UC Berkeley as seen from Memorial Glade. Photo: Creative Commons/ brainchildvn on Flickr

In the middle of a pandemic, during a time that Gov. Gavin Newsom has ordered that everyone but those working for essential businesses shelter in place, UC Berkeley has started the scoping process for its new long-range development plan, which proposes to increase the number of students, faculty and staff by around 23% in the next 15 years.

On April 7, the university sent out a “notice of preparation of an environmental impact report” asking the community to analyze plans on how the university will grow and develop through the 2036-37 academic year.

UC Berkeley said it had no choice in the timing, as the university is required to conform to CEQA laws, despite the pandemic. Adhering to those laws has not been changed.

“While the impact of COVID-19 couldn’t be anticipated, during this unprecedented time the campus is committed to implementing the requirements of CEQA and the Brown Act in accordance with the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research guidelines,” a statement from the university reads.*

But local officials and some members of the community are criticizing the move, coming at a time when most of Berkeley is focused on surviving the COVID-19 crisis. Responding to the notice of preparation, which sets out the parameters for a future environmental impact report, involves a lot of work that city staff cannot do right now, said Mayor Jesse Arreguín. He said he intends to call Chancellor Carol Christ to ask her to delay the deadline. UC Berkeley officials said Wednesday it had not yet heard from the mayor.

“I was taken aback by the insensitivity of the university,” said Councilwoman Susan Wengraf. “Our staff has been working 24/7 on the coronavirus crisis. No one has the time to deal with the long-range development plan of the university right now.”

Exacerbating the outrage is that UC Berkeley has set just one virtual public meeting to gather feedback on the notice for preparation, even though the proposed LRDP calls for the university population to increase from 39,300 students to 48,200 students and from 15,400 faculty and staff to 19,000 faculty and staff by 2037. The new LRDP also proposes to add 11,700 student housing beds, 385 employee housing units, and approximately 4 million square feet of academic and campus life space.

Considering the proposed EIR involves so many large projects — as well as threatening some historic structures — the university should be holding at least three separate public meetings, said Daniella Thompson, an architectural historian who is a leading force in the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association.

“The university is taking advantage of the community’s vulnerability at the moment,” said Thompson. “They’ve done this in the past. This is their mo (modus operandi) pretty much.”

A number of neighborhood groups have reached out to UC Berkeley and UC officials asking for a delay. They include the Berkeley Neighborhoods Council, the Dwight-Hillside Neighborhood Association, Make UC a Good Neighbor, the Panoramic Hill Neighborhood Association, the People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group, the Le Conte Neighborhood Association, and Northside-NA.

“The LRDP is a large, complex undertaking that requires many hours of work by many people and would require our public safety officials to spend hundreds of hours to review and comment,” the Southside Neighborhood Consortium wrote to UC President Janet Napolitano. “We would all better served if the NOP were withdrawn until we are past the State of Emergency.”

Even though the notice of preparation only mentions the one virtual public meeting on April 27, that is not the only opportunity people will have to comment “during lengthy preparation of the EIR,” according to the university statement. The draft EIR, when completed, will circulate for 45 days.  “During that time the campus will hold another public meeting to solicit further public comment,” the university said.

The notice of preparation states that the university “conducted a robust engagement process with the campus community and the public, including a combination of in-person and online outreach.” There have been 200 meetings/events with community, campus and city stakeholders, the letter says. Work on the new plan began in April 2019.

UC Berkeley last prepared a long-range development plan in January 2005 and it examined what would happen on campus until 2020. That plan is still in effect. The UC Regents require every campus to periodically update its long-range plan, which is a  “framework which provides structure and order to the planning of future projects.”

But the way UC Berkeley has used the 2020 LRDP has been controversial. In February 2019, the university filed a supplemental EIR for the Upper Hearst Project, which proposed a new academic building for the Goldman School of Public Policy and a new housing complex with 150 units for professors and graduate students.  In that document, UC Berkeley stated that the number of students, faculty and staff would increase to 44,735 students by 2022-23, even though the 2020 LRDP had projected there would be 33,450 students at Cal by 2020.

Berkeley filed a lawsuit against Cal in June, contending that UC Berkeley did not adequately analyze the impacts of a 33.7% increase in the campus population on city services. It had also filed a lawsuit against the 2020 LRDP which resulted in a settlement in which UC Berkeley agreed to pay $1.5 million annually for using the city’s fire protection, sewer and other services. Currently, after adjustments for inflation, Cal pays Berkeley around $1.8 million annually. Berkeley now contends the university costs it about $21 million a year. Cal says the city has not provided information to back up that claim.

In 2015, the UC Regents decided to increase enrollment at all UC campuses, including Berkeley. Cal’s administration had no say in that decision.

Housing for 1,200 students at People’s Park included in the plan

The notice of preparation says UC Berkeley intends to eventually build 11,700 units of student housing. It details the first two planned projects that will add more than 2,000 beds. The extreme shortage of student housing, and its detrimental impacts on Berkeley, is one reason Cal needs to go forward with this scoping now, the university said.

“On a broader level, a key reason the campus is moving ahead is because the COVID crisis will not mitigate or ameliorate a student housing crisis that impacts the campus and city communities,” the university statement said. “Our current LRDP (2020 LRDP) does not have sufficient bed capacity for the housing projects at the Gateway Site and People’s Park. Both projects require CEQA evaluation, and if we are to complete the projects in time for student move-in at the beginning of the intended academic year, their environmental analysis needs to start now. Right now we are also starting work on the new LRDP EIR, so it is simply practical and efficient to do the environmental analyses together, rather than have multiple, concurrent EIR processes.”

The first project to get built will be at the “Gateway Site” right across from the entrance to Cal at University Avenue and Oxford Street. The building will have 850 beds for students with ground floor retail and space for offices and events.

An anonymous donor has pledged to pay the entire cost of the project, according to the university statement. UC Berkeley owns the site and will turn it over to the donor for construction. The donor will then gift it to UC Berkeley.

The former Richfield Oil Service Station on Oxford Street. UC Berkeley now uses it for parking service vehicles. Photo: UC Berkeley Department of Parking and Transportation

A garage designed by the architect Walter H. Ratcliffe Jr. in 1930 currently sits on the site and will be demolished, according to the university statement.

Thompson said the structure is a local Berkeley landmark and is listed in the State Historic Resource Inventory. As a state entity, UC Berkeley can ignore local protections on property, she said. Thompson intends to push back against the university’s plans to tear down what was once the Richfield Oil Service Station, she said.

The other student housing project to be studied is listed as “Housing Project #2.” It is on People’s Park and will include 1,200 beds for UC Berkeley students and a separate building that will provide permanent supportive housing for 125 people.

News that UC Berkeley plans to proceed with building on People’s Park sooner rather than later is disappointing to many activists and historians who argue that covering up the park will demolish an important part of Berkeley’s history. In the 1960s, UC Berkeley acquired the 2.8 acres that make up today’s park by eminent domain. It had once been covered by many of Berkeley’s traditional brown shingle houses. Cal tore down the houses and cars and trucks eventually covered the lot that remained. In April and May 1969, students and community members took over the lot, cleaned it up, and planted it with grass, flowers and vegetables. UC Berkeley officials called in law enforcement to take back the property and huge protests ensued. One man, James Rector, was killed by buckshot fired by an Alameda County Sheriff’s deputy. Another man was seriously injured.

UC Berkeley will conduct an online public session to take comments on April 27 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.

Comments on the notice of preparation must be sent by 5:00 p.m. on May 15, 2020. Write Raphael Breines, senior planner, physical & environmental planning, University of California, Berkeley, 300 A&E Building, Berkeley, CA 94720-1382 or email him at planning@berkeley.eduUpdate, 6:10 p.m. The mayor had a conversation with UC Berkeley officials this morning and sent an email late today asking the university to delay the notice of preparation until after the shelter-in-place order is lifted.

“I think we should launch this process at a time and in a way that allows full transparency and participation,” Arreguín wrote. “I therefore reiterate my request that the campus delay the public comment period until after the Shelter in Place order is lifted. Not knowing a specific date for when that order will be lifted I admit makes it challenging, but I think we can assume that by early to mid-June is a likely time when the SIP will be lifted. Even if the SIP is not lifted that would still provide enough time for parties to review and comment on the NOP document.

This will ensure that our city staff, who are hard at work responding to this emergency, will be able to fully participate as will our community. I also think it shows a sensitivity to the challenging situation that we are in.”

*Update, 4/17, 6 p.m. Sandra Lupien, the media liaison for the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research wrote to Berkeleyside to say the university’s quote (bolded) was incorrect: “While the impact of COVID-19 couldn’t be anticipated, during this unprecedented time the campus is committed to implementing the requirements of CEQA and the Brown Act in accordance with the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research guidelines,” a statement from the university reads.*

Only CEQA has these time requirements; the governor’s office does not, Lupien wrote in an email.

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 Created California, published in November...