Protesters interrupt an open house on building student dorms at People’s Park

A meeting to gather input on Cal’s plans to create up to 1,200 beds for students at the Southside park drew some curious community members, a few students and also protesters who oppose construction on the historic site.

Activists who want to keep People’s Park as it is rather than add housing protest at a recent UC Berkeley open house. Photo: Brandon Yung

UC Berkeley hosted an open house Monday to get input on building student and supportive housing at People’s Park. The gathering drew some curious community members, a few students — and also a band of protesters who oppose construction on one of Berkeley’s historic sites.

For a time, the Pauley Ballroom on the Cal campus became the center of a heated debate between chanting protesters and representatives from the university’s Capital Projects department. Protesters called for the park’s preservation while campus representatives made the case to dramatically increase on-campus housing.

UC Berkeley only houses 22% of its undergraduates and 9% of its graduate students, the lowest percentage in the UC system. (The average across the system is 38.1% for undergraduates and 19.6% for graduate students.) In 2017, UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ unveiled plans to build 7,000 units of housing on multiple sites around Berkeley, including People’s Park.

“I think that the spirit of Berkeley is individuals sharing freely their thoughts and opinions,” Kyle Gibson, the director of communications for Capital Projects, told Berkeleyside. “If we’re talking about a site that has ties to the free speech movement that has to be part of the process of how we are going to address it.  More than anything I think those voices contributing to how we are going to memorialize People’s Park are exceptionally crucial.”

The project at People’s Park — located off Telegraph Avenue and bounded by Haste and Bowditch streets and Dwight Way — features three elements: student housing, open space and supportive housing for previously homeless individuals. Campus officials anticipate between 950 and 1,200 beds for students, and 75 to 125 units of supportive housing on the nearly two-acre site. They have also discussed creating a timeline of events at the park along the perimeter or some other commemoration of the fights that broke out in May 1969 between students, community members, UC officials and law enforcement.

People’s Park is a gathering place for people experiencing homelessness. A plan to build supportive housing there as well as student dorms is under consideration. Photo: Kelly Sullivan

No designs were presented at the open house. However, new details about the project emerged. The project is slated to break ground in 2021 and be completed in 2024, contingent upon the UC Regents approving the project in March.

LMS Architects will be developing the student housing on the site. Resources for Community Development (RCD) will build the supportive housing on site. The supportive housing will resemble apartments with kitchens and bathrooms rather than traditional shelter beds, according to Lauren Lyon, RCD’s director of marketing. The housing will be subsidized and there will be wrap-around social services for mental health and substance abuse on-site.

Monday’s open house was the first of three scheduled, with the next one happening sometime in early March. The open houses will first solicit input, then eventually share site plans at some point in the summer, campus officials said.

As Monday’s open house got under way, representatives from LMS Architects and RCD stood by easels with materials showing the park’s history of protest in the late 1960s. Other informational displays were dispersed around the room. Protesters then walked up the stairs and into the ballroom and began to wave signs and shout. Other protesters gathered outside.

Activists want to total preservation of the park because of its storied history as a site of counter-cultural resistance.

Joseph Hart, a fourth-year UC Berkeley student and member of the Young Democratic Socialists, said that the People’s Park committee, which aims to ‘protect, defend and save People’s Park, felt it had “just been thrown a cookie,” and that “they should have some more say in the process.”

“They’re going to say their attempts to build on the green spaces across our university, from Gill Tract to People’s Park, to Oxford Tract and even those we don’t even use is a lie, an attempt to stop you from being free human beings,” said Aiden Hill, speaking into a megaphone in the open house.

As the crowd thinned, a campus architect gave a scheduled presentation on the People’s Park project and the campus’s housing goals: to eventually provide enough beds to house half of all campus undergraduates and a third of the graduate student population.

Steve Wasserman, who helped build People’s Park in 1969 — and, who, as publisher of Heyday Books, published the 50th-anniversary retrospective, The Battle for People’s Park, Berkeley 1969 by Tom Dalzell — made an appeal to remember park’s history to a small crowd.

“What they’re counting on is the social dementia that has set in by an aging population which is hostage to a nostalgia that nobody now who is currently enrolled as a student has no regard for or has no real knowledge of,” Wasserman said.

The housing project at People’s Park is slated to break ground in 2021 and be completed in 2024, contingent upon the UC Regents approving the project in March. Photo:UC Berkeley

In another corner of the Pauley Ballroom, Ruben Lizardo, director of local government and community relations for Cal, spoke across a fold-out table with Tim Petty, an opponent of development at the park. Lizardo explained that the campus was not singling out People’s Park for development; plans are also underway for eight other sites identified in a 2017 Housing Task Force plan.

“It’s not that the university is doing it to poke the People’s Park founders in the eye, it’s that we have no other choice,” Lizardo told Petty.

“There’s nothing else like People’s Park,” said Petty…. It’s a “unique place where people can meet. … This thing that is cooperatively coordinated is a special thing.”

“No question about that, but if you look at the city of Berkeley there are multiple common spaces,” Lizardo responded.

protesters in room
Protesters at a UC Berkeley open house to discuss plans to build student and supportive housing at People’s Park. Photo: Brandon Yung

None with the legacy of fighting for freedom, none with the history,” said Petty.

“Well, the history is not static to a piece of dirt. I mean, it’s really the people,” said Lizardo.

“It’s not static to the piece of dirt. However, many people — whether or not you believe in private property or you don’t — think there are still places considered sacred for whatever reason. They have an emotional attachment to it and that lives on,” said Petty.

“And that’s to be respected,” Lizardo said. “But it doesn’t mean the campus isn’t interested in knowing how to ensure that legacy is there,” said Lizardo.