UC Berkeley closes People’s Park construction site

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Dive Brief:

  • The University of California at Berkeley closed off access last week to its new student housing project at People’s Park in Berkeley, California. The construction site has been barricaded with double-stacked shipping containers, and streets leading to the area will be closed temporarily except for crews from the general contractor, San Francisco-based Webcor, according to a news post from the university.
  • The project calls for a 1,100-bed student housing building for UC Berkeley students and another facility with 125 units for people with low incomes or who’ve experienced homelessness.The development plan preserves approximately 60% of the park as open green space.
  • The university stopped construction in August 2022 after a high-profile protest against the housing plan focused on People’s Park’s status as a cultural and historic landmark. The protest resulted in multiple arrests and $1.5 million in damages to construction equipment.

Dive Insight:

Shortly after the construction stop, an appellate court issued a temporary injunction extending the pause indefinitely, according to local news outlet KTVU. While it awaits a California Supreme Court decision on the issue, the university said it is preventing access to the area in order to minimize disruption to the campus and the city.

The site’s Jan. 4 closure included the removal of people who were encamped there, and authorities told KTVU that seven people were arrested for refusing to leave.

This is not the only legal obstacle the project has faced. One section of the appellate court’s February 2023 ruling in favor of the injunction stated that potential noise from the new property was akin to pollution, and violated the California Environmental Quality Act. This prompted a state bill, signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom in September, stating that residential noise was not considered a significant environmental effect under CEQA.

“The existing legal issues will inevitably be resolved, so we are taking this necessary step now to minimize the possibilities of conflict and confrontation, and of disruption for the public and our students, when we are cleared to resume construction,” UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ said in the news post.

Dorms and park

UC Berkeley initially purchased and bulldozed the People’s Park land for dormitory construction in 1967, but after it was left vacant local residents established a park on the lot. The park became a site for protests, community gatherings and encampments of people experiencing homelessness, and was named a cultural and historic landmark by the city of Berkeley in 1984.Other attempts by the university to develop the site over the years have been unsuccessful and heavily protested.

The student housing portion of the current project consists of two wings, one 11 stories tall and one six stories, with rooftop solar panels and bike storage. The green space is designed to commemorate the site’s history, and the university plans to incorporate outdoor lighting, accessible pathways and a grove of trees there, with an emphasis on ensuring visibility across all corners of the site.

The supportive housing building is set to begin construction after the completion of the dorms and park, offering apartments and on-site services.

The university has established several partnerships for people who camp or congregate in the park, including the operation of a daytime drop-in center. Out of 25 people recorded on the site in a census last November, 21 voluntarily accepted an offer of transitional housing at Berkeley’s Quality Inn, which included food and storage for belongings, according to UC Berkeley.

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