The 12-story north wing of the student housing complex at People’s Park as seen from Dwight Way. Credit: LMS Architects
The 12-story north wing of the student housing complex at People’s Park as seen from Dwight Way. Credit: LMS Architects

UC Berkeley unveiled new plans Wednesday for student housing in People’s Park that call for a 12-story building rather than a 16-story complex — a change that will still allow room for about 1,100 students.

Chancellor Carol Christ also made a promise in her back-to-school message that the university will not start building until the 40 or 50 people currently living in tents in the park are offered permanent shelter.

“We have decided that construction will not begin until we are able to offer housing, services and a daytime place to gather for the unhoused people currently in the park,” Christ wrote.

The university still hopes to break ground for the project, in the spring or summer of 2022, said Dan Mogulof, a university spokesman. The UC Board of Regents still has to approve the plan and four groups have filed lawsuits against the university that could affect the project’s construction.

In her message, Christ emphasized the urgent need to build more student housing. The university had to turn away more than 5,000 students who sought university housing this year, she said. About 40% of Cal students can’t find a place to live in Berkeley, she said.

UC Berkeley currently houses the lowest percentage of students of any campus in the system. Christ has vowed to build another 7,500 beds on around nine sites in the area in the coming years. She emphasized in her message that every appropriate parcel the university owns needs to be utilized to accomplish this.

UC Berkeley also unveiled a new website on Wednesday to explain the project, promote the university’s dedication to helping the unhoused, show how it will honor the park’s history and debunk misconceptions about the project.

The new renderings appear to respond to some of the criticism directed at the first set of provisional design drawings, which included a 16-story tower. The scale of the revised project is somewhat smaller. About 1,100 students will be housed in the 12-story building. Plans for the 16-story building called for as many as 1,200 students.

The buildings have been moved so there will be more sun streaming through the stained-glass windows of the nationally landmarked First Church of Christ, Scientist on Dwight Way as well as onto its stunning bougainvillea vine.

The six-story south wing of the student housing complex in People’s Park as seen from Bowditch Street. Credit: LMS Architects
The six-story south wing of the student housing complex in People’s Park as seen from Bowditch Street. Credit: LMS Architects

The two wings of housing will hold 1,113 students

The project will house about 1,113 students. There will be two wings of student housing with a central entrance. The north wing will rise to 12 stories. Eleven of those floors will house students in four-bedroom suites with a central living room and kitchen. The south wing will be six stories high, and it will be raised “to create an open and airy pass-through into the new park space below,” according to the new website.

There will be a market that emphasizes healthy food near the entrance and social, community spaces, and study spaces on the ground floor. Rents will be “below-market” for Berkeley, according to the website.

In addition to student housing, UC Berkeley will donate land to the nonprofit RCD to build a supportive housing complex for as many as 100 extremely low-income, unhoused or formerly housed individuals. (Previous plans for the site would have provided supportive housing for 125 community members.)

About 1.7 acres of the site will be a green open park space, according to the latest plans. UC Berkeley will also preserve many of the existing trees.

“We believe in a safe, revitalized park that will be used by a wider segment of students and the Berkeley community,” according to the website.

The university is also promising to provide commemoration of some sort of the history of People’s Park, which was the site of many protests against university authority and the Vietnam War in the late 1960s. The specifics of that have not been finalized, according to the website.

“Samples of ideas in consideration are a memorial walkway that mimics the path of protestors walked in May 1969, murals or commemorative designs on the exterior of the buildings, displays of historic photos, and themed student housing floors around the topics of social justice, sustainability, and caring for the natural and human habitat.”

A protest against development at People’s Park at Sather Gate on Aug. 25, 2021. Credit: Lisa Teague
A protest against development at People’s Park at Sather Gate on Aug. 25, 2021. Credit: Lisa Teague

Lisa Teague lives across the street from the park and has long been involved in helping those who frequent the park as well as fighting the university’s plan to build housing there. On Wednesday morning, she was among a group of protesters from Defend People’s Park who strung a banner across Sather Gate to call attention to the university’s plans.

Teague said she was pleased to hear Cal would help house and get services to those currently living park. “They do seem to be responding to our messaging,” Teague said. “We have been pushing for no displacement.”

Teague wondered if the announcement might be a calculated move to reduce opposition to the project. Helping those in the park before building might make the housing project more palatable to students, but not to her, she said.

“It sounds better,” she said. “They were going to knock everything down, add supportive housing and bulldoze it.”

Christ’s announcement mentioned Cal would help the 40 to 50 people currently living in the park. Teague questioned how UC Berkeley would determine who will be helped as the population of the park changes. Will Cal do an inventory now and only help those people? And what about the people who don’t want to move into housing?

The new People’s Park website acknowledges that not everyone will respond to Cal’s overtures. “We do understand there will be some that choose camping and refuse options we make available to them. We will do all we can for those that will accept our support.”

Mogulof said offering services to those in the park is an extension of UC Berkeley’s values. And the new website and Christ’s message take care to set out what Cal is doing to help the unhoused around campus:

  • UC Berkeley is one of the few universities to have a full-time social worker who focuses on unhoused people, according to Christ. Ari Neulight works extensively at People’s Park to connect people with services and “to date, has already found safe, permanent housing for nearly 60 unhoused people.”
  • UC Berkeley spends more than $250,000 a year to keep People’s Park, including its bathroom, clean.
  • It has placed a “sharps” container on site for used needles.
  • As part of the new $83 million agreement forged between the city and the university, Cal is providing funds to create a daytime drop-in service center for the unhoused around Telegraph Avenue.
  • UC Berkeley will build a permanent public restroom in the area.
  • Faculty and students are already involved in assisting the unhoused, through various programs. The school provides medical services through its School of Optometry and  Suitcase clinic. The law school provides free legal services through its Homelessness Service Project. Professors are researching homelessness.

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...