Jane Stillwater speaks to a crowd gathered at People's Park in Berkeley to protest the construction of UC Berkeley student housing at the park on Aug. 3, 2022. Stillwater has been protesting in the park for decades. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
People's Park is one of the most famous sites of the student movement of the 1960s — battled into existence, it has been held together by activists. The current debate is whether the university should be allowed to build student housing, or whether the park should remain completely open space, a sanctuary of sorts, for people in need of help. Issues of housing, homelessness, open space and more combine for a story with many elements of quintessential Berkeley.
For a long time, the university hadn't done much with it. Volunteers had guarded the space and run programs for various groups. During the pandemic, the eastern edge of the park became a large encampment for unhoused people. In recent years, the university has tried to develop the parcel of land, after its first attempt was blocked in 1969 by protesters. Under the new plans, about 60% of the land would remain a park that the university says will honor the legacy of its creation.
The rest would be turned into a new development, with 1,100 housing units for students and another hundred units of supportive housing run through a local nonprofit. In the meantime, the unhoused residents of the park have been offered a roof over their heads at a converted motel. Earlier this month, the university tried to begin construction, but activists clashed with police as demolition of the trees began. Soon, construction was halted.
Most recently, a judge issued an injunction and the project has been paused, pending a new review.
KQED Forum host Alexis Madrigal spoke with: Dan Mogulof, assistant vice chancellor of public affairs at UC Berkeley; Harvey Smith, member of People's Park Historic District Advocacy Group; and Supriya Yelimeli, housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside.
The following excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.
The origin and state of People's Park
Supriya Yelimeli, Berkeleyside: I was there Tuesday evening around 5 p.m., and some activists who run the People's Park Garden were watering. There were about 10 tents there — people who are occupying the park. The People's Park Kitchen, also run by activists, has used some of the fencing that was put around the park. There are some folks who are just hanging out there, but it still looks very different than before. There used to be groups of people who kind of just hung out in the area. Now, most of the folks who are at the park now are actively protesting for it.
An abridged story of the park
Yelimeli: In the '60s, alongside many other big rebellions and civil rights movements, people who lived in the city decided to take the park land and turn it into a public park. At the time, there were plans to turn it into a parking lot. But people walked into the park, they started digging and shoveling. And there was one very famous protest where around 6,000 people marched to the park when the UC tried to reclaim the land. And on that day, one person was shot and killed. That set in motion a lot of the activism and the real vigor for defending the park.
The UC's vision for People's Park
Dan Mogulof, UC Berkeley: The vision really started five years ago. UC Berkeley is facing an urgent student housing crisis and an initiative was launched with relatively modest goals.
Those goals were to provide every incoming freshman with two years of university housing. But to do that, we need 8,000 new beds. Twenty percent of our students don't even live in the city of Berkeley. Ten percent of our students report being unhoused at any given time. We need to build on every single piece of university-owned property in close proximity to the campus — People's Park is one of those sites.
We also understood how important the park site is to members of the Berkeley community — its past, its legacy. We understood there were unhoused people who had been sleeping and gathering there in the pandemic. Instead of blithely rushing ahead, we developed a plan that acknowledges and addresses all of those various interests.
We're ready to and want to commemorate the park's past and legacy. And also make sure that we’re meeting the needs and interests of unhoused people who have been using the park.
Not only was nearly $5 million spent to help them relocate to the Rodeway Inn, another million dollars is being spent by the city and the campus to open a new daytime gathering center at the First Presbyterian Church, where unhoused people can receive services and food and showers, medical care, counseling and the like.
A continuing struggle for student housing
Alexis Madrigal, KQED: Why doesn't the UC Berkeley just accept fewer students?
Mogulof: There are a number of fallacies and myths around that question. First of all, the UC campuses don't decide their own enrollment levels. Enrollment is decided by the regents in concert with the office of the president. They're facing pressure from throughout the state ... to enroll more students. The size of the system hasn't tracked with the growing population of the state of California. In recent years, we've been required to take more students than we had housing for, exacerbating a preexisting crisis.
Our organization is totally in favor of more student housing. I applaud the plan to provide more student housing. We're critical of the delivery of the plan. It's been reported that up to 10% of Berkeley students at Cal have been homeless — and it's an urgent problem, but our feeling is that it should be addressed in an appropriate way.
The park should remain a park, but a well-maintained park. This debate goes beyond Berkeley. It goes beyond California. The park has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Wouldn't it be easier to build in another part of the UC land holdings?
What do the people of People's Park want?
Yelimeli: I wanted to make clear that there are different groups asking for different things at the park. Defend People's Park, which is mostly a student-run organization, wants People's Park returned to Indigenous stewardship. They want no development at People's Park, and they want folks who previously lived there or who got resources at the park to get permanent housing. They also want UC police defunded and for those funds to be redirected to students and staff who need services, as well as people who lived at the park.
We've been talking about opposition and support ... At the protests, we've heard from Moms for Housing, who famously reclaimed a home in Oakland and were able to live there. We have heard alignment from folks at the Wood Street encampment, Oakland. We've heard alignment from, you know, groups in San Francisco and in Los Angeles, other people who have been fighting for homeless rights.
We do have to be respectful of homeless voices who are not represented saying that [People's Park] is where [they get their] resources — "if I don't have a phone or my friend doesn't have a phone, I can go here and hear from someone who will know their whereabouts." And these are very distinct issues from the student housing crisis.
There's a lack of hearing the voices of these folks at all because they're hard to reach. You can't always get them on the radio or in the newspaper or in a university press release. There are people who certainly acknowledge that living outside in the cold is not what they want.
There are people who are grateful for this opportunity. And then there are folks who are more comfortable living on the streets as well because of past traumas and past terrible experiences with the institutions that surround them. I don't want to speak for them, those voices should be heard. But it's not binary. It never is.
Mogulof: I just want to note that all of the plans that were developed in concert with the city were based on what unhoused people told us. We went out of our way to ensure their voices were heard. We had graduate students for the School of Public Policy who were in the park every day asking people about what the services and support they need and want.
We are, to the best of our knowledge, the only university that hired a social worker to provide care and services to connect people with services. We could not agree more that those are voices that should be heard, that have been heard in the past and need to continue to be heard going forward.
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