NATIONAL NEWS

UC Berkeley walls off People’s Park as it waits for court decision on student housing project

Jan 4, 2024, 1:36 PM

BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) — Police officers in riot gear removed activists from Berkeley’s People’s Park and crews began placing double-stacked shipping containers to wall off the historic park overnight Thursday as the University of California, Berkeley, waits for a court ruling it hopes will allow it to build much-needed student housing.

The project has been ensnared in a legal challenge that claims the university failed to study the potential noise issues caused by future residents and to consider alternative sites. The park has also been the scene in recent years of skirmishes between activists opposing the project and police trying to help clear it.

Authorities arrested seven people Thursday on misdemeanor trespassing charges, and two of them had additional charges of failure to disperse after they refused to leave the park, which is owned by UC Berkeley, university officials said in a statement. Those arrested were booked, cited and released, they said.

The university wants to use the park to build a housing complex that would accommodate about 1,100 UC Berkeley students and 125 formerly homeless people. Part of the park would be set aside to commemorate its significance in the civil rights movement, university officials have said.

The park was founded in 1969 as part of the free speech and civil rights movement when community organizers banded together to take back a site the state and university seized from mostly people of color under eminent domain. Since then, the gathering space has hosted free meals, community gardening, art projects, and has been used by homeless people.

Harvey Smith, president of the People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group that is spearheading the legal fight for preservation, said the university wants to build in Berkeley’s densest neighborhood, where green spaces are rare. He said they also glossed over about a dozen other sites the university owns — including a one-story, earthquake-unsafe parking lot about a block away from the park — that could be used for the $312 million student housing project.

“We have this amazing history in Berkeley of fighting for free speech, civil rights, the antiwar movement, and People’s Park is one of the chief symbols of it and they want to destroy it,” Smith said.

Last February, a court ruled in favor of the advocacy group, and the university appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court, which has yet to rule on whether the university’s environmental review of the project is sufficient and whether all possible sites for the project were considered.

“Given that the existing legal issues will inevitably be resolved, we decided to take this necessary step now in order to minimize disruption for the public and our students when we are eventually cleared to resume construction,” UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ said in a statement.

University officials said cordoning off the park with double-stacked shipping containers should take three or four days and will involve shutting down nearby streets. That would ensure it is blocked off before most students are back for the start of the spring semester Jan. 9.

In 2022, a group of protesters broke through an 8-foot (2-meter) chain fence erected around the site and faced off with police, who were standing guard as a construction crew began clearing the park of trees to make room for the housing project.

Christ said the project has strong support from students, community members, advocates for unhoused people, the elected leadership of the City of Berkeley, state lawmakers and Gov. Gavin Newsom.

In September, Newsom signed a new law that alters a key state environmental law to say that developers don’t need to consider noise from future residents as a form of environmental pollution. The new law aims to prevent lawsuits over noise concerns that may block universities from building new housing.

University officials said they would ask the Supreme Court to consider the new law in its ruling.

Rick Shahrazad, of Berkeley, joined dozens of people protesting Thursday about a block away from the park after police shut down access to it and blocked off several nearby streets.

“We see People’s Park as being one of the few places left where you could sit down on a bench. You could talk with your neighbors. There are trees, there are fruit trees,” he said.

“They should build housing and low-income housing elsewhere and leave the park alone. There’s only one People’s Park,” he added.

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Rodriguez reported from San Francisco.

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UC Berkeley walls off People’s Park as it waits for court decision on student housing project