Growing fields and research facilities at the Oxford Tract in Berkeley could give way to student housing in the future. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

For almost 100 years, UC Berkeley science faculty and students have relied on the expansive fields, greenhouses and lab space at Berkeley’s Oxford Tract, stretching between Hearst Avenue and Virginia Street, for research and instruction.

But calls to convert the 4.5-acre plot of university land into much-needed student housing have persisted.

At a town hall hosted by Berkeley City Councilwoman Kate Harrison on Monday night, panelists considered whether Cal could develop on the site without threatening the viability of its robust scientific research program.

Harrison said the question is important to her constituents too, as she represents the downtown district that includes Oxford Tract.

“Our part of town is the intense area for all the housing development,” she said. “It’s my fond hope that we distribute this housing throughout the city.”

However, Harrison said, “We need more student housing. I hope we’re not going to entertain a discussion tonight that says, ‘Why are all these students here, why don’t they go away?'”

The event only drew around 50 people, who listened quietly to the speakers. Attendees were handed signs expressing, on alternative sides, support for the research fields and support for housing, but they were barely used.

At the end of the meeting, Harrison read aloud questions, some strongly worded, from the audience. The questioners, asking about UC Berkeley land use and development priorities, mostly grilled Ruben Lizardo, director of government and community relations, the only Cal administration representative on the panel.

Of all the UCs, Berkeley currently houses the lowest percentage of students — just 22% of undergrads, according to the university. As rent in Berkeley has climbed to exorbitant rates, enrollment at Cal has also grown substantially, and UC Berkeley has consequently identified a need to build about 7,000 new beds, nearly doubling its stock, in the coming years.

If fully developed, the Oxford Tract could support 1,000-3,000 new beds, according to a 2017 Housing Task Force Master Plan draft report, by far the greatest capacity of any site identified by the university. UC Berkeley officials have not said how they arrived at the size estimates, panelists said Monday.

But the premise of developing Oxford Tract has troubled some from UC Berkeley science departments, who say the costly removal or relocation of the fields and facilities could make research inaccessible for students, and threaten Cal’s standing as a top-tier research university.

Faculty and students have said “the single most important factor” that makes the Oxford Tract an effective and productive research site is its proximity to campus, said the authors of a report on the potential redevelopment.

“Their work entails frequent, in-person visits to the [Oxford Tract] from laboratories and offices located on the central campus, and/or involves the transport of plants and insects” — which is subject to strict federal regulations, said the report by the Oxford Tract Planning Committee. The committee of students and faculty was established by Carol Christ before she became chancellor, with the charge of identifying and assessing sites where the research facilities could potentially be relocated.

The report, released in February, lists the functions of the site and the many departments and groups that perform them. The Oxford Tract research facilities include almost 40,000 square feet of greenhouse space, 10 lab rooms, nine temperature-controlled plant growth chambers, an “insectary” and outdoor structures for arthropod research, and storage. On the northern end of the site are the growing fields and a student-run organic garden, which offers work-study jobs and provides hundreds of pounds of produce to the UC Berkeley Food Pantry, the report said.

Moving each of those elements, and inevitably breaking them up among different sites, could be prohibitive to student researchers, most of whom don’t have cars or ample free time, the report authors wrote.

Oxford Tract research facilities include almost 40,000 feet of greenhouse space, 10 lab rooms, nine temperature-controlled plant growth chambers, an “insectary” and outdoor structures for arthropod research. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The committee evaluated four alternative options — the Gill Tract in Albany, Strawberry Canyon, Smyth-Fernwald site and People’s Park — and said it was deeply skeptical any could suffice. Strawberry Canyon and Smyth-Fernwald, a 9-acre site in the hills above campus, would both require “dedicated transportation services,” the committee said. Strawberry Canyon was deemed too small, and Smyth-Fernwald unfit for “greenhouse or insectary facilities worth tens of millions of dollars” due to seismic concerns. However, the latter could possibly support the growing fields or garden, they said.

The relocation of the garden or field to the Gill Tract would “pose insurmountable logistical challenges,” they wrote, but did not elaborate. Previous development projects there were met with long-term protests. Currently, the “security issue at People’s Park make this site unattractive for a student garden,” the authors said. The park has historically been home to a student garden — started at the park by activists in the aftermath of the fatal 1969 demonstrations against university plans to convert the site to athletic fields and, ultimately, student housing.

The Oxford Tract committee ended up proposing two options that would downsize the current offerings at the Oxford Tract, and use the rest of the space for student housing. The authors noted that an “expert consultant” should carefully analyze each suggestion, and more community input should be sought, before UC Berkeley proceeds with any development plans.

“Students are very concerned about housing”

Some of the reasons cited for preserving the Oxford Tract facilities — namely the proximity to campus — are the same reasons it’s an appealing location for student housing.

Two early suggestions by the Oxford Tract committee would reduce the current facilities (left) and add student housing. Photo: Oxford Tract report

“A lot of students are very concerned about housing,” said Connor Hughes, an Associated Students of UC senator. A resident advisor in the dorms, Hughes said younger students constantly ask for his help finding housing, affordable and otherwise, and ask whether they can stay in the dorms another year.

“My answer is no,” he said.

Given the challenges around the Oxford Tract, Hughes said students want UC Berkeley to seriously consider other options simultaneously.

The housing task force report from 2017 names eight other sites under consideration. However, each comes with its own sets of political and practical challenges.

Charlene Woodcock, a neighborhood activist and preservationist on the Monday panel, said the Oxford Tract should be a bottom priority.

“It makes no sense to me to be focusing on a site that is so complex. Why disrupt that if there are other possibilities that can simply be built on?” she said.

“These are the issues we’re facing in the city too,” Harrison said. “In an ideal world there would be some large piece of land that didn’t disrupt anything that was there now and didn’t disrupt the neighbors. Unfortunately that’s not the case. How do we get student housing online now,” given that the Oxford process will take a long time, she asked.

Panelists discuss Oxford Tract development at a town hall on April 2, 2018. From left: UC Berkeley student Connor Hughes; community member Charlene Woodcock; Ruben Lizardo, UC Berkeley director of government and community relations; City Councilwoman Kate Harrison; student Grace Treffinger; Keith Gilless, dean of the College of Natural Resources. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Other student housing is already in development, including a project by the Goldman School of Public Policy on the upper Hearst parking lot, and the 750-bed David Blackwell hall at Bancroft Way and Dana Street.

“We don’t have state monies coming to build this housing,” Lizardo said. Blackwell was “only able to happen because a private developer ponied up that money.” The university has also entered into long-term leases with owners of existing buildings to use the properties for student beds.

Multiple panelists and audience members at the meeting asked why the Mike’s Bikes lot, at University and Oxford, isn’t a priority for student housing development. At one point the site was slated to become a 10-story hotel, but the university no longer has specific plans for the lot, which it owns.

Lizardo said anything is a possibility at that site, and that UC Berkeley will incorporate new housing goals into its next long-range development plan. The current plan expires in 2020.

He tried to assuage community concerns that the Oxford Tract was a done deal and not being analyzed thoughtfully.

“No other site has had a committee that’s looking at it in the same way,” Lizardo said. “The recommendation isn’t to immediately build on it, but to have a consultant look at the report.” Any plans would need to be approved by the UC Berkeley design review committee, and be sent through the city’s design process too as a courtesy, he said.

One undergraduate on the panel and committee, Grace Treffinger, also co-authored a “minority report,” questioning the process behind the main Oxford Tract report. It said committee members were not provided sufficient information about the alternative sites they were charged with evaluating.

The committee also had “insufficient expertise on conducting high-level legal, soil quality, environmental impact and economic assessments of the other sites,” the report said. The authors asked that the Oxford Tract soil be reevaluated as well, for comparison.

About 50 people came to the Monday night town hall. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

In the minority report, and at the town hall, Treffinger asked about building student housing and an additional student garden on the 2.5-acre University House lot. The campus building typically houses the chancellor, but Christ declined to move in because she already had a house in Berkeley. It is used for dozens of events and receptions hosted by the chancellor each year.

Lizardo looked incredulous at the suggestion, and said future chancellors will inevitably want to live there. He also noted that the central campus is not zoned for housing in the 2020 Long-Range Development Plan, written in 2005.

‘That’s something the city weighed in on. The 2020 pretty much says the campus is for education, research, services to the students, and not housing,” Lizardo said.

Even then, more student housing was a critical need.

“Many of our best student and faculty candidates cite the scarcity of good, reasonably priced housing and child care near campus as key factors in their decisions whether or not to come to UC Berkeley,” the 2020 plan said.

The history of the Oxford Tract, one of the last vestiges of Cal’s origins as an agricultural college, could also be a determining factor in its future.

UC Berkeley is a land-grant university, meaning it was created with federal land awarded under the Morrill Act of 1862. There are “claims,” the committee report said, including in a 1948 UC Regents letter, that the Oxford Tract represents the minimum amount of agricultural research space required for Cal to retain its status as a land-grant university.

“The legality of these claims needs to be investigated by legal counsel as soon as possible,” the report said.

However, the Oxford Tract was not the land granted to UC Berkeley, noted Keith Gilless, the dean of the College of Natural Resources, at the town hall.

UC Berkeley actually purchased a block of private homes that burned down in the 1923 fire — now the Oxford Tract.

Correction: This article previously said the plan to construct a hotel on the Mike’s Bikes lot was abandoned. Lizardo said anything, including a hotel or student housing, could be pursue there.

Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...