Opinion: UC Berkeley should reconsider its building plans now that People’s Park is on national register

Cal should build student housing on a less historically-significant site like the nearby Ellsworth garage.

On May 24, the National Park Service formally listed People’s Park on the National Register of Historic Places, following the unanimous nomination of the California State Historical Resources Commission. The listing recognized the park as an iconic site of one of the great political and cultural conflicts of the 1960s and as commemorating the extraordinary role of Berkeley in the history of that decade.

Dan Mogulof, a UC Berkeley spokesman, argues that the listing is simply “honorific” and does not affect UC Berkeley’s development plans. Apparently, the university has had a change of heart since last fall when it strongly opposed the proposed listing of the park at a meeting of the state resources commission. If the listing is essentially meaningless, why did the university bother to argue against it? Fortunately, the commission voted unanimously to go ahead with the nomination despite Cal’s opposition.

In fact, a listing on the national register is neither simply honorific nor essentially meaningless. The register was authorized by the National Preservation Act of 1966 to serve as the “official list of the Nation’s places worthy of preservation.” The register’s clear purpose is to promote the preservation of sites like People’s Park. And if the register does not absolutely prevent the destruction of the park, it certainly requires the University of California to seriously reconsider its current plan to place two large buildings on a site the National Park Service deems “worthy of preservation.”

Furthermore, Section 106 of the National Preservation Act places serious limitations on the use of federal funds to destroy or seriously alter places on the National Register. In addition to student dorms, the university’s project includes low-income housing, which presumably will be paid for in part with federal dollars. Federal funds will also be used to relocate unhoused people currently in the park. Section 106, then, obviously applies to People’s Park.

To be clear, I commend the university for granting land for low-income housing and providing at least temporary homes for unhoused people. I also support the construction of additional student housing. But not in People’s Park.

Destruction or substantial alteration of the park is not just contrary to federal policy; it is contrary to common sense and cultural logic. The chair of the State Historical Resources Commission, a former county sheriff, said he could not understand why the University of California, a great public cultural institution, would oppose the preservation of an important historical site like People’s Park. For him, the destruction of the park was directly contrary to the university’s mission of public education and public service.

Fortunately, there are many alternative sites for UC’s housing project. Probably the most promising is the university’s Ellsworth Parking Structure, an unattractive concrete car park with nine tennis courts that takes up nearly a square block just one block west of People’s Park. Demolition of the Ellsworth structure would be consistent with the university’s laudable environmental goal of convincing students, faculty, and staff to access Cal by foot, bike, or public transit rather than automobile.

The University of California, then, has a crucial decision to make: It can preserve an outdated, environmentally inappropriate parking garage, or it can fulfill its legal, moral, and cultural duty to preserve, protect, and enhance People’s Park.

Charles Wollenberg, a former chair of Social Sciences at Berkeley City College, is an author, historian, and member of the People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group. He is the recipient of the 2022 Book Club of California award for contributions to Western History.