When they first moved from their semi-rural hometown, Rico Marisol found the bustle of Berkeley stress-inducing. In early 2021, as a sophomore at the University of California Berkeley, they found solace under the tall, old trees of People’s Park.
UC Berkeley cut down those trees last summer, in preparation for student housing construction on the site, facing pressure due to only having enough on-campus housing to support 20% of its students. Some students, like Marisol, said they are fighting against the development to defend the park’s history, green space, unhoused population and community assistance services.
The development has been shrouded in controversy since UC Berkeley announced its intentions for the park, located a tenth of a mile from the south side of campus. And most recently, a nonprofit developer pulled out of the project due to the legal limbo surrounding it.
In February, the 1st District Court of Appeal in San Francisco ruled that the university needed to address problems with the project’s environmental impact report before moving forward with construction. On May 17, the California Supreme Court set aside that ruling and agreed to hold a hearing to consider UC Berkeley’s plan.
Lisa Teague, an activist and former resident of People’s Park, said the space has been referred to as “the third rail of Berkeley politics,” despite being only 2.8 acres in size. That’s likely in large part due to the park’s history. It started out as a site for political activism in the 1960s and has more recently served as a hub for low-income communities, with a group of volunteers working to provide mutual aid like meals, clothing and harm-reduction services.
UC Berkeley’s plan for the space includes housing for more than 1,100 undergraduate students, permanent housing for 100 unhoused people, and green space with commemoration of the park’s history.
A spring 2023 survey conducted by UC Berkeley found that 15% of student respondents opposed construction of student housing on the site, even after being informed of all the project’s elements.
“If there was unanimity of perspective about anything at UC Berkeley, it would mean the university was doing something horribly wrong, in terms of the kinds of students we admit,” Dan Mogulof, UC Berkeley’s spokesperson, said.
Though students in opposition to the park’s development — according to the survey — are in the minority, they said they are committed to ensuring, alongside other community activists, that UC Berkeley doesn’t develop the space.
Marisol said they think People’s Park is the only place where community services like meals and harm-reduction services — such as needle exchange programs and naloxone distribution — can be provided consistently to those in need without governmental oversight.
Though UC Berkeley has set up a daytime center to assist with these kinds of services, Marisol said they feel like the plans they have for offering more social services aren’t a replacement for harm reduction because “they do not follow a harm-reductionist framework.” Marisol clarified, however, that this doesn’t mean they and other activists don’t want other nonprofits and organizations to support their work at the park.
Ultimately, Marisol said they feel like the development plan won’t honor the park’s history, provide as much green space as it currently does and properly serve the unhoused community at the park.
Marisol also has an issue with the university claiming the plan is for the benefit of students.
“OK, it’s student housing — for what students?” Marisol said. “Because I can’t afford their housing.”
Mogulof pointed to financial aid resources when asked about the affordability of UC Berkeley’s student housing. But Cyn Gómez, another People’s Park student activist, said financial aid and the way it’s disbursed isn’t always reflective of a person’s true financial needs. This may be especially true in a city like Berkeley, considered one of the most expensive college towns in the country.
Gómez, an incoming senior studying social welfare at UC Berkeley, got involved with defending the park because of his own experiences with housing difficulty in childhood. He said it’s frustrating that it seems like the university won’t restrategize its plan even after hearing opposition to the development from students and other community members.
“What becomes really frustrating is when they capitalize on this activist notion — that their students are so progressive and revolutionary and all these other things, and then they go and do things like this,” Gómez said. “It’s like, obviously, you’re not on our side.”
Mogulof, on the other hand, said the university pivoted after listening to concerns about the plan, particularly in regard to the park’s unhoused community. After graduate students conducted a survey at People’s Park, Mogulof said they found the people staying there wanted a path to permanent housing, rather than staying at the park. As a result, the university has spent over $4 million on making that happen, according to Mogulof.
For Nicholas Behney, a Cal grad and former resident of the park who stayed there around 2008, it feels like too little, too late.
“Why is your care only manifesting in 2018, 2019?” Behney asked. “Where were you in 2008?”
Gómez said he thinks many students support the project because they’re only receiving information about it from the university, which he believes is not transparent. He thinks UC Berkeley officials are able to use their tools of communication to encourage students to support the development.
This includes the University of California Police Department’s safety notification system, called WarnMe, which sends students warnings and community advisories around campus. Both Gómez and Teague said they feel that UC Berkeley uses this system to scare students about the park, specifically by sending out warnings on incidents listed as occurring at People’s Park when in fact they are just in the vicinity, not on the actual property.
Mogulof said these claims are “categorically false.”
“Nothing like that has ever happened and nothing like that ever will,” Mogulof said. “In addition, our olice department keeps very careful records of crime in and around a park. Those statistics speak for themselves and need no embellishment.”
He also said the messages have emphasized that the victims of crimes happening at the park are “almost always unhoused people who sleep or gather in the park,” not students.
Marisol and Gómez also said they don’t understand why the university chose to build on People’s Park when it owns other properties. Mogulof explained, however, that Berkeley needs to build student housing on every university-owned property — and even then, it still won’t meet the need it currently faces.
“We really believe that when all is said and done — revitalizing green space, commemoration of the park’s past, housing for some 1,000 students, supportive housing for unhoused people — that the site in the future could not be more in line with the founding ideals,” Mogulof said.
But some students, like Marisol and Gómez, would rather see the park become a more structured community center for low-income and unhoused communities. This would include a kitchen, working bathrooms with showers, a computer lab, space for social workers, a community garden, an homage to the park’s long history and more.
Behney agrees that the potential for the park is being overlooked by the university.
“There’s so much more we could do with that space to help some of the most vulnerable people in our society, rather than sanitizing it and pushing it under someone else’s rug,” he said.
Ari Neulight, UC Berkeley’s outreach coordinator for People’s Park, said he thinks the community center is a great idea. But he doesn’t think it needs to be an either-or situation.
“Let’s be at the table and find out what’s possible — everyone wants green space, how do we have green space? That really works and supports the community and has students and student leaders and community and folks impacted in the park making those decisions together. You know, if a community center is what’s asked for — awesome, right? — let’s see how it’s possible,” Neulight said.
Neulight said he thinks all voices should be heard about People’s Park, but that it’s hard to move forward when people are coming to the table saying “no.”
Behney said there’s always been a steady student base ready and willing to help out at the park, and their enthusiasm and energy is valuable to the work.
“There’s something about this newer generation that just cuts through the crap, says it as it is,” Behney said. “I really enjoy that, and a lot of them who come from less privileged backgrounds, I think understand the dynamics of the park a little more and can work with those to benefit others.”
People’s Park activists believe student involvement defending the space is growing, and has been since early 2021.
“I think the chancellor’s recently stated via Dan Mogulof that they are unwaveringly committed to building on People’s Park, and you know, we’re unwaveringly committed to them not building on People’s Park,” Teague said.
Gómez said student and community activists defending the park “aren’t going anywhere.” As UC Berkeley remains in limbo with construction and searches for a new nonprofit developer, Gómez said he and other activists wish the university were more interested in hearing out their concerns about the plan.
“We recognize, and we experience the housing crisis — more than any of you that get paid hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Gómez said. “And we’re here to tell you that this is not a good idea, but we would love to see a good one.”
This story was originally published by EdSource. Please use the original link when sharing: https://edsource.org/2023/uc-berkeley-continues-with-peoples-park-student-housing-development-despite-continued-resistance/691501