On the grounds of People’s Park, UC Berkeley proposes housing for students and the homeless

A man who calls himself Sasquatch is skeptical about the housing plans. “They’re lying,” he declared. “If I were UC Berkeley, I wouldn’t put a ... shelter or supportive housing here because you’re still going to have drug addicts everywhere and that’s the last thing they want.”
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

For nearly 50 years, the University of California and Berkeley activists have been locked in conflict over one of the state’s most contested pieces of land.

The standoff started in 1969, when hundreds of people hauled sod, trees and flowers to a scruffy lot that the university intended to build on and proclaimed it their own People’s Park.

A few weeks later, UC fenced the public out, and thousands of protesters marched there. A bloody battle ensued when law enforcement pushed them back with tear gas and buckshot.

Fights over the land have continued ever since as the once-vibrant park has become home to trash, rats and crime.

Now, UC Berkeley officials hope they finally have a plan that will let them use the space without fierce backlash.

On Thursday, UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ announced plans to develop a large part of People’s Park into much-needed housing — not only for students, but also for some of the community’s 800 homeless people. The campus newspaper first reported the possibility last year.

“The breakthrough realization for me was ... that helping with homelessness — specifically in the park, but more generally in the community — was really part of the university’s responsibility,” Christ said in a recent interview.

“The park was like the third rail,” she said. “A lot of chancellors felt they just couldn’t touch it. But I think the time is just right. It’s a combination of people’s sense of urgency of the housing crisis and also, frankly, the urgency of the homelessness crisis.”

Left, Berkeley police make an arrest during a People's Park demonstration in 1969. Right, National Guardsmen, called out by Gov. Ronald Reagan to quell demonstrations, surround a protester at People's Park in Berkeley.

The proposal is believed to be the first by an American university to use its land to build long-term supportive housing.

“I don’t know of anything like this,” said Maria Foscarinis, founder and executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. “It’s an important step in a promising direction, and I do think it could be a model for other universities nationally.”

At the park on a recent afternoon, reactions to the idea were mixed.

On the 2.8-acre expanse of grassy fields and gardens of calla lilies and trumpet flowers, men played chess at picnic tables and shot hoops on a basketball court.

About three dozen people lined up for free vegan food next to a colorful stage decorated with a peace sign and the words: “People’s Park Forever.”

Sasquatch, a homeless resident in Berkeley, talks about the university's plan to build housing in People's Park. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Kenneth Metz, a homeless man wearing a giraffe costume, said he would rush to the park and “lock arms with love, Gandhi-style” to protest any development.

Christopher Kohler, who lives in a nearby tent city, leaned against an evergreen tree, smoking a cigarette. He said he’s been coming to the park since 1969 but no longer can defend it.

“If the community had kept the will to keep the park it had begun, I’d be solidly behind it — but I don’t see that community anymore,” Kohler said, as he watched the sun dip low on the horizon. “The people using the park are trashing it. If it becomes student housing — oh, well, things change.”

Relaxing under another tree with his dog, his belongings spread around him, a man who goes by the name Sasquatch doubted the plan would come to pass. “You’re still going to have drug addicts everywhere, and that’s the last thing they want,” he said.

Michael Delacour, 80, who lives nearby and keeps watch over the park he co-founded, fretted over what would become of the community feedings, gardening and cultural events.

“People’s Park is a tremendous community resource,” he said. “Why eliminate this asset?”

Top: Christopher Kohler, 65, smokes a cigarette as the sun sets on People's Park in Berkeley. Kohler, who lives in a nearby tent city, said he has been coming to the park since it was built in 1969. Left: Volunteers with Food not Bombs serve vegan food to individuals gathered at People's Park in Berkeley. Right: Kenneth Metz, 52, who said he has been coming to People's Park in Berkeley, off and on since the 1980s, accepts a meal. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Under the plan, private developers would lease the land and build separate residential units. One would include as many as 1,000 beds, most likely for upperclassmen or graduate students.

A nonprofit developer would build up to 125 apartments for community members who are homeless or at risk of losing shelter — possibly veterans, former foster youths or people with disabilities. The developer would select an organization to provide services such as mental healthcare and substance-abuse treatment. UC Berkeley’s schools of social welfare and public health also would help.

Under the proposal, a portion of the park would remain open green space. The university also plans to memorialize the park’s history, possibly with a sculpture or plaques.

Christ called UC Berkeley’s severe shortage of student housing one of the biggest long-term threats to the university’s future. The campus has beds available for only 22% of undergraduates and 9% of graduate students. The People’s Park plan is part of a broader blueprint to double the school’s housing stock over the next decade.

Taylor Harvey, a senior who was formerly homeless, said so many students need affordable housing today that she doesn’t expect many to protest the university’s plans.

Over the years, campus activists have fiercely defended the park, most famously in May 1969, when student body President-elect Dan Siegel urged a crowd at Sproul Plaza to “take back the park” after the fence went up. More than 6,000 protesters joined the march, and the violent clash with authorities that followed left one student dead, a person blinded and scores of others injured and arrested.

Rigel Robinson, a student government leader, supports the housing plan. “We should be inspired by the legacy of the ’60s but not constrained by it,” he said.

Merchants around Telegraph Avenue, a vibrant nearby boulevard packed with restaurants and retail shops, also are generally supportive, said Stuart Baker of the Telegraph Business Improvement District.

He said the park began as a “fantastic ideal” but now draws crime, which has become a challenge for merchants. Last year, campus police received more than 1,500 calls about park problems, including reports of assaults, drug use and theft.

UC regents still will have to approve the plan. Various public agencies will need to conduct environmental reviews, hold community hearings and issue permits. The blueprint calls for construction to begin in 2020 and be completed two years later.

Christ said “a new openness” among Berkeley officials gives her hope for their support. Earlier this year, the City Council passed a resolution that endorsed construction of student housing at four sites, though People’s Park wasn’t among them.

“The general consensus is that People’s Park is really controversial, so why don't we talk about that later and first go for sites where almost nobody protests,” said Berkeley Councilman Kriss Worthington, whose district includes the park. “My dream is for it to actually be a park. To take away what limited green space we have here would be sad.”

But on Thursday, Mayor Jesse Arreguín expressed his enthusiasm for what he characterized as a collaborative effort to “address critical issues.” He promised lots of opportunity for community feedback.

“I strongly support the university’s vision for the future of People’s Park,” he said in a statement. “We can honor its rich history, while reimagining it as a place where all people can come together, where we can shelter our homeless and provide needed housing for our students.”

The mixed-use idea for the space came from Sam Davis, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of architecture who has long advocated bolder university action on People’s Park.

Davis said supportive housing would stabilize the community, improve the park environment and further the university’s commitment to teaching, research and public service.

“Part of our mission as a campus is to find the best ways to deal with social problems,” he said, “and this is a really good way to do it.”

Christ has won praise for hiring the university’s first social worker for the park, Ari Neulight, who provides its needy denizens with food, clothes, blankets and referrals to social services.

But the chancellor knows that no change at People’s Park will ever come easily.

“Are there park activists who say, ‘Never say never,’ about the park? I’m sure there will be,” she said. “But that’s just Berkeley.”

Twitter: @teresawatanabe