Court Ruling Allows Student Housing at UC Berkeley’s Iconic People’s Park

Court Ruling Allows Student Housing at UC Berkeley’s Iconic People’s Park

A cyclist rides past People's Park in Berkeley, Calif., on March 29, 2022. Many of the trees in the park were toppled on Aug. 3, 2022, during an attempt to start a construction project. A California Supreme Court ruling will allow student housing at University of California to be built at Berkeley's historic People's Park. (Eric Risberg/AP Photo)

The Associated Press

The Associated Press

6/9/2024

Updated: 6/9/2024

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SAN FRANCISCO—People’s Park in Berkeley, which since the Vietnam War has been a site for protests and counterculture movements, can be converted into student housing for the University of California, the state Supreme Court ruled June 6, capping a yearslong legal fight over the landmark.
The court ruled that a new law enacted in 2023 invalidates the claims by two local organizations that sued the school, saying more students living in downtown Berkeley would add noise pollution to an already dense area.
Because of the new law, which “all parties have effectively acknowledged, this lawsuit poses no obstacle to the development of the People’s Park housing project,” Chief Justice Patricia Guerrero wrote in the unanimous decision.
Californians are pushing for more housing of all types, including for students at public universities and colleges. Some students sleep in their cars, crash on friends’ couches, or commute hours to attend class due to limited space in dorms and nearby apartments.
The court noted that Berkeley provides housing to the lowest percentage of students compared to other schools in the UC system. During the 2023-2024 academic year, UC Berkeley housed 9,905 students, about 22 percent of the university’s 45,699 enrolled students, UC Berkeley spokesperson Kyle Gibson said in an email.
UC Berkeley plans to build a $312 million housing complex for about 1,100 of its students at the nearly 3-acre People’s Park, which it owns. Protests have at times escalated into skirmishes between police and activists.
In 2022, activists broke through an 8-foot chain fence erected around the park as crews began clearing trees to make room for the housing project. In January, police officers in riot gear removed activists from the park as crews began walling off the site with double-stacked shipping containers.
The park was founded in 1969 as part of the era’s free speech and Civil Rights Movement and for decades served as a gathering space for free meals, community gardening, and art projects, and was used by homeless people. It turned into both a symbol of resistance and mayhem during a deadly confrontation between protesters and police that year known as “Bloody Thursday,” after which then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan sent in 3,000 National Guardsmen for a two-week period.
Police arrest student during riots against closure of "People's Park" in Berkeley, Calif., on June 3, 1969. (Staff/AFP via Getty Images)

Police arrest student during riots against closure of "People's Park" in Berkeley, Calif., on June 3, 1969. (Staff/AFP via Getty Images)

Stacked shipping containers begin to surround People's Park in Berkeley, Calif. on Thursday, Jan. 4, 2024. (Brontë Wittpenn/San Francisco Chronicle via AP)

Stacked shipping containers begin to surround People's Park in Berkeley, Calif. on Thursday, Jan. 4, 2024. (Brontë Wittpenn/San Francisco Chronicle via AP)

The university is relieved by the court’s decision and it will turn its attention to resuming construction at the site, Mr. Gibson said.
“Our students and unhoused people desperately need the housing components of the project, and the entire community will benefit from the fact that more than 60 percent of the 2.8-acre site will be revitalized as open park space,” Mr. Gibson said in a statement.
Make UC a Good Neighbor and The People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group filed a lawsuit against the project, saying that the university system should have considered increased noise under the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA. They also said there are more appropriate places the university could build, and the park is a rare green space in one of Berkeley’s densest neighborhoods.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom vowed to work with legislators to amend the law after a state appeals court last year ruled against the University of California, saying that it failed to assess the impact of potential noise “from loud student parties” on residential neighborhoods.
In September, Mr. Newsom signed a law that amended CEQA to clarify that housing projects do not need to study the noise generated by prospective future residents.
Crews work to remove debris from People's Park in Berkeley, Calif. on Thursday, Jan. 4, 2024. (Brontë Wittpenn/San Francisco Chronicle via AP)

Crews work to remove debris from People's Park in Berkeley, Calif. on Thursday, Jan. 4, 2024. (Brontë Wittpenn/San Francisco Chronicle via AP)

Harvey Smith, president of the People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group and one of the plaintiffs, said the decision was disappointing but not surprising.
“It’s disappointing because community groups play by the rules and when we win what UC does is go to the Legislature to change the rules,” Mr. Smith said.
“Community groups don’t have the deep pockets or powerful connections UC does,” he added.
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