Berkeley residents wander through People’s Park in Berkeley, Calif. on Friday, April 20, 2018. Photo: Courtesy of UC Berkeley
Berkeley residents wander through People’s Park in Berkeley, Calif. on Friday, April 20, 2018. Photo: Courtesy of UC Berkeley

UC Berkeley unveiled a plan for People’s Park on Thursday that would include the construction of apartment-style dorms for as many as 1,000 students, supportive housing for the homeless or military veterans and a memorial honoring the park’s history and legacy.

The construction of two large building on the 2.8-acre park imbued with historical significance will radically transform the space, but there will still be “significant and substantial” park area remaining, according to Dan Mogulof, a university spokesman.

Details about buildings and how much they will cover the site are scant. Renderings of what the dormitories might look like should be available next week, said Mogulof.  The university’s design review committee has recommended that none of the buildings be taller than five stories, except at the east end of Haste, which should be taller, according to a press release. The university plans to partner with private developers to build both the student dormitory and supportive housing, the latter of which should take up about a quarter of the lot.

In January 2017, a university task force, headed by then-university provost Carol Christ, who is now the chancellor, identified nine possible sites for housing. People’s Park was one of those sites.

The university selected People’s Park as the first place for housing because it will not only make a significant dent in the university’s housing shortage, but it will also address two of Berkeley’s most pressing issues: homelessness and crime, said Mogulof.

“I believe the university has a responsibility for the park, a responsibility to collaborate with the city in support of its homeless population and a responsibility to address our student’s need for housing,” Christ said in a story about the development prepared by the university’s news department.

There are about 40 to 50 people who spend a lot of time in People’s Park, according to the university.  Contrary to popular belief, they do not sleep in the park because overnight camping is prohibited, according to the release.

Paramedics tend to an assault victim in People’s Park on July 2, 2017. Photo: Ted Friedman
Paramedics tend to an assault victim in People’s Park on July 2, 2017. Photo: Ted Friedman

In the last five years, UC police have responded to 10,102 incidents in the park, including five rapes, nine robberies, 42 thefts, 125 assaults, 15 assaults with a deadly weapon, 182 incidents of drug use and one count of arson, among other crimes, according to the university. In June, police arrested a woman who fed methamphetamine to a 2-year-old boy playing in the park. There have not been any homicides in the park in the last five years.

“The current park is a high crime area,” the university’s news service wrote. “The perpetrators of crime are not those who use the park on a regular basis, but those who come to the park because it is accessible from all surrounding streets and not well observed.”

The current state of People’s Park is not serving the community well, said Christ.

“Whatever one thinks of the ideals that motivated the creation of the park, it is hard to see the park today as embodying those ideals,” Christ said in the university news story. “It is equally hard to determine who the people are that benefit from the park in its current form.”

The crime rate and sense of “anything goes” should go down with the construction of two buildings in the park because “the design guidelines for the new open space and buildings will emphasize what architects refer to as “eyes on the street (the park),” according to the university. “The buildings will feature entries and windows facing the open space that allow residents to view and monitor activities in the surrounding neighborhood.”

The reaction to the news the park will be developed has varied. Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín is looks favorably upon the plan.

“I strongly support the university’s vision for the future of People’s Park,” Arreguin said in the university’s news story. “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.”

Tom Dalzell, who is writing a book on the 50th anniversary of the 1969 protests surrounding the creation of People’s Park, when the National Guard shot and killed one bystander and injured others, accused UC Berkeley of allowing the park to deteriorate as a way of laying the groundwork for development. He called for UC to honor the park’s legacy and invest funds to make it more inviting to the broader community. He also said the park provides relief from the urban area around it.

“The park is important open green space in an increasingly dense south campus,” Dalzell said in his op-ed. “William Wurster was a fierce advocate of a “greenbelt of natural beauty” with no buildings around the campus. Hearst, Bancroft, and Telegraph (and Shattuck and University and San Pablo) are seeing big new buildings. As we debate the future of People’s Park, I urge that we keep in mind its unique value as a greenbelt, not just as hallowed ground historical ground.”

Whether there will be protests against the university’s plan to build the park remains to be seen. Mogulof said he thinks many will support the development because they are concerned about the plight of the homeless and the pressure the current housing shortage places on housing and apartment rentals

Many people said in the Berkeleyside comment section that they welcomed the development.

“As a Berkeley resident of 40+ years, I gladly support building student housing on the land called People’s Park,” wrote Thom Whitby. “The tourist value of the place is bogus. The “people” of Berkeley don’t use it because it’s an unpleasant place. Hosting transients does no good for Telegraph Ave. business. And there’s no good reason why the genuine and good need for housing transients WITH ADEQUATE SOCIAL SERVICES SUPPORT in a student neighborhood is wise. Build for transitioning the homeless where there is nearness to Berkeley social services. Nostalgia for a short period of Berkeley street culture history in the late ’60s-early ’70s is no good reason to deny students housing.”

Digitized for the Oakland Museum of California Museum Technology Initiative for Educational Outreach, July 1, 2010 through June 30, 2011. Oakland Museum Collection.

Commemorating the history of People’s Park

The university intends to honor what happened in the park by with a historical marker of sorts, it announced, perhaps with a commemorative walkway along Bowditch Street. “Plaques within the paving and/or associated with vertical elements in the property’s design, plus possible sculpture, would highlight the park’s legacy and history,” according to the university.

The university has stated that design of the dorms and structures will be a community process. The university will also hold open meetings with student and community groups.

The developers will have to use CEQA and do an environmental review that takes public input into consideration.

University officials predicted that construction on the various aspects of the plan would being in the summer of 2020 and would be completed by the summer of 2022.

The university intends to lease the land to a private developer to construct the dormitory and will have a private operator own and run the supportive house element.

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...