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Construction was halted almost as soon as it began on housing at historic People’s Park after University of California at Berkeley decided to pause work Wednesday following a protest the university said threatened the safety of workers.

Following a judge’s decision Friday that became final this week, UC Berkeley fenced off the park early Wednesday to prepare to build $312 million of student housing and supportive housing for formerly homeless people.

A stump and pile of sawdust is all that remains of one of several trees removed from People’s Park by workers Wednesday. (Photo courtesy of Jon Jackson/Facebook)

The 2.8-acre People’s Park is on the National Register of Historic Places. It was the site of protests in the 1960s and ’70s as the university tried to build a sports field, then a soccer field and parking lot, and again a parking lot on the land. The protests led to a shooting in which police killed a protester in 1969, and then-Gov. Ronald Reagan called out the National Guard.

“Due to the destruction of construction materials, unlawful protest activity, and violence on the part of some protesters,” university officials said they halted work started Wednesday.

“The campus will, in the days ahead, assess the situation in order to determine how best to proceed with construction of this urgently needed student housing project,” UC Berkeley spokesperson Kyle Gibson said.

Seeking legal intervention

On Wednesday afternoon, a group opposed to the construction of housing at the park was seeking a court stay of demolition against the university.

Harvey Smith, president of People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group, said the university exaggerates things. He was skeptical that protesters were violent.

University officials said police were withdrawn from the site to avoid continued confrontation with protesters. Police arrested some of the protesters Wednesday, but the exact number was unavailable.

Protesters in the ’60s and ’70s also stopped the university’s plans. The university owns the park land, which is just south of the campus core.

“The campus will, in the days ahead, assess the situation in order to determine how best to proceed with construction of this urgently needed student housing project.”

Kyle Gibson, UC Berkeley spokesperson

“We recognize this as a historic place,” university spokesperson Dan Mogulof said Wednesday morning, and UC Berkeley has plans for memorializing it.

He said how exactly the university will remember the park’s history has not been determined. He said the university wants to get input from residents and students.

The park’s historic status does not prevent the university from building housing there, and workers felled trees Wednesday morning to make room for the buildings.

Opponents of the plan said an alternative site exists about a block away at Channing Way and Ellsworth Street. That is the site of a parking structure that is seismically unsafe, Smith said.

But Mogulof said while that is true, the university has designated that site for housing, too, because of the severe and urgent need for student housing at UC Berkeley.

No information on the court appeal was available from the opponents late Wednesday.