UC Berkeley removes construction equipment from the basketball court at People’s Park on the morning of Jan. 9, 2023. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

The California Supreme Court agreed Wednesday to hear a case that will decide whether UC Berkeley can move forward with a plan to build student and supportive housing at People’s Park.

This means Cal will have one more opportunity to make a case for the development project that has been mired in legal challenges for years. The university’s appeal was backed by the city of Berkeley and the state.

“This is a very positive and very welcome development,” UC Berkeley spokesperson Dan Moguloff wrote in an email, adding that “the full scope of the Supreme Court’s review” is still not known.

Harvey Smith, who is fighting against the housing project at People’s Park and is the president of the People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group, said the group was hopeful that the Supreme Court will decide in their favor.

“I’m glad at the fact that at least we got one branch of government that is looking at the facts of the case,” Smith said. “Whereas the governor, the executive branch, and the legislators are not behaving that way.”

The university aims to build 1,100 student beds and a 100-bed supportive housing project at the park. People’s Park is one of several sites identified for building more housing to serve the school’s 45,300 students. Currently, UC Berkeley provides 30% of undergraduates and 8% of graduate students with on-campus housing, the lowest percentage of any UC school.

Construction at People’s Park has been at a standstill since last summer, when protesters occupied the park to stop work by crews. A February decision by the First District Court of Appeals put any construction on hold until UC Berkeley completes a new environmental study. And last week, a developer walked away from the supportive housing element of the project over court delays.

UC Berkeley has said it will find a new supportive housing developer and that it remains committed to building at People’s Park.

The February appeals court decision said UC Berkeley violated its obligation under California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), overturning a decision by a lower court that sided with UC Berkeley. Judge Gordon Burns said Cal failed to evaluate alternative sites for development and assess the impact of student noise.

In an amicus brief submitted to the Supreme Court on behalf of UC Berkeley, Gov. Gavin Newsom argued that the appeals decision opens the door for CEQA to be inappropriately used to block development.

“The courts have an important role in ensuring that CEQA is not warped to serve purposes that the Legislature never intended,” Newsom’s brief said. “This case provides an opportunity for the Court to reaffirm that CEQA is a tool to ensure public participation, informed decision-making, and thoughtful development — but not an instrument to block necessary progress or deny to others safe, healthy, and affordable housing.”

The university sees the development, which preserves half the park for green space and provides housing to students and homeless or formerly unhoused people, as a win-win.

“This planned permanent supportive housing, student housing, and renewed park space is urgently needed, and I am hopeful that the supreme court will clear a path forward,” council member Rigel Robinson, who represents the student district in Berkeley, wrote on Twitter

Neighborhood groups fighting against the development have adamantly denied the idea that their lawsuit is intended to block housing construction in Berkeley and elsewhere, arguing that their aim is to protect the green space of the historical park, a landmark of 1960s radical activism and now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It has also been a hub for homeless services and resources. 

“It’s about the history and the absolute need for park and open space,” Smith said. “We can have both. We can have student housing, but you don’t need to destroy a park.”

Peter Gorman, director of housing development at UC Berkeley, said during a meeting between the UC, Cal students and the city of Berkeley that “legal challenges remain the single greatest barrier to delivering affordable and accessible housing for our students.” Smith rejected the idea that CEQA litigation was the primary driver slowing development, saying that it deflected blame from problems UC Berkeley’s own making.

In court, plaintiffs argued that the university failed to meet its requirements under CEQA. UC Berkeley countered that it needs to develop housing at every available site and aims to specifically address problems associated with homelessness by building on the park.

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...