP, created in 2005 after previous updates in 1962 and 1990, forecast development projects and environmental impacts based on best estimates available at that time for the campus’s future student population. Fourteen years ago, there was no way to anticipate the recent, unexpected, UC system-wide enrollment surge. Fortunately, the LRDP could not foresee the dramatic success the Berkeley campus would have in championing and implementing policies that have made a profound difference in lightening the university’s environmental footprint.

The Supplemental EIR finds that while UC Berkeley had almost 41,000 students in the 2017-18 school year, instead of the 2005 study’s projected 33,450, the environmental impact of those added students has been less—much less—than the study’s predictions.
When compared to 2004 levels, the Supplemental EIR finds that, by the 2022-23 school year, while accommodating one-third more students, campus clean water use will be 21 percent less, waste water discharge will be 21 percent lower and solid waste produced by the campus will be 33 percent lower.

Strategies designed to mitigate the campus’s impact on city streets have been similarly successful, including the successful collaboration with the city of Berkeley on efforts to encourage faculty, staff and students to use more environmentally-friendly forms of transportation. The number of daily vehicle trips to and from UC Berkeley in 2022-23 will be lower than in the 2001-02 school year. The report finds that the campus’s larger-than-expected student population will not result in increased auto emissions or produce more traffic congestion. And while reliance on public transit will grow, all regional transit systems will have sufficient capacity.

“Our intention has always been to push the boundaries and be a leader in campus sustainability practices,” Kira Stoll, UC Berkeley director of sustainability, says. “So, while campus development going forward aligns with the environmental principles of the current LRDP, we will find new ways to advance those principles past what we envisioned in 2005 by implementing progressive green building, climate and energy policies.”

Soon, the campus will implement a UC policy to have new building projects meet zero net carbon goals.

“This new policy is aligning with the overall direction that the campus wants to go in,” Stoll says. The university has already moved eligible accounts to East Bay Community Energy to get 100 percent carbon-free electricity. “For Berkeley, the cutting edge is about reducing our carbon emissions.”

In terms of infrastructure, the current LRDP still provides the campus with the ability to build many new and urgently needed residential and academic facilities in order to better accommodate and serve the student population. Additionally, the Supplemental EIR is an important element of the planning and analysis process leading to the construction of multiple student housing projects, a major priority for Chancellor Carol Christ, given the region-wide housing crisis. The last substantial student housing addition was the opening of UC Berkeley’s David Blackwell Hall in August. It was the first housing boost for the Berkeley campus since 2012. Among the next steps are plans to develop housing, classrooms and office space for the Goldman School of Public Policy on the site of the Upper Hearst Parking Structure, which is not in the LRDP-established housing zone.

“The findings in the Supplemental EIR are great news and represent a win-win-win for the community, the campus and our students, “ Steve Sutton, UC Berkeley vice chancellor for student affairs, says. “Due to effective sustainability policies, we have effectively mitigated the environmental impacts of a larger campus population while, at the same time, we have cleared the path to provide much-needed academic facilities and housing for Berkeley’s students.”

A campus commission formed in 2017 examined potential solutions to what Christ has referred to as a “student housing crisis” and identified numerous university-owned sites close to campus that could and should be slated for the construction of new housing. The chancellor accepted those recommendations and has announced plans to provide what would amount to about 7,000 new, additional beds for students over the course of the next 10 years.

One of the impacts an LRDP does not project, and that the Supplemental EIR does not measure, is the extent to which the student population influences rental rates in the city of Berkeley. While numerous market surveys show prices in Berkeley to be lower than or equal to other Bay Area cities that are not home to universities, experts say the planned increase in student housing can only help to reduce demand-side pressure on prices.

“Our goal is to increase the total percentage of students housed from 21 percent to 31 percent within the next decade, and I’m excited to be looking at the viability of several potential sites for new student housing,” Michelle Starratt, UC Berkeley director of housing development and leasing, says. “We want students to be as close to campus as possible, which is beneficial to the student experience and also reduces regional impacts.”

While the campus revs up to get more new student housing projects underway, the university is confronting the housing crisis in other ways. The school has entered into master leases with developers who have already constructed or who will be constructing buildings near the campus that are suitable for housing.

While that’s fine for the short term, UC Berkeley wants to control its own student housing, but the university has these beds in leases of less than 10 years until the other projects come online.

“Master leases are an interim approach to supply beds to students in the near term, while the campus implements its strategy to develop new housing projects,” Michelle De Guzman, UC Berkeley director of real estate acquisition and development, says. “As terms on the leases expire, we anticipate having new student housing built and added to our UC-owned portfolio, so that master leases will be substantially reduced or eliminated.”

The Supplemental EIR, which can be read here, is open for a comment period, and on March 12 at 6:30 p.m., planners will hold a public hearing at Alumni House to get feedback.