UC Berkeley has announced plans to build a 16-story student housing complex along Haste Street (left part of the photo) and a supportive housing complex along the western edge of the park. About 1.5 acres of landscaped areas will be included in the design. Photo: UC Berkeley

The student housing complex being planned for People’s Park will be 150 to 180 feet high — almost as tall as the Wells Fargo and Skydeck buildings in downtown Berkeley.

UC Berkeley has released initial conceptual drawings for student and community housing in the park, and the public has until Monday, April 27, to submit its feedback through a virtual open house. Kyle Gibson, the director of communications for UC Berkeley’s Capital Strategies, stressed in an email to Berkeleyside that the “project is in the early design phase, and design work will continue throughout 2020.”

The design tries to balance the need for student housing, supportive housing and services for people who are formerly homeless, with the need for open space, according to the university’s website for the project.

Proposed design for People’s Park. Photo: UC Berkeley Capital Strategies
Proposed design for People’s Park. Photo: UC Berkeley Capital Strategies

The end result is a 16-story building on Haste Street that walks down to 11 stories toward Bowditch Street, a six-story elevated student housing segment on the south side that will allow people standing on Bowditch Avenue looking west to see the expanse of the complex, a public market, and a five-story supportive housing structure on the west side of the park with classrooms on the bottom.

The plan also includes a half-acre “central sylvan sunny glade landscaped with pathways,” Walter Hood, whose Hood Design Studio is designing the outdoor spaces, said in an explanatory video. A commemorative walk honoring the events of 1969, when community members seized a muddy vacant lot and planted it to form People’s Park, will edge the glade. There will be “preserved tree groves” in the southeast section of the park by Bowditch Avenue and Dwight Way and gardens underneath that harken back to the single-family homes that once stood there.

The 16-story complex will be tallest building on the Southside

At a height of up to 180 feet, the proposed student housing would be the tallest structure in the neighborhood. Unit 2, a student residence about a half-block away on Haste Street, is nine stories and approximately 100 feet tall, said Gibson. The Wells Fargo and Skydeck buildings on Shattuck Avenue are each about 180 feet high.

Other nearby buildings under construction are just eight stories high, including an 87-unit complex at 2590 Bancroft Way, the site of the former Urban Outfitters, and The Standard at 2580 Bancroft Way. The city of Berkeley is considering increasing the zoning density on the Southside, however, and is developing an environmental impact report. Those changes could allow as many as three 12-story buildings.

UC Berkeley has held numerous meetings with stakeholders to discuss the plans “to redevelop and revitalize People’s Park,” including with people like Michael Delacour, one of the park’s founders, said Gibson. Cal also held two open houses to meet with the community, one on Feb. 13 and one on March 4. Both were well-attended and both included sign-carrying protesters who want to preserve the history of the park and are opposed to any construction on the 2.8-acre site.

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted the capital strategies department to create an online virtual open house. People who visit the website can view a video (below) that offers a simulated walkthrough of the complex. They can also fill out a survey giving feedback on the proposed plans. The UC Regents will vote on the plan and Cal hopes to complete construction by 2024.

YouTube video

Many elements of the plan still need to be worked out,  said Gibson, but it is clear the complex would upend many of the rituals and habits that now exist at People’s Park. While crime, drug dealing and drug consumption are a problem in the park, there is also a sense of community among the 30 to 35 people who call it home. There are frequent rallies and musical performances, regular distribution of free food and free clothing, and regular chess games.

For example, Gibson said he was not sure if Food Not Bombs, which regularly offers meals in the park, would be allowed to use the glade. Nor was he certain if the small gardens nestled beneath the grove would be open for community use or limited to those with a university affiliation. He was also unsure whether the new complex would have a public stage, as the current park does.

“I would highlight that we are in the early design phase,” Gibson wrote in an email. “The design intent is to create a safe and welcoming place for students and the community. The design of the landscaped area is still being developed and is not yet finalized. No decisions about future programmatic use of the landscaped areas have been made at this time.”

Berkeley student housing crunch

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 at People’s Park.

The People’s Park complex will be the second housing project built with a projected completion date of 2024. The university’s first project, according to an announcement of a new long-range development plan, is 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 cover the entire cost of the Gateway Site 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.

A January 2019 march to protest UC Berkeley’s plans to build on People’s Park. Photo: James Cartmill
A January 2019 march to protest UC Berkeley’s plans to build on People’s Park. Photo: James Cartmill

Reactions to the plan

Tom Dalzell, who wrote The Battle for People’s Park about the events of 1969, said he is opposed to any construction.

“People’s Park is more than it is,” said Dalzell. “It represents not only the struggle to build a park in 1969 and to keep it for the last 51 years, but it is the synthesis of Berkeley’s entire and important radical history of the 1960s. The Hood Group does excellent work, and for any other site their design would be welcomed as a great start. What is different here is the land that is being used for the development and the university’s history of less than good faith about that land. There are many other places to build housing. Try them first.”

But Rigel Robinson, the city councilman who represents the Southside and who is a recent graduate of UC Berkeley, said he welcomed the 16-story building and even called for more structures that height.

“One is not enough,” said Robinson. “We have an acute student housing crisis, a hole going through the city at least 8,000 beds deep. It is extreme but I think the problem is quite extreme.

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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 Created California, published in November...