June 7, 2011
By Evan Aczon
Anyone who has driven along Piedmont Avenue through the Cal campus over last two years has likely noticed a level of construction that extends beyond the scope of the renovation of Memorial Stadium and the building of the Student-Athlete High Performance Center.
If that trip occurred since mid-May, it is now impossible not to notice. That's because the northbound half of Piedmont Avenue is no longer there. The stadium side of the divided street is currently closed to both vehicle and pedestrian traffic and is scheduled to remain off-limits until the end of August.
The shutdown is necessary for a renovation and utility installation project that will restore the safety and aesthetic appeal of the area around Memorial Stadium while preserving the historical qualities that make both the stadium and the Berkeley campus unique.
Just as the stadium rebuild is working to preserve the outer wall that makes it distinct, the overhaul of Piedmont Avenue also incorporates the restoration of its own historic wall, one that has been missing since the original construction of Memorial Stadium in 1923.
"When they built the road, they built this stone wall on the uphill side that was removed when the stadium was built," said Jim Horner, the Campus Landscape Architect for UC Berkeley. "We call that the rhyolite wall. That wall is pretty evident throughout North Berkeley. They were also around the site where we built the Residential and Student Services office building 10 years ago. We salvaged those stones and have been holding them in storage for 10 years, waiting for this moment."
That moment is finally here. The stones represent 150 years of Berkeley history, not just University history, and their use can be traced back to the de facto father of American landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmsted, who, among other sites, designed Central Park in New York. The restoration of the rhyolite wall is actually part of a larger scale historical reclamation of sorts that may not be apparent the average observer.
"One of the guiding principles in the design was to recognize that [Berkeley] was a rustic area," Horner revealed. "The contemporary architects took it as a principal that the farther away from the stadium you got, the rougher everything would be."
When fans walk up to the stadium in 2012, they'll see this process in reverse, from rough and rustic to regal and refined.
The outermost rhyolite wall along Piedmont Avenue represents that roughness of character, with coarsely cut stones that don't have any visible grout lines or appear to be set in any organized way. Coming up through the new grove of oak trees, fans will come across the second wall, the outer wall of the Student-Athlete High Performance Center, which is also comprised of a rough-hewn stone. The next layer is a textural, board-form concrete wall. Finally, fans will come upon the historic facade of Memorial Stadium, crowned with a modern press box of glass and steel.
When finished, there will be new sidewalk with a black granite curb that graduates down to the street level, replacing the current rounded mound of asphalt. The sidewalk will provide much improved disabled access, boast new scooter and bicycle parking, and even offer a bench-like step to sit on in front of the renovated stadium.
In addition to the landscaping restoration, the project contains major upgrades to the steam, electrical, telecom, lighting, paving and drainage systems around the stadium.
The combination of the tall utility poles and the low-hanging oak canopy around stadium can make Piedmont a dark street to walk at night. The installation of new lamps at street level, much like the lamps on the west side of the street that surround the Haas School of Business, will increase safety and appeal for those who use it after sunset.
The contractors and engineers have been working closely with the City of Berkeley, whose progressive pedestrian and bike-friendly reputation is well-known.
"City staff has dealt with these challenging pedestrian issues in the past, so the city knows what they want," said Dan Leary, who works with Bellecci & Associates, the civil engineers on both the stadium and the Piedmont projects. "It's not as much a challenge as people think. Even though this isn't a city project, the City of Berkeley has a system for plan approval that is very streamlined."
When walking along the top of campus this summer, remember that it's not just the stadium that is getting a facelift, but also everything around it. A project such as the renovation of Memorial Stadium can create several beneficial "side effects" that will help beautify the campus and improve the operations and surrounding building service, as well.
Construction along Piedmont Avenue is planned to be finished around the start of classes this fall.