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UC Berkeley’s legal victory allows People’s Park housing project to proceed — for now

A woman walks behind a sign for People's Park.
(Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)
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Good morning. It’s Friday, June 7. Here’s what you need to know to start your day.

A decades-long land-use saga in Berkeley has (maybe) finally reached its conclusion.

The California Supreme Court ruled Thursday that UC Berkeley can build its long-planned student housing project on the community’s storied People’s Park. That decision overturned an appellate court ruling last year that sided with opponents who filed a lawsuit against the university to block the project.

“The housing components of the project are desperately needed by our students and unhoused people,” UC Berkeley officials said in a statement, adding that more than 60% of the site “will be revitalized as open park space.”

The ruling caps more than half a century of conflict over the ideal use of the land, my colleagues Jessica Garrison and Hannah Wiley reported Thursday, “that launched a 55-year experiment in utopian ideals — and the harsh realities that sometimes trail after them.”

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A history of activism

The battles go back to 1969, when the university attempted to put up a fence around the space, which had become a site for local protests. That set off a violent conflict with armed officers and led then-Gov. Ronald Reagan to call in National Guard troops.

Tenacious activists eventually triumphed, declaring the 2.8-acre green space “People’s Park,” with the idea that it be a public haven free of government interference. Battles over the land continued as People’s Park remained a center for social activism for decades.

“For many it was a Berkeley institution, where generations of students and community members had picnics, smoked dope, organized to end apartheid and police brutality and communed naked with the moon, among other activities,” Hannah and Jessica reported. “But in recent years, it also became a refuge for homeless people and a magnet for drugs, rats and crime.”

A pivotal battle in the state’s housing wars

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The conflict also highlights the walking-a-tightrope-while-juggling-chainsaws-esque challenge of trying to build housing in California.

In the case of People’s Park, some activists argued the land held more value as a public space with a rich history as a haven for free speech and organizing. Campus officials and local leaders contended it was most needed to house students — something the university and dozens more across the University of California and California State University systems have struggled to do amid the state’s broader housing crisis.

In an interview last year, UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ said the university is able to house just 23% of its students. The project is seen as an important way to alleviate that crisis. It aims to provide high-rise dormitory housing for more than 1,000 students — plus supportive housing for more than 100 formerly unhoused people.

Then came a familiar extra chain saw to juggle: a CEQA lawsuit.

A few people stand or sit on the roof of a building with a mural of people on it.
People’s Park photographed on Jan. 3, 2024.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

That refers to the California Environmental Quality Act, which requires public agencies to prepare detailed analyses of the potential environmental consequences of new construction — including housing, transit projects and freeway widening.

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A “very-Berkeley coalition of park idealists and NIMBYs opposed to growth” sued the university, Jessica and Hannah wrote. They claimed officials failed to study more alternative sites and did not properly account for noise generated by “unruly parties.”

A state appellate court sided with the anti-development activists in a 2023 ruling.

That didn’t sit well with Gov. Gavin Newsom, who blasted the decision, saying the state “cannot afford to be held hostage by NIMBYs who weaponize CEQA to block student and affordable housing.”

It also didn’t sit well with state lawmakers, who passed Assembly Bill 1307 in direct response to the legal spat. The bill amended CEQA rules so that noise generated by people who live in a housing project can’t be viewed as a significant environmental impact.

Newsom signed the bill into law in September and Chief Justice Patricia Guerrero cited it in the court’s unanimous opinion this week, writing that “based on the new law, none of [the lawsuit’s] claims has merit.”

The court’s ruling is one thing. The response from fervent activists and local homeowners on the ground is another.

“There’s no way people are just gonna watch construction equipment go through these gates and not do something about it,” recent UC Berkeley graduate Enrique Marisol told The Times. “There’s no solid plan, but I’m certain there will be people in the streets.”

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Show us your favorite place in California! We’re running low on submissions. Send us photos that scream California and we may feature them in an edition of Essential California.

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Today’s powerful photo is from Times photographer Robert Gauthier from Bloomington, Calif., where an e-commerce warehouse is taking out the neighborhood.

Have a great day, from the Essential California team

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