UC Berkeley campus, sunset.
UC Berkeley campus and the city of Berkeley at sunset. Credit: Alyosha Efros  Credit: Alyosha Efros

The UC Board of Regents approved a growth plan for Cal that will bring 12,000 more people to campus, add 8 million square feet of new structures, and build housing in areas the state has designated very high fire hazard severity zones  — all without doing a thorough environmental impact review, three new lawsuits contend.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299, which represents 950  workers including gardeners, janitors, service and technical workers at UC Berkeley and Lawrence National Laboratory filed a suit in Alameda County Superior Court on Aug. 20. The groups Make UC A Good Neighbor and The People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group also filed a lawsuit on the same day, as did Berkeley Citizens for a Better Plan.

The lawsuits ask the court to overturn the Regents’ July 22 certification of UC Berkeley’s 2021 long-range development plan (LRDP) and an accompanying environmental impact report. The suits claim that the EIR fails to comply with the environmental law known as CEQA and should be redone. In addition, the suits ask that the Regents’ approval of two housing projects be set aside.

UC Berkeley said in a statement that it believes its reports are adequate.

“We make a sincere effort to analyze our projects candidly, comprehensively, and honestly,” UC Berkeley said in a statement. “That is how the campus proceeded with the LRDP and the EIR in question, and we look forward to making our case in court.  When courts do find fault with our analysis, we correct the mistakes that the judges note and fix the environmental document so that we can proceed with the projects.”

Cal’s blueprint for growth for the next 15 years

The LRDP is a state-mandated blueprint for how Cal will grow in 15-year increments, in this case through the 2035-2036 academic year. The LRDP proposes that the main campus become mostly car-free and reoriented toward pedestrians and cyclists. But it also projects that the campus population will grow about 22%, from 55,130 people to 67,200. The plan projects that the campus could add as much as 8 million gross square feet to its existing 11.8 million square feet footprint, including the addition of 11,730 student beds around Berkeley and 1,240 parking spaces, mostly around the perimeter of the campus.

“It’s the gobbling up of Berkeley that is disturbing people,” said Harvey Smith, a member of the People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group. He said his group was able to raise $20,000 in four days to file the lawsuit, some of it coming in “crumpled-up $1 bills.”

The LRDP is an aspirational plan, and any future project will have to go through more environmental reviews. However, the Regents approved two new student housing complexes in July when they approved the EIR.

One, the $300 million Anchor House project, will hold 772 transfer students in a complex across the street from the campus. Groundbreaking for that $300 million project was set for November. It is unclear the impact the two lawsuits might have on that timeline. UC Berkeley will not comment on the matter, Dan Mogulof, a university spokesman, told Berkeleyside.

“It’s the gobbling up of Berkeley that is disturbing people.” — Harvey Smith

The other project certified along with the EIR is a housing complex at People’s Park that may hold as many as 1,200 students in a 16-story tower. It will also have a supportive housing building for about 125 formerly homeless individuals. The Regents are scheduled to give final approval to the design in September.

When UC Berkeley released the LRDP and EIR for public comment in April, the city of Berkeley responded harshly, saying both reports were so flawed and inadequate that they should be revised. UC Berkeley only provided perfunctory responses to how it would mitigate the impacts of its growth, the city contended. According to Berkeley’s response, Cal also declined to promise to build any housing, though it indicated it wanted to add 11,700 beds.

But Berkeley has backed off from its criticism since reaching a settlement on July 14 with the university. Over the next 15 years, UC Berkeley will pay the city about $83 million for fire, police, emergency and other services. In exchange, Berkeley agreed to drop its opposition to the 2021 LRDP and EIR and withdraw from another lawsuit challenging the way Cal calculated a rise in the student population. (The two groups, Make UC A Good Neighbor and The People’s Park Historic Advocacy Group are suing to overturn Berkeley’s approval of the settlement.)

aerial view of People's Park
View of People’s Park in 2018. Cal intends to build a student housing complex on the historic site. Credit: UC Berkeley

The two lawsuits go into detail about what the groups perceive to be inadequate about the LRDP and EIR. The lawsuit by Make UC A Good Neighbor and The People’s Park Historic District Advisory Group has a list of 53 reasons why the university’s efforts were inadequate. The AFSCME lawsuit echoes some of those concerns. Some of the highlights include:

  • The LRDP projects a 22% growth in the campus population growth but does not sufficiently examine the impact of the increase on the demand for housing or the increase in rents, which could cause economic injury or displacement for AFSCME’s members.
  • The LRDP talks about building 1,000 units of housing for faculty and staff, perhaps adding 600 units in the Hill Campus East area and 400 units at the Clark Kerr campus. Both of these sites are in very high fire hazard severity zones, which means residents would be at risk for wildfire, according to the lawsuits. The EIR does not adequately analyze any alternatives, such as building housing on the main campus or in the city of Berkeley, increasing the density of the Anchor House or other proposed projects, or forgoing the projected growth.
  • The LRDP fails to sufficiently analyze the plan’s impact on traffic and transportation, according to the suits.
  • The university failed to give good faith responses to the comments the community sent on the LRDP, according to the suits.

Update, Aug. 25, 5 p.m. This story was updated to add the lawsuit filed by Berkeleys Citizens for a Better Plan.

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...