Opinion: Berkeley residents must ‘question authority’ in the decision to build on People’s Park

Destroying the park by building student housing is an attempt to kill the voices that have criticized UC Berkeley since the 1960s.

If ever there was a time to Question Authority, entering UC Berkeley this fall is it. Chancellor Carol Christ’s  Aug. 25 “Back to school, back together” message provides several opportunities to sharpen one’s skills of interrogation. In this academic year, the chancellor will be dealing with the student housing crisis, a stressed relationship with the Berkeley community, several legal actions against the university, as well as clearing the unhoused residents from People’s Park and then planning to build over the park site. Her remarks on these, and other, issues are, in admin-speak, never outright lies, but always deceptive.

In her remarks, the chancellor boasts of  “a new era of cooperation with city government colleagues and our neighbors that I am certain will benefit all.” Christ seems to think that UCB, the city of Berkeley, and Berkeleyans are now one big happy family all ready to benefit from the settlement agreement to which she is referring. Much of Berkeley is still reeling over the underhanded secrecy the mayor and City Council used to pull off that settlement agreement. Note the term “new era.” By comparison, in the “old era” UC faced a legal battle over UCB’s excessive student enrollment, and for a time the mayor had come close to suing UC for inadequately evaluating the environmental effects of its long-range development plans. That was a time when the mayor was fighting for those who elected him. Nowadays he rationalizes the settlement saying that the $83 million that the city will recoup over the 16-year period of the agreement is a victory for the city. Yet in a detailed analysis of costs and payments for city services to UCB, the Berkeley Neighborhood Council finds that over the same 16 years the city of Berkeley will have subsidized UCB for $349 million. Terming the mayor’s deal a settlement couldn’t be more appropriate. This flip flop from “old” to “new” eras only makes one wonder at the immensity of UC Berkeley’s power to control.

A measure of the affront to Berkeleyans’ dedication to truly transparent and participatory government is the filing of a Brown Act violation lawsuit against the city of Berkeley. Filed by two Berkeley groups — Make UC a Good Neighbor and the People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group (of which I am a member) — it demands that the settlement agreement be declared null and void because it was adopted in closed session without public review. We all need to stand up to UCB’s overshadowing presence.

Whether you are a student trying to find housing that won’t bankrupt your family or your future or a Berkeley native who can’t afford to live in their home city, you deserve the opportunity to participate in the creation and discussion of agreements that will affect your future for the next 16 years and longer. That’s why there is growing resentment toward UCB by Berkeley residents for Cal’s obstinate disregard of its role in aggravating the dire housing shortage in Berkeley by over enrolling students. Making matters even worse, the university builds only market-rate housing, which makes the housing shortage worse for all of Berkeley. UCB’s disregard for those with whom it “shares” the city is further demonstrated by their plan to demolish rent-controlled housing at 1921 Walnut St., an unforgivable act in a city plagued with unaffordable housing.


The changing mission of the urban university merits close attention. No longer should it be thought of as simply higher education. Davarian Baldwin’s In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower: How Universities Are Plundering Our Cities describes how changes in federal and state education funding have pushed universities into an “entrepreneurial” mode that leads to practices in which their tax-exempt status is used to augment its bottom line through the extraction of revenue from public property and tax funds. In this model, everything that can be is monetized and student tuition “is not a simple payment-for-service model. Instead, it’s a $1.5 trillion debt market” that burdens students and families with decades of crippling debt. This emerging nature of the modern “UniverCity” as “gaining control over not just economic development but also urban governance” is clearly exemplified in the UC Berkeley-city of Berkeley settlement agreement described above.

A commitment or an offer?

As a People’s Park supporter, it was uplifting to read that the UCB had made a commitment to house the unhoused people now living in the park. But as the chancellor states, with surprising candor, she made that commitment only so UC could begin constructing huge buildings which will neutralize the cultural and physical existence of People’s Park.

Although I hope the chancellor can live up to her commitment, there remain questions as to how that might come about. Will the university make a list of current park residents and put up a fence to keep others out? No, that would be bad optics. If then more folk come in, they’re not on the chancellor’s list, and, come construction time these new folk get evicted . . .  even worse optics.

Knowing that Chancellor Christ is under financial pressure and that Housing Project #2 (People’s Park) is her “line in the sand,” it is hard to ignore her saying that she will “offer housing” to the unhoused. Will there be a deadline to accept her offer?  Will the housing offered respect the person’s need for family and familiar community?  Will the offered housing have supportive services?

People’s Park

Chancellor Christ devoted a large part of her message to tell us how compassionate and mutually beneficial her attempt to build housing on People’s Park would be. In Berkeley, People’s Park marks the point when state, county and UC Berkeley resorted to military force to stop the student movement that rocked the 1960s. Often referred to as “The Battle for People’s Park, it was a confrontation fittingly described as a modern-day David and Goliath tale. In 1969, David struggled against Goliath’s attempts to block the campaigns he was waging for racial inclusion, free political speech, and against the war in Vietnam. Goliath used lethal military force and destroyed the park while holding Berkeley under siege. But America and the world came to know that David held the moral high ground. Goliath finds it hard to tolerate David’s rebuilding and continuing to this day to occupy the park. Even as our world is burning up from climate change, Christ is more than willing to destroy an entire park and most of its trees to erase Goliath’s shame.

Christ is very smart. If she says that building over People’s Park is solely to create much-needed student housing, she is fooling us; if she believes it, she is fooling herself. Because anyone in Berkeley can tell you that erecting concrete towers on People’s Park will be delayed by legal battles, political resistance, cultural preservationists, and endless cost overruns. One indication of the difficulty of the task is that Cal intends to manage the construction itself. The university knows it will have a hard time finding a developer willing to put itself in the line of fire to construct 1,200 beds in the park.

In the final analysis, the students’ real needs for truly affordable housing are being set aside, again, so UC can engage in the retributive power imposition of itself on its surrounding community.

Course Correction

Chancellor Christ with unquestioned sincerity expressed her empathy for those suffering from the political and natural disasters of today’s world. I hope my above critique of the chancellor’s remarks provides a beginning for piecing together an alternative global perspective of UCB’s role in our dystopian world. With her place in the UC system, the chancellor is an integral part of an institution that is so fundamentally identified with a system based on relentless growth, endless war, and crippling racial and wealth inequity that, to console the suffering victims of that system borders on “apologism.”

Christ likely knows, somehow, what she is a part of. Yet she invites us to invest our energies in a failed system that will not risk sincere self-criticism.

If you don’t want to wake up in 10 or 20 years saying “Oh no, what have I become a part of?” seek understanding of the world from diverse perspectives and always Question Authority!


The UC Board of Regents is scheduled to vote to approve the new student and supportive housing on People’s Park at its Sept. 28-30 meeting. To record written opposition to UC’s plan to destroy People’s Park write to regentsoffice@ucop.edu before Sept. 26, or to be on the list to address the regents by phone send your phone number to: publiccomment@ucop.edu.

Joe Liesner is a co-founder of the People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group, a member of the People’s Park Council, and a long-time volunteer for East Bay Food Not Bombs.