Supporters of People’s Park gather for a rally and protest after UC Berkeley’s attempts to initiate the construction of student housing failed due to activist and court opposition in the summer of 2022. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Five months after UC Berkeley attempted to begin student housing construction in People’s Park and was thwarted by activists and a court order, the park is still in limbo —now once again an encampment for homeless residents, surrounded by felled trees and vandalized construction equipment.

However, a state appeals court in San Francisco released a draft decision saying that the university’s environmental impact report for its long-range development plan may violate the California Environmental Quality Act due to noise, as well as a failure to consider other sites for the 1,100-bed project.

The case is due back in court on Jan. 12, when Cal and plaintiffs — Make UC a Good Neighbor and the People’s Park Historic Advocacy Group — will make arguments supporting their claims.

The court has tentatively sided with plaintiffs, who have maintained that the park is a historic commodity due to its civil rights impact and connections to the Free Speech Movement in the 1960s. They say student housing is important, but the university can build it elsewhere in Berkeley.

The university has countered, saying it intends to build on all viable properties in the city, including People’s Park, and that Resources for Community Development (RCD) plans to create supportive housing for low-income and formerly homeless residents at the location as well.

The plaintiffs and defendants submitted their supportive arguments to the court this week. The University of California is emphasizing possible negative impacts statewide if the appeals court chooses to interpret CEQA in a way that curbs housing construction, and holds a prejudiced view against one group of people — in this case, that students create more noise.

“Students will suffer. Neighbors will suffer. Whatever noise students bring to the neighborhood will be coming with or without the LRDP and the People’s Park Project,” UC lawyers said in a letter to the court Tuesday.

An aerial photo of People’s Park in September 2021 before the UC removed trees through the park in August 2022. Credit: Dronegenuity

The UC and RCD say the draft decision, if finalized, would also open up room for neighbors to push back against supportive and affordable housing developments.

“By using this decision as precedent, any neighbor could link future RCD projects to innumerable stereotypical impacts allegedly caused by low income and unhoused populations,” the letter continues.

The UC also received additional support in their argument from pro-bono lawyers for Two Hundred for Homeownership, a group that has sued the state for its electric vehicle plan alleging it will disproportionately burden low-income residents. The court rejected that letter Friday.

Though mostly siding with plaintiffs on the People’s Park site, the court disagreed with their claim that the UC’s environmental impact review should have considered an alternative where enrollment is reduced.

Plaintiffs argue in their letter that the housing shortage in the area is caused by UC over-enrollment without building housing to keep pace with this growth.

“The Court should not allow UC to leverage that shortage to avoid considering alternative locations for new housing or any limits on enrollment,” their letter says.

Harvey Smith, a leader for the plaintiffs, emphasized that the lawsuit is based on decades of historical support for People’s Park instead of being a neighborhood-based “NIMBY” battle.

“We’re totally in favor of building student housing — we absolutely need it,” Smith said. “But you don’t have to destroy open space and historic resources to get it.”

Supporters of People’s Park have multiple demands, hopes for park’s future

Visitors sunbathe on the lawn at People’s Park 53rd Anniversary in April 2022, several months before the UC tried to begin construction at the park that summer. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

The UC says one primary goal in building student housing and supportive housing at the park is to “remedy the blighted and unsafe conditions at People’s Park” and revitalize the space.

Following an $80 million settlement agreement between the UC and the city of Berkeley in 2021, the entire City Council — including Southside Councilmember Rigel Robinson — have strongly supported the student housing project at People’s Park.

The UC partnered with the city last year to offer dozens of beds at Rodeway Inn for homeless residents sleeping at the park. Nearly everyone who lived at the park moved to the hotel before construction was planned to begin.

But now, months later, some residents have left Rodeway and returned to the park, others are occupying the space in resistance, and new homeless residents have moved into the area after encampment closures in Berkeley and Oakland and an increase in homelessness regionally during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Two people died at People’s Park in the last three months. Tyler Cary, a former UC Davis Ph.D. student, died in November, and a man likely in his 30s who has not yet been identified, died there on Tuesday. The Alameda County coroner’s office has not yet confirmed their causes of death.

Brandon Mendoza, a recent Cal graduate and park supporter, said the park’s current condition is symptomatic of years of neglect that have left the area without resources. He and others have pushed for more resources for the park that respect and honor its history as a hub for homeless services and counterculture — a different brand of “revitalization.”

“Everyone should care about the park, because it is a microcosm of half the terrible shit that’s going on in the world,” Mendoza said. “It’s a microcosm of displacement and rising unhoused populations, of power-hungry universities taking over the nearby city or town. It’s a microcosm of police violence, community resistance, and honestly — a testament of the times.”

Defend People’s Park, a movement formed by existing young park advocates during the COVID-19 pandemic, has clear demands in contrast with the university — they want the land returned to indigenous stewardship, for UC police to be defunded and their financial resources be redirected to services for homeless residents, as well as Cal students and staff.

And the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which has been the most successful method of preventing construction at the site so far, said they don’t plan to let up — even if the case continues past next week.

Smith said there are layers of defense at the park, and last year’s events have had negative repercussions in an area with a rich history.

“Last year, after the UC [offered housing to homeless residents in the park], it became a park again,” Smith said, recalling last spring. “But once [UC] took that preemptive action and moved in, people resisted. Most of that resistance wasn’t old people like me.”

He said that history is worth protecting, and that’s the primary purpose of the lawsuit.

Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...