New UC Berkeley plans for People’s Park call for student, homeless housing

An empty basketball court fills a corner of People's Park, where UC Berkeley administrators announced plans to build new student and homeless housing. (UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

An empty basketball court fills a corner of People’s Park, where UC Berkeley hopes to build new student residence halls and make land available for supportive housing. (UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

As part of a comprehensive effort to address challenges facing the campus and its urban neighbors, UC Berkeley will redevelop and revitalize People’s Park. Today, Chancellor Carol Christ announced the university’s plans to build on the site a new residential facility for students and make land available for the construction of permanent supportive housing for members of the city’s homeless population. Plans also call for setting aside part of the 2.8-acre property for open and recreational space, as well as a physical memorial honoring the park’s history and legacy.

For more about the plan for People’s Park:

Frequently Asked Questions

What is supportive housing?

With as many as 1,000 beds planned, the new student housing represents a significant step towards meeting the chancellor’s stated goal of doubling the campus’s residential capacity. At the same time, supportive housing will be located in a separate, independently operated building and will have 75 to 125 apartments that will provide safe and supervised living for homeless Berkeley residents. (More information about the plans and proposals can be found here.)

The announcement comes as Berkeley — and much of the Bay Area — faces an affordable housing crisis. According to a recent task force report, UC Berkeley currently provides close to 8,700 beds for some 42,000 graduate and undergraduate students, the lowest percentage in the University of California system. (Note: When the new David Blackwell Hall opens this fall, it will add 775 beds to that total.)

“We are beginning our efforts on the People’s Park site because it is the only university-owned property that allows the campus to simultaneously address student housing needs; relieve demand-side price pressure on the city’s housing market; address crime and safety concerns for the benefit of city and campus communities; revitalize a neighborhood and offer improved safety and services for members of Berkeley’s homeless population,” Christ said.

A UC Berkeley groundskeeper mows the lawn at People’s Park. The campus spends some $369,400 a year to police and maintain the park. (UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

Christ also hailed what she called, “a new day in town-gown” relations, citing the support and partnership of Mayor Jesse Arreguin and many of Berkeley’s elected, civic and business leaders.

“I strongly support the university’s vision for the future of People’s Park,” Arreguin said. “We can honor its rich history, while reimagining it as a place where all people can come together, where we can shelter our homeless and provide needed housing for our students.”

“This project also presents an exciting opportunity for the city and university to collaborate on addressing one of the most critical issues of our time,” he continued. “As we move forward, there will be many opportunities for the public to weigh in on this project.”

A woman stands next to a national guard soldier during a demonstration in People's Park in 1969. (Courtesy of The Oakland Tribune Collection, the Oakland Museum of California. Gift of ANG Newspapers)

A woman stands next to a national guard soldier during a demonstration in People’s Park in 1969. (Courtesy of The Oakland Tribune Collection, the Oakland Museum of California. Gift of ANG Newspapers)

Acquired by the university in 1967 for student housing and athletic facilities, the property — most of a city block east of Telegraph Avenue, bounded by Haste and Bowditch streets and Dwight Way — was not initially developed due to lack of funding. Then, in 1969, the park was taken over by activists. Once envisioned as a home of free expression and alternative lifestyles, it has become a haven for crime and disruption.

Today, even though the park is swept and closed every night, the 40-50 people who use the park daily tend to be the victims, not the perpetrators, of illegal activity. Last year, a full-time social worker was hired by the university to help support the needs and interests of the park’s regular occupants.

In 2017, UC police officers were called to the park 1,585 times, including an incident in June when a woman was arrested after feeding methamphetamine to a 2-year-old boy playing there. And last month, a UC Berkeley employee working at People’s Park was robbed and assaulted.

“Whatever one thinks of the ideals that motivated the creation of the park, it is hard to to see the park today as embodying those ideals,” Christ said. “It is equally hard to determine who the people are that benefit from the park in its current form.”

National Guard soldiers push demonstrators down a Berkeley street during a People's Park protest in May of 1969. (A woman stands next to a national guard soldier during a demonstration in People's Park in 1969. (Courtesy of The Oakland Tribune Collection, the Oakland Museum of California. Gift of ANG Newspapers)

National Guard soldiers push demonstrators down a Berkeley street during a People’s Park protest in May of 1969. (A woman stands next to a national guard soldier during a demonstration in People’s Park in 1969. (Courtesy of The Oakland Tribune Collection, the Oakland Museum of California. Gift of ANG Newspapers)

Stuart Baker, the executive director of the Telegraph Business Improvement District, welcomed the announcement and said the coalition of merchants, nonprofits and residents on Telegraph Avenue that he represents have long struggled with the “spillover effects” from the park.

“The proposed project is a powerful way to address all of these issues,” he said. “This project will change the character of the neighborhood for the better. We will have a park that students and neighborhood residents will feel comfortable using and new housing that the homeless and students urgently need.”

A map of People's Park. (UC Berkeley graphic by Hulda Nelson)

(UC Berkeley graphic by Hulda Nelson)

Amir Wright, a sophomore studying political science, said People’s Park is the “best site” among those considered by the campus.

“It is one of the largest and least-developed plots that are up for consideration,” said Wright, who is a newly elected member of the ASUC Senate and serves on housing commissions representing both the student government and city of Berkeley. “With the potential to house hundreds of students, it will help address our growing needs for housing.”

But Wright urged those developing the park to not forget the 40 to 50 people who spend much of their day in the park.

“We can’t responsibly and in good conscience develop People’s Park if we don’t consider their needs,” Wright said. “Students want to be sure that this project will account for those who inhabit the park during the day. When student housing is built there, we need to continue to meet or exceed the services currently offered. As designed, this project will offer supportive housing services, preserve the history of the park, and go a long way toward housing the many students who are facing the highest rents in the UC system.”

People's Park stands at 2.8 acres. The plans calls for student housing, supportive housing for the homeless, a public park and a physical memorial that honors the legacy of the park. (UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

People’s Park stands at 2.8 acres. The plans calls for student housing, supportive housing for the homeless, a public park and a physical memorial that honors the legacy of the park. (UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

Roughly a quarter of the lot will be set aside for long-term supportive housing, a concept that has proved to be effective and well-received in other communities across the country. (More details about the supportive housing can be found here.)

There are a number of potential governmental and nonprofit funding sources available for the construction and operational costs of the supportive housing. The exact nature of the population to be served — whether they be military veterans, families with young children or foster youth transitioning into adulthood — will largely depend on the funding source selected. The city of Berkeley currently has approximately 30 beds available in existing permanent supportive housing for the city’s estimated 800 homeless residents.

The student housing will be likely be apartment-style and cater to sophomores, juniors, seniors and graduate students, who are most impacted by the high cost and limited availability of rental housing in the East Bay market. The student housing will be developed through a public-private partnership under which the university will lease the land to a developer who will build and operate the housing following rules set by UC Berkeley. This is the same model used to fund and construct UC Berkeley’s new student residence, David Blackwell Hall.

Christ, who became Berkeley’s 11th chancellor last July, said the time had come for UC Berkeley to make changes at People’s Park after years of study and consideration. A detailed schedule for next steps in the planning process, with ample opportunities for community engagement, is now being finalized. Construction is expected to begin in 2020.

“I believe the university has a responsibility for the park, a responsibility to collaborate with the city in support of its homeless population and a responsibility to address our student’s need for housing,” she said.