How Berkeley students made the new Lower Sproul happen

The turning point for plans to rebuild Lower Sproul Plaza came in a dramatic moment two years ago when graduate and undergraduate student leadership negotiated a groundbreaking agreement.

Architects had delivered the first master plan for the project — then projected to cost $413 million, almost twice its current price tag. But how it would be paid for was still a big mystery. 

BEARS Initiative campaign image

From a campaign video urging students to support the BEARS Initiative in 2010.

As Miguel Daal, then head of the Graduate Assembly, tells the tale, the agreement reached in May 2009 was the key. The ASUC, which controls operations in both the MLK Jr. Student Union and in Eshleman Hall, was persuaded to share revenues from its retail businesses in Lower Sproul with the graduate students.

Once the pact was signed, the GA kicked into high gear supporting the ASUC’s longtime goal of revitalizing Lower Sproul. The result: The Bears Initiative, raising student fees to cover the project. It went on the campus ballot in April 2010.

Supporters successfully persuaded students to pass the ballot measure even though they’d be unlikely to still be on campus by the time the new plaza was completed. A few immediate benefits — access to dance practice space in Hearst Gymnasium, the Career Center’s impending move closer to campus among them — proved persuasive. The initiative passed with approval from two-thirds of the 10,000 students who voted.

Noah Stern, who was on the ASUC senate then and last year served as undergraduate student president, remembers that the idea of rebuilding Lower Sproul had been around for years.  An essential piece of the project is that the ASUC’s retail space will expand, allowing it to make more money.

“It wasn’t going to happen unless the students voted for it and agreed to raise their own fees,” Stern, now a senior, says.

Paving the way to the vote was a series of negotiations between student leaders and campus administrators that reduced the projected cost, brought campus agreement to pay for close to $100 million of the work and a Memorandum of Understanding that laid out, point by point, priorities for the new Lower Sproul, according to Daal, a key participant in the discussions.

Once the vote was counted, it was full speed ahead for planning. Since then, the project has come about as a collaboration among Daal and Stern and now their successors, GA president Bahar Navab and ASUC president Vishalli Loomba, as well as dozens of other students, administrators, architects and other planners.

A memorandum of understanding between students and the campus laid out priorities for the complex.

Early on, focus groups of 60 undergraduate and graduate students helped pinpoint the program needs the new plaza needed to address. By fall of 2010, more student workshops were helping map out the programs that would get space in the new complex.

“Every year, we’ve had a change in student leadership, which has made it interesting,” says key planner Beth Piatnitza from Capital Projects. “This fall, some of the same issues came up again. We had this mantra: Trust your predecessors.”

Stern knew he wouldn’t be around to see the project through — but says that he was still happy to devote his time to a new Lower Sproul.

“I told the Regents,” Stern says, “that unlike some Californians who don’t think it’s good to invest in the future of our students, I think our students are a worthwhile cause.”