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Newsom Signs Bill Paving Way to Build New Student Housing at People's Park in Berkeley

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A large open outdoor space with an excavator and some tents in it.
People's Park in Berkeley, November 2022. (Aryk Copley/KQED)

This story was first published Aug. 30 and updated Friday, Sept. 8 at 3:45 p.m.

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill this week aimed at clearing the way for construction of a controversial UC Berkeley student housing project in Berkeley’s historic People’s Park.

AB 1307, which takes effect immediately, amends California’s sweeping Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) by no longer requiring housing developers to first study potential noise levels generated by future tenants.

“California will not allow NIMBYism to take hold, blocking critically needed housing for years and even decades,” Newsom said in a statement about the new law, which both houses of the state Legislature unanimously approved last month.

The bill, introduced by Assemblymember Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland), whose district includes Berkeley, also eliminates the need for universities to prepare an environmental impact report that considers alternative housing sites for residential or mixed-use housing projects.

The law makes it clear that “people are not pollution,” Wicks said in a statement.


Wicks authored the legislation after an appeals court in February blocked the university from breaking ground on the project, ruling that it had failed to study potential noise issues and consider alternative sites. The state Supreme Court in May agreed to hear the case and will make the final ruling on whether the university can resume construction.

The controversial $312 million project would create sorely needed housing for some 1,100 UC Berkeley students. A separate facility would also house roughly 125 of the unhoused people that currently live on the 2.8-acre site south of campus that is owned by the university.

Newsom filed an amicus brief in April urging the state Supreme Court to allow UC Berkeley to continue with the housing project.

A UC Berkeley spokesperson said the university will ask the Supreme Court to consider the new law in its ruling.

“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,” UC spokesperson Dan Mogulof said in a statement.

Last month, Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín called the passage of the bill a big win.

“This is a victory for affordable housing and that means it’s a victory in our ongoing efforts to tackle homelessness,” he said in a press release on Aug. 28. “These laws were designed to protect the environment, but they’re most often used to stop dense, infill projects which add affordable housing while reducing sprawl and pollution. These are the types of projects which, at scale, help fight the housing crisis which has been a leading cause of homelessness.”

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But opponents of the project say the bill effectively rewards UC Berkeley for its failure to comply with longstanding state environmental regulations.

“People’s Park is a National Register of Historic Places site and deserves individual and special attention, and therefore this should be required in an analysis of alternative sites, which would not in any conceivable way obstruct California’s housing needs — needs that we acknowledge to be real,” leaders of the People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group and the Make UC A Good Neighbor, the two main opposition groups that have been embroiled in ongoing litigation with the university over the project, wrote in a letter to the state Assembly.

In the letter, the two groups argue that the university has identified other locations for student housing that would provide more units than what is currently proposed for the park. They also emphasize that, despite their opposition to the project, they support the development of more housing for students.

“There is no need for this legislation since there is a path forward for UCB 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,” the groups stated.

The university has tried for decades to build housing at the park, but those efforts have been met with fierce resistance from opponents. The latest failed attempt to break ground, last August, spurred major protests, including several violent clashes with law enforcement and the wholesale destruction of major construction equipment that had been brought onto the site.

“While CEQA was a groundbreaking law developed to protect the environment at the time of its passage in 1970, in recent decades the process has been used to block projects for non-environmental reasons,” the city said in a statement.

This story includes reporting from Bay City News, The Associated Press and KQED’s Marnette Federis.


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