The southwest corner of People’s Park on July 27, 2022. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Update, Sept. 8: Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill into law Thursday that says universities do not have to consider “student noise” impacts when building housing, or repeatedly consider alternate sites, and is aimed at easing UC Berkeley’s path toward building student housing on People’s Park.

Assemblymember Buffy Wicks’ AB 1307 does not provide a green light for Cal to start construction on its 1,100-bed student housing plan for the site — the case will continue to move through the state Supreme Court — but it undercuts the basis of an appeals court ruling that sided with advocates in favor of preserving People’s Park.

Newsom has supported the university’s housing project throughout its lifespan, and filed briefs in support of UC Berkeley during the appeals court case. In a statement, Newsom attributed opposition to UC Berkeley’s student housing plan to “NIMBYism.”

“California will not allow NIMBYism to take hold, blocking critically needed housing for years and even decades,” Newsom said. “I thank Assemblymember Wicks and all the legislative leaders for taking on the status quo and clearing the way for our state to build more affordable housing.”

Plaintiffs and people who oppose Cal’s project point to People’s Park’s status on the National Register of Historic Places, its 60-year legacy of civil rights and counterculture and reputation as a hub for homeless services and mutual aid. 

Update, Aug. 29: The state legislature approved AB 1307 on Monday with near-unanimous support. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has been an ardent supporter of the bill, will sign off on the text in the coming weeks.

The impact on UC Berkeley’s plans to move forward with construction at People’s Park won’t become clear until the Supreme Court weighs in after Newsom signs the bill into law, according to both plaintiffs and defendants in the court case over the student housing project.

“UC will ask the Supreme Court to consider the new statute when it issues its ruling,” UC spokesperson Dan Mogulof said in a statement. “The campus will resume construction of the People’s Park project when the lawsuit is resolved and hopes that the new law will substantially hasten the resolution of the lawsuit.”

Plaintiffs are continuing to push back against the project in state Supreme Court. Harvey Smith, of the People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group, said it’s unclear whether the “badly-written” bill will support UC Berkeley, but plaintiffs have been in contact with the legislature to understand the text’s impacts further.

Original story, Aug. 11: UC Berkeley and People’s Park activists have submitted their initial arguments to the state Supreme Court in tandem with a state bill moving through the legislature that could reverse the plaintiff’s February victory against the university.

Both parties are doubling down on their previous arguments in the new briefs submitted to the Supreme Court on Aug. 4.

Plaintiffs in the case — Make UC a Good Neighbor and the People’s Park Historic Advocacy District — emphasize that Cal should have considered alternate sites for their 1,100-bed student housing project.

UC Berkeley is instead arguing against a precedent set by the appeals court in the February decision, which said student noise at the planned dorms could be a violation of state environmental law. Resources for Community Development is still a party to the case, though they confirmed to Berkeleyside in May that they will no longer build the supportive housing for the project.

A hearing has yet to be set for the case.

Meanwhile, Berkeley Assemblymember Buffy Wicks is pushing forward a bill that would reverse the appeal’s court decision, which the bill’s text and the university describe as a “people as pollution” argument.

AB 1307 says the appeal’s court decision would require burdensome environmental reports from all future residential projects in the state based on a “speculation that the new residents will create unwanted noises.” In June, the Senate also added an amendment carving out an exemption for the UC, saying it doesn’t need to consider alternatives to People’s Park if certain requirements are met.

The Senate Housing Committee pushed it forward unanimously in July, and the bill is headed to the Senate floor. It will be placed on the consent calendar for approval before the end of session on Sept. 8. If the Senate approves the text, it would be approved with a signature from Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has been outspoken in his support of the UC’s plans.

Harvey Smith, member of the plaintiff’s People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group, said the assembly bill is the “epitome of special interest litigation” and intended to crush longstanding advocacy for People’s Park. He raised issue with Wicks, saying she didn’t reach out to her constituents (the plaintiffs) before introducing it.

Newsom, Wicks, Mayor Jesse Arreguín and City Council have all supported UC’s plan to build student housing at the site and ease its student housing crisis. The city and UC reached an $82.6 million settlement over town-and-gown relations in July 2021, and the City Council has backed the project terms ever since.

Longtime activists, former unhoused residents at the park and student activists have staged a fierce opposition against the plans, including a 12-hour standoff last summer blocking the university’s attempts to begin construction.

Smith said plaintiffs will continue to push forward the argument that consideration of alternatives is at the “heart” of state environmental law — CEQA — and one that supports People’s Park’s right to exist as a historical hub.

“There is a path forward for UC to build the much-needed student and supportive housing on a site other than People’s Park, thus preserving a nationally recognized historical resource and a valuable public open space,” Smith said.

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...