Looking to the Future: Environmental & Land Use Issues For Peralta

September 2004 – Over the last 18 months I have spoken with a range of people who have studied the environmental and land use issues in the Peralta District and have been grateful for their insights and record of hard work. I am still developing my understanding of these issues and view this as an ongoing process. At the present, though, my attention has been drawn to 3 key environmental concerns in the Peralta Community College District:

  1. Environmental education issues;
  2. Intra-District Environmental and Energy Policy; and
  3. Land use

1) Environmental Education Issues:

The Peralta Community College District has a long history in the field of environmental education. Starting at Vista College in the 1960s the District initiated educational programs dealing with the environment and alternative energy technology. In the early 1980s, this work expanded at Merritt College with the development of the Environmental Center Self Reliant House demonstration classroom and laboratory. The environmental studies curriculum within the District continues to this day with the David R. Brower/Ronald V. Dellums Institute for Sustainable Policy Studies on the Merritt College campus. In fact, just several weeks ago, Merritt’s Environmental Studies Department under the directorship of Robin Freeman played host to ECOWAVE 2004, the third Global Interdisciplinary Conference on green architecture.

There is huge potential for this program as a center for both environmental awareness among the general population and more importantly the development of an entire generation of environmental engineers, designers, and activists working in the fields of environmental cleanup, green building, alternative energy development, and environmental justice. A strategic partnership among the Peralta District, local businesses, and environmental activists could create a potent win-win center for job creation and job training for East Bay workers and businesses that could also act as the economic foundation for an entire wave of environmental organizing and activism.

Unfortunately, the current Peralta Board has not paid sufficient attention to the potential here for jobs training, economic development, environmental education, and environmental organizing. I hope to work with faculty, staff, students and community activists to put a new focus on this area of Peralta’s potential.

2) Intra-District Environmental and Energy Policy

The Peralta Community College District has an annual budget in the neighborhood of $90 million. It employs hundreds of workers, and educates tens of thousands of students on 4 campuses covering many acres of land in the East Bay. With numbers like these, it is obvious that the Peralta Community College District has a fairly large environmental footprint in the East Bay. But, as a District, there is no systematic planning or thinking about the impact of this footprint. For example, currently, the Peralta District has no system-wide plan for energy conservation, recycling, green building and maintenance, or green transportation. Another example: activists at Merritt College have for some time been asking the District’s central maintenance office to authorize PG & E to carry out a “stop waste energy audit” of the college. But, they simply cannot seem to get through the static to follow through. Consequently, the District is spending far more than it needs on energy while simultaneously wasting precious non-renewable resources.

There are enormous possibilities here for energy conservation as well as financial savings to the District, if there is the will and focus within the District to make environmental concerns a priority. For example:

  • Millions of dollars of bond money are being spent each year on construction and maintenance. Some portion of these funds could go into the installation of solar panels that could repay itself over time; and green building designs could further enhance the District’s environmental profile.
  • Some portion of bond funding could also go into smart irrigation technology that would save water and money.
  • We could engage in partnerships with AC Transit to encourage bus use among District faculty, staff and students.
  • Bicycle commuting could be encouraged with the development of safer and more convenient bike parking on the District’s flatland campuses.
  • We have within the District right now, fabulous resources and expertise on green building, efficient energy use, and transit policy that could be put to work in a win-win, hands-on series of educational projects.
  • Faculty and staff time could incorporate practical lessons in environmental planning that could be carried out and studied by students in environmental studies classes.
  • Community members could be engaged in a variety of environmental planning processes that could raise environmental awareness, etc., etc.

The possibilities here are endless. But again, only if we have the will, focus, and leadership to make this happen.

3) Land use

One of Peralta’s significant assets is its land. We own four campuses and dozens of acres of undeveloped land in the Oakland Hills near the Merritt College Campus. There are also many other acres of land on the other three campuses. These properties are intended to meet the college district’s educational and financial needs for both today and tomorrow.

But, there have been few issues that have excited as much animosity and suspicion as have land use concerns within the Peralta Community College District. This has most famously been illustrated over the controversy regarding the possible development of the athletic fields at Laney College. I personally believe that fights and suspicions over the proposed development of the athletic fields at Laney College by private developers has been so controversial that the District should place a 3 year moratorium on even considering this question. We have other important issues that are critical to the core of our educational mission on which to focus and fights such as this have chiefly been a distraction from paying attention to our mission.

In the interim, though, I believe that Peralta should institute a longer range land-use discussion and plan. As the District does continue to consider ways to best utilize its real property, there are a few goals that I would keep in mind. New construction, additions, or expansions, should work towards respecting the following:

  • Community Partnership:

    First, planning for development should be done with the community as a partner. It is not appropriate for any entity to decide how to physically change a community without input from the neighborhood.

    I would make sure our community outreach process was thorough and started at the very beginning of any development process. Along these lines, given that land use is perhaps the most controversial issue at Peralta, it is vital that ANY decisions about land use be carried out using an OPEN AND INCLUSIVE PROCESS. If we do not do this, then whatever decision is made, regardless of the merits, will be suspect and lead to division.

    We may not be able to agree on land use issues as a community, but at the very least, we should know exactly what our disagreements are and they should be based on principal and not personalities and suspicions.

  • Respect the Environment:

    Second, any new development that does happen should respect the environment.

    This means we need to make sure to build up and not out, maximize nearby transit services, and use our land more efficiently. As well, I would strongly encourage the use of green building techniques, which often times, have a larger up front cost but are cheaper to operate in the long run.

  • Quality Design:

    Third, at the community college where I work in the South Bay, one of the biggest complaints from the neighborhood is that the college is an island in the middle of the city. Frankly, it is. Its design is completely auto-oriented, the campus is surrounded by acres of surface parking as well as a perimeter road and it is essentially cut off from the surrounding community.

    Any new development at Peralta should work towards ensuring that we are an integral part of the community. Architecture and design should make the community college inviting and welcoming of intellectual stimulation, community gathering and much more. The college should be a community center and its physical design should send that message.

  • Long term fiscal integrity:

    One critical issue the Peralta District faces is the continual fiscal crisis generated by a complex array of economic and political forces beyond its immediate control.

    Given that the District cannot expect stable budgets from the state any time soon, and given that the District has no cash endowment, we must also consider what resources the District currently has (or that can be generated) that can be put towards the ongoing and long-term educational mission of the District. We need to establish a plan to create an endowment or trust that will generate ONGOING revenue above and beyond what the state provides. This will require a clear assessment of what resources exist within the district and how they can best be utilized.

    Aside from Laney’s athletic fields, there are a variety of other real property assets that Peralta owns that represents one resource that should be considered. Initiating this discussion, utilizing an open process of shared governance and community involvement, would be a responsible step in this direction.

  • Educational Mission:

    Finally, every single action we take at Peralta must be done with the following question is mind: Does this action advance or hurt the primary educational mission of the District?

    The Peralta District is first and foremost an educational institution. There are, of course, other goals and responsibilities the District has. These include environmental stewardship, economic development, job creation, community building, long-term support for retirees, etc.

    But each of these goals must be balanced against the primary educational mission of the District. And under NO circumstances should District land, or ANY District resource, be used primarily because it benefits some private interests.