People's park sign and fencing
Fencing went up at People’s Park on Jan. 19, 2020, so UC Berkeley could drill soil samples. Photo: Pete Rosos
Fencing went up at People’s Park on Jan. 19, 2020, so UC Berkeley could drill soil samples. Photo: Pete Rosos

UC Berkeley is taking another step today towards building student housing at People’s Park by closing off sections to drill for soil samples.

Over the next month, the university will alternately close off three sections on the northside of the park to allow for geotechnical explorations, which included drilling down 80’, according to Kyle Gibson, the director of communications for UC Berkeley’s Capital Strategies, which oversees development. While the restrooms and most of the park will remain open during this time, Cal officials will ask people camping out in the park by the targeted areas to temporarily move, said Gibson.

“We will clear the areas much like we do when our staff close the park for cleaning,” said Gibson. “No one is going to be forced to leave the park. They may just have to temporarily move to an unfenced part of the park for a short term.”

Ever since the original shelter in place order went into effect on March 17, UC Berkeley has stopped enforcing its rules against sleeping overnight in the park, said Gibson. That, coupled with Berkeley shelters reducing the number of people it accepts because of concerns about the coronavirus, has meant dozens of people are now living in tents in the park. Gibson put that number at 30 to 40.

“We have done some gentle advance notification to some people that are in these areas just letting them know some work is upcoming,” said Gibson.

Lisa Teague, who is part of the People’s Park Committee and who lives across the street from the park, said that trucks with fencing gear arrived around 5 a.m. While those living in the park had heard something was up, they didn’t know the details of the plan.

“People are upset,” said Teague. “It was a surprise to many.”

She is concerned that the trucks are blocking the pathway into the park that allows Food Not Bombs to serve a meal to about 50 people each Tuesday. Teague said she asked that the access path be open by then.

The project, which goes from Jan. 19 to Feb. 16, won’t affect street parking.

A sign for People's Park near fencing that went up
A sign for People’s Park near fencing that went up on Jan. 19, 2020, so UC Berkeley could drill soil samples. Photo: Pete Rosos
A sign for People’s Park near fencing that went up on Jan. 19, 2020, so UC Berkeley could drill soil samples. Photo: Pete Rosos

UC Berkeley announced in 2017 that it would build housing for as many as 1,200 students in the park, which has an outsized place in Berkeley’s history as a symbol of the fight between the university’s attempts to control development on the land and the push back from students and residents who wanted, and still want, to preserve the land as open space for the people. The project will include a path that has markers commemorating the 1969 period in which people transformed the area from a barren, littered lot into a green park filled with flowers and grass. The battle peaked on May 15, 1969, when UC officials decided to fence in the park and brought in hundreds of officers from the California Highway Patrol and the Berkeley and San Francisco police departments for security. Several thousand students and park supporters marched from Sproul Plaza to take back the park. They were met at Telegraph Avenue and Dwight Way by deputies from the Alameda County Sheriffs’ Department. The deputies fired tear gas and some fired buckshot at demonstrators and observers,  resulting in the death of one man, James Reston, and the blinding of another, Alan Blanchard.

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

In April 2020, UC Berkeley presented a design for the student housing complex that includes a 180-foot high, 16-story building on Haste Street. Two other buildings will be constructed perpendicular to that structure: A six-story elevated student housing segment and a supportive housing building for people who are formerly unhoused. In between will be a half-acre sunny glade landscaped with pathways.

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. The Wells Fargo and Skydeck buildings on Shattuck Avenue are each about 180 feet high.

The drawings that were presented to the public in the spring represent the biggest massing possible, and was done in part for the environmental review, said Gibson. He said the site’s architects are looking at a building as high as 200’ tall, and are examining a building that is 14 to 17 stories high.

“There is still some play and discussion going on,” said Gibson.

UC Berkeley plans to present plans for the project to the UC Board of Regents in the spring for approval. The city of Berkeley has expressed its approval of the project in part because, before COVID-19, there was a severe housing crunch in the city much of it driven by students. 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.

Cal hopes to start construction in 2022.

Unlike other proposed student housing projects,  UC Berkeley will self-fund the People’s Park housing, said Gibson. Cal will seek funding for the supportive housing planned for the site after the EIR, now in process, is completed, said Gibson. However, he projected confidence that money for that would be easily found. Resources for Community Development will be spearheading that part of the project.

Tom Dalzell, who wrote The Battle for People’s Park about the events of 1969, said in 2020 he is opposed to any construction.

“People’s Park is more than it is,” said Dalzell, who is a member of the People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group, which is fighting UC Berkeley’s development plans. “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…There are many other places to build housing. Try them first.”

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...