UC Berkeley can move forward with $312 million housing plan at People’s Park, judge rules

UC Berkeley can move forward with $312 million housing plan at People’s Park, judge rules


An Alameda County Superior Court judge said in a tentative ruling Friday that UC Berkeley could move forward with its controversial plan to build housing at People’s Park.

The university can’t break ground until the ruling becomes final sometime next week when the judge issues a written order.

The ruling comes after local groups sued the university, challenging its long-range development plan, which calls for building housing for 11,730 students by 2037.

The groups behind the lawsuit — Make UC a Good Neighbor, the People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group, Berkeley Citizens for a Better Plan and UC’s largest union employer — argued that the long-range plan’s environmental analysis was inadequate and the university didn’t take historic resources, like People’s Park, into account.

The judge said the environmental analysis for the individual projects associated with the long-range development plan stand and do not violate environmental law.

“We are pleased by this latest development and look forward to it becoming official and also look forward to starting construction sometime this summer,” said Dan Mogulof, UC spokesperson.

At stake is a major part of the university’s plans to help house its students, who continue to suffer from the lack of affordable rentals in the area, with some struggling with homelessness. The long-range development plan includes two housing projects: the Anchor House project that would house 772 transfer students, and the controversial People’s Park project to build student housing for more than 1,100 students and 125 formerly homeless people.

In addition, the opponents argued in court that the university’s long-range development failed to properly analyze neighborhood and traffic impacts, and wildlife concerns. They also said that noise from students coming and going, and partying could impact the neighborhood.

Earlier this month, an appeals court temporarily prohibited the university from starting construction at People’s Park. The university was forced to delay construction, demolition and tree-clearing on the 2.8-acre site.

In September, UC Berkeley approved a $312 million plan to build the People’s Park project, with construction slated to begin this summer before the lawsuit delayed groundbreaking.

Opponents also argue that the university has other properties where it could build housing and that building at People’s Park would destroy its history and legacy.

One of their attorneys suggested that the university look at other properties, in Albany, Richmond or Oakland to build undergraduate housing.

But the judge criticized that suggestion.

“That is entirely unreasonable,” he said.

Harvey Smith, from the People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group, said after the hearing that his group will absolutely appeal the decision and will also apply for a stay in the appeals court to prohibit the university from breaking ground.

Smith said the central argument is that UC has alternatives. The group is urging that UC Berkeley use a parking structure nearby to build the project instead of People’s Park.

“Why would anyone want to keep a parking structure and at the same time destroy a park in the midst of extreme climate change?” he said.

The site has a long, controversial history of residents and students opposing housing there. In 1969, the land became a battlefield after UC Berkeley tried to move forward with a plan to build dormitories there. Activists fought the plan and eventually won, but their fight came with bloodshed.

A county’s sheriff deputy fatally shot a man during a demonstration and then-Gov. Ronald Reagan brought in the military to occupy the area.

In recent years, the park became a haven for the homeless. But in March, the city and the university partnered together and offered the unhoused residents interim housing at a city motel.

About 55 people living in the park were given a chance to move into Rodeway Inn on University Avenue in North Berkeley. Most of the residents accepted the shelter and can stay for a year and a half, the university said.

On Friday afternoon, people gathered at the park reacted to the ruling.

“My heart is broken,” Jennifer Knight said through tears and the sound of angry heavy metal music, part of De-Fence Phest, a four-day music festival being held at the park.

Andrea Pritchett, a member of the People’s Park Council, said it’s a place where homeless people can find solace and waiting for the ruling and groundbreaking was like “waiting for public execution.”

“We are about to drive a stake in the heart of the hub of the most consistent place of support that exists in this city,” said Pritchett.

Tom Lippe, an attorney who represented Make UC A Good Neighbor and the People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group, said after the hearing that they “don’t know the basis” for the judge’s tentative ruling. If the judge doesn’t provide his reasons for the ruling in his order, then his clients intend to appeal.

“If it does provide reasons, we will evaluate whether to appeal after reviewing that,” he said.

Sarah Ravani (she/her) and Emma Talley are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: sravani@sfchronicle.com

emma.talley@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @SarRavani @EmmaT332


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