5 questions for Chancellor Carol Christ about People’s Park

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 plans to build new student and supportive housing. (UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

Last week’s decision by the UC Board of Regents to move ahead with a plan for People’s Park that will include student housing, supportive housing and public open space that commemorates the park’s history marked the latest development in the decades-long history of the park.

But the decision is far from the final step before construction can begin. Berkeley News recently discussed with Chancellor Carol Christ the student housing crisis, the unhoused people spending nights in the park, student sentiment and what needs to happen between now and the start of construction.

The interview, conducted via email, has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve promised to begin construction on the student housing “in the coming year.” What needs to happen between now and then?

We are proceeding with all of the usual planning and design work that precedes the start of any construction project. Just as importantly, we are also devoting a great deal of effort to ensuring we will address the needs and interests of the unhoused people once the park is temporarily closed for construction.

We have heard the voices of the activists and experts, and we have changed our plans: We will not begin construction until we are able to offer housing and services to the 40 to 45 unhoused people currently sleeping in the park, as well as a daytime place to gather. This is consistent with the university’s longstanding commitment to, and concern for, unhoused members of our community.

a map showing that people's park is just a few blocks from the main uc berkeley campus

(UC Berkeley graphic by Hulda Nelson)

Where will those 40 to 45 people go? Will they get priority for the supportive housing?

We are in discussions about viable options with our partners in city and state government, as well as nonprofits that have experience and expertise when it comes to serving unhoused members of the community. As far as the supportive housing is concerned, the population it will prioritize and serve will be largely dependent on the sources of funding for the construction, as well as on existing waiting lists maintained by the city and county. While the campus is providing the land for the facility’s site, we are entrusting its daily operations and services to  Resources for Community Development (RCD)(link is external), a Berkeley-based nonprofit organization with extensive experience in this area.

A new, independent survey of Berkeley students showed that 64% of students support campus plans for the park. Was that a surprise?

We have always felt that our plans for People’s Park took into account the varied needs and interests of our students, the unhoused people who currently sleep and/or gather in the park, and our neighbors in the City of Berkeley. Based on my past conversations with supporters and opponents alike, it was evident that the more people know about all of the project’s elements, the more likely they are to support it. We are also acutely aware that Berkeley students are dealing with an urgent housing crisis. This year alone we have had to turn down 5,000 students who sought space in university housing.

So, with all that in mind, no, we were not particularly surprised by the survey results.

What do you say to 24% of students who don’t support the plan?

The survey shows there is obvious and significant concern for the well-being of the unhoused people who currently use the park. We share those concerns and have no intention of abandoning or weakening our university’s long-standing commitment to confronting the causes and impacts of a chronic housing crisis in our region, state and country. We will, in the months ahead, seek opportunities to engage project opponents and supporters alike, to ensure they have accurate information about the project, and to solicit their ideas and feedback.

I am not at all sure that it is possible to gain 100% agreement about any project of this sort, but we will continue to do whatever we can to assure opponents that their voices have been heard and their perspectives are being taken into account.

two men with protest signs

At a 2018 event, two demonstrators took the stage to object to Berkeley’s plans to develop People’s Park. (UC Berkeley photo)

People’s Park brings out a lot of strong emotions in people, as you know. Why are you so focused on this very contentious piece of property? Aren’t there easier ways to build housing?

We are facing an urgent student housing crisis that is impacting both the campus and city communities. In 2017 we established the following goals for our housing initiative:

  • Provide two years of housing for entering freshmen
  • Provide one year of housing for entering transfer students
  • Provide one year of housing for graduate students
  • Provide up to six years of housing for untenured faculty

Meeting those goals will require the addition of some 11,000 new beds, and to do that we must build on every available, suitable university-owned site in close proximity in the campus.

In addition to People’s Park, there are six more housing projects in various stages of development. Altogether, though, they accomplish less than half of our housing goal.

In other words, we are not in an either/or situation. We must have an all-of-the-above approach. Beyond that, I believe that we can and must do better as a society, as a community, than merely offer unhoused people a place to sleep outdoors. I also believe that our plans are consistent with the park’s founding ideals.

In short, People’s Park was chosen to be among the first four sites we are developing because it is the only university-owned property that allows the campus to simultaneously address student housing needs, create new accommodations for unhoused people, relieve demand-side price pressure on the city’s housing market, and address crime and safety concerns for the benefit of all. At the same time, we are proceeding with work necessary to advance the Anchor House, Albany Village, Upper Hearst and Emeryville housing projects