An aerial view of People's Park, September 2021.
An aerial view of People’s Park on Sept. 5. The UC Board of Regents has voted to build two buildings with a combined 1,100 beds for students on the historic site. Credit: Dronegenuity Team

The UC Board of Regents has finally accomplished what it set out to do more than 50 years ago: tame People’s Park by building student housing there.

The Regents on Thursday overwhelming voted in favor of building 1,100 beds for students in two buildings, one 12 stories high and one six stories, along with 125 beds of supportive housing for the unhoused. Those buildings will sit on 1.1 acres of the 2.8-acre park, leaving 1.7 acres of open space that will also include a section that honors the turbulent history of the park. The price tag is $312 million.

The move will radically reshape People’s Park, which was born in a spirit of optimism in April and May 1969 after thousands of students, activists and community members transformed a university-owned muddy parking lot into an open, inviting green park. The builders of the park were determined to create a space controlled by the community, not by a conservative university that had a history of squelching free speech. The site has been a contested space ever since then.

If the four lawsuits pending against the long-range development plan authorizing this project do not succeed, construction could begin in the summer of 2022 with students moving in by fall 2024. But campus officials presenting the plan to a committee of the regents cautioned that there would likely be delays.

“This project is a win-win for our city,” Mayor Jesse Arreguín told the Regents’ finance and capital strategies committee on Wednesday. “People’s Park has a long and storied history, but I believe now is the time for a new vision for the park, one where we can honor its rich history and address the challenges of our time and preserve part of the park the community helped create over 50 years ago.”

Others saw the vote as a different kind of milestone, one that marked the end of the struggles of the 1960s.

“I think it’s the end of a Berkeley,” said Tom Dalzell, who wrote The Battle for People’s Park: Berkeley 1969. “It’s been ending incrementally. Some of the end is OK. But this is a symbolic end of everything that Berkeley has come to represent: political activism, a respect for our radical history.”

Others sounded more militant. “There will be resistance continuing,” one speaker told the committee.

The vote to put housing in People’s Park is a resounding win for Chancellor Carol Christ, the first chancellor in decades willing to weather the political consequences of changing the park. And using the housing crisis was key to her success.

“She has ice water in her veins,” said one Cal official who admires Christ’s fortitude. The official asked not to be named.

UC Berkeley only houses about 23% of its students, the lowest percentage in the UC system. This fall, 5,000 students were turned away from student housing, forcing many to move far away from school, which will impact their studies, Christ told the Regents’ committee. About 40% of Cal’s students don’t live in Berkeley, she said.

People's Park as seen on August 26, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
People’s Park as seen on Aug. 26, 2021. There are currently about 40 to 50 people who sleep in tents in People’s Park every night. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Before she became chancellor on July 1, 2017, Christ chaired a UC Berkeley housing task force that quantified the student housing crisis and identified nine sites, including People’s Park, on which to build about 7,500 student beds. Once in office, Christ made building housing one of her top priorities. Arreguín and other Berkeley city officials supported Christ’s proposal to build in the park since the student housing crunch was driving up rents and displacing long-time Berkeley residents. The fact there was a housing component for low-income and formerly unhoused people also made the plan more appealing.

In recent weeks, Christ has emphasized how the plan will both help the broader community and provide much-needed housing for students. In an August letter to the campus, she vowed to offer housing to all the people now living in the park before construction begins. Before the pandemic, sleeping in the park was prohibited, but that rule was suspended in March 2020 after the state instituted a shelter-in-place order. Now there are about 40 to 50 people who sleep in tents in the park every night.

Student approval for the People’s Park housing complex goes up when they learn about the planned supportive housing element. In September, UC Berkeley hired an independent firm to gauge student reactions to the plan. When first polled, only 56% of the students said they were in favor of the project. But when the students were informed of the supportive housing element, the approval rating for the project went up to 64%, Christ told the regents.

Cal has been wanting to build housing at the site since 1968

sheriff's deputies lounging on playground equipment
After the university erected a fence around on park on May 15, 1969, Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies sit on benches in People’s Park. Credit: Stephen Shame/Polaris Credit: Stephen Shame/Polaris

The area that is now People’s Park was once covered with classic Berkeley brown shingle homes. In 1968, the university started buying up houses and bulldozing them, ostensibly because it wanted the young radicals living dispersed. But for seven months, the land sat empty and became a muddy parking lot.

The Vietnam War was raging, the Black Panthers were amassing influence and Berkeley had already seen a decade of political protests and cultural ferment, including the 1964 Free Speech Movement and the Third World Liberation Front strike. Many young people saw the university as complicit with the government and the ruling class.

“Berkeley is a company town,” Frank Bardacke, one of the park’s founders who had been charged with conspiracy for organizing “Oakland Stop the Draft Week” in October 1967 said in a film made in 1969. “It’s run by the University of California very much the same way Standard Oil runs Richmond or the way Dupont runs Wilmington or the way the automobile industry runs Detroit.”

So, in April 1969, a group of activists decided to transform the empty lot three blocks south of campus into a park.

In the beginning, only a few dozen people worked to add sod, flowers and trees. But within a few weeks the project had caught on and thousands of people helped transform the plot into a “people’s park.” There was a children’s playset, free meals, music and a warm community feeling. At first, UC officials let the park happen.

But on May 15, 1969, at 3 a.m., UC Berkeley sent hundreds of police officers to bulldoze and occupy the park. At 6 a.m., a company the university had hired arrived and installed a chain link fence around the park.

By noon, Sproul Plaza was filled with thousands of students angry and upset by the university’s actions. When incoming ASUC president Dan Siegel suggested they “go down there and take the park,” there was a spontaneous march down Telegraph. The 3,000 students were met with a massive police presence, including deputies from the Alameda County Sheriff’s office. Police tried to stop the crowd at Haste Street, a block from the park. Protesters responded by opening a fire hydrant, throwing rocks and bottles. Some hurled back tear gas canisters thrown at them.

At a certain point, the deputies pointed their rifles toward the rooftops and fired buckshot. One observer, James Rector, was shot multiple times and later died. Another, Alan Blanchard, a carpenter, was permanently blinded. About 100 others were injured. The day became known as “Bloody Thursday” and became an important international symbol of protest. Over the next few days. Berkeley resembled a war zone. Gov. Ronald Reagan sent in 3,000 National Guard troops who arrived in trucks that traveled along city roads. They set up tents at People’s Park. Tanks were positioned at the Berkeley Marina and north of campus. Members of the guard affixed bayonets on the ends of their rifles. On May 20, 1969, a National Guard helicopter sprayed tear gas over Sproul Plaza, which wafted throughout Berkeley as far north as Oxford Elementary School and as far south as Tunnel Road, according to Dalzell’s book. On May 30, 25,000 people marched peacefully to the park.

The fence around the park was eventually torn down. The city of Berkeley voted to make the park a permanent open space but never owned the land. In recent decades, UC Berkeley’s plans to improve the park and lure more students there have largely failed. In 1991, Cal installed two beach volleyball courts and a basketball court, only to be met with large protests that resulted in the arrest of more than 200 people. The university removed the volleyball courts in 1997.

In recent years, as the region’s unhoused population has skyrocketed, the park has become a hangout. While most denizens are peaceful, crime in the park has skyrocketed. A man was shot and killed in the park in April 2019, a woman was stabbed seven times while in a tent in the park in March and a man died while sleeping in a tent in the park in April, among other incidents. The violence and drug dealing have increased calls by community members, some neighbors, nearby businesses and officials to do something to disrupt the current culture at the park, while also assisting those who frequent it.

‘Modest’ student accommodations

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

While the forthcoming 775-bed Helen Diller Anchor House project (a $300 million gift to the university) will create a luxurious living experience for transfer students, the planned housing at People’s Park will be more modest, according to UC officials. There won’t be any “unnecessary luxuries that are incompatible with student housing,” according to documents. It is already projected to be one of the most expensive dorms ever built in the UC system because of three cost drivers, according to John Arvin, associate vice-chancellor for real estate and capital projects. It is a high-rise, it is being constructed in an infill location (which makes it harder and thus more expensive to build), and the Bay Area is the most expensive region in which to build, Arvin told the regents’ committee.

To contain costs, the design is standardized as much as possible, said Arvin. The floor plates will be redundant. There will be 135 four-room apartments with eight beds and a “modest” shared living space, spread across two wings, a 12-story-high east-west wing along Haste Street (North Wing) and a six-story-high north-south wing extending to Dwight Way (the south wing). There will be four studio apartments, two two-bedroom apartments and seven three-bedroom apartments. All the academic space will be concentrated on one floor. The amenity spaces will be “carefully curated,” he said. There will be a large “grab and go” food service operation on the ground floor. There won’t be any parking for students but there will be space for 114 bikes. The building will be all-electric and will exceed LEED Gold standards. The university will do a “robust contractor outreach program” to ensure that many construction companies put in bids, thus increasing competition, said Arvin.

Projected costs to live in the complex for an academic year are $13,935, which is 31% below the market rate, according to university documents.

The buildings will be clustered and will leave 1.7 acres of open landscape (including a breezeway between the buildings), which will be landscaped with paths, sitting areas, new trees and a large central glade.

The original price tag presented to the regents was $365 million. That included a $53 million contingency fund for cost overruns and legal fees, amounting to 15% of the budget. The regents’ committee voted unanimously to approve the project and forward it to the full 26-member board, but without the contingency fund. Regent Hadi Makarechian, a developer, had questioned the cost of the project and suggested if the budget was set too high, there would be no incentive for contractors to come in any lower. His point of view convinced other regents. The new price tag is about $312 million. UC Berkeley will seek financing for the complex and will pay for the interest and principal. The projected debt payment is $15.5 million annually for years 1-11 and $25 million annually for years 11 -35, according to university documents.

Joe Liesner, a critic of the project, pointed out during the public comment period that could add up to almost $1 billion.

Housing for low-income and formerly homeless people

The Regents also approved terms for a ground lease that will allow Resources for Community Development, a 37-year-old Berkeley nonprofit, to build and operate a housing complex with supportive services for 125 formerly homeless and low-income individuals. They will live in apartments in a separate five-story building next to the 12-story high-rise that houses students. Services will be available on site. The Regents have not yet released the terms of that lease. Construction on this portion of the complex could start mid-2023, according to university documents.

How will Cal commemorate the park’s history?

From the time the university announced its plans to build in the park, officials have insisted they would commemorate the story of the founding of the park. Details, however, have been scarce. Documents sent to the Regents talk about building a “promenade referencing the path of protest in May 1969 [that] would connect the landscape elements and further commemorate the site’s history.” The Hood Design Studio, founded by the respected architect Walter Hood, will design the historic space. The budget for all the outdoor elements of the project is $20 million.

Judy Gumbo, who was part of the small group of people who gathered at the Red Square Dress shop on Telegraph Avenue in April 1969 and planned the park, said she is leery of any commemoration designed by the university. Gumbo, one of the original Yippies, said the character of the park has changed since its creation. She is dismayed by the current state of the park where so many people who need medical and mental services don’t appear to be getting the help they need. (Gov. Ronald Reagan closed mental institutions but never opened the small-scale facilities he promised to create, she said.)

“It breaks my heart to see the park now,” said Gumbo. “The social issues that need to be addressed aren’t being addressed.”

Housing is needed but in smaller-scale projects, not the “penises” projected to be built around Berkeley, Gumbo said.

“The Regents can’t be trusted,” said Gumbo. “The University of California can’t be trusted. We know that over 50 years.”

Gumbo would like to see the community rather than a professional landscaping firm design the history section of the park. She would also like to see it funded with a $100,000 contribution from each Regent. That way they would have a personal connection to the site.

“It’s the end of a dream that People’s Park could be closer to what people wanted it to be rather than what it devolved into through 50 years of neglect,” said Dalzell.

Regent Alexis Atsilvsgi Zaragoza, an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley, voted no on the proposal.

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...