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UC Berkeley's Plan to Build Housing on People's Park Heads to California Supreme Court

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A sign that says 'Save people's park' is hung between trees, next to a tent, in a park.
A sign says, 'Save Peoples Park, No More Buildings' at People's Park in Berkeley in 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The California Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on Wednesday in a case brought by two groups opposed to UC Berkeley’s plan to build student housing at People’s Park.

The case hinges on whether the court considers noise from future residents a form of pollution and whether housing developers should be held to stricter standards when it comes to studying alternative sites for proposed projects. Depending on how the court rules, it could empower community members to demand that developers do extra studies before building new housing, potentially lengthening an already tedious process.

“If a person is vehemently opposed to a project, they can go to court and say ‘tell them to do more studies,’” said Chris Elmendorf, a professor at UC Davis specializing in land-use law. “Maybe the court agrees, or maybe the court disagrees, but while the project is in court, it’s effectively on hold.”

What Happened in Peoples Park

This case, over the planned development of People’s Park, stems from a 2021 lawsuit brought by Make UC A Good Neighbor and The People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group against UC Berkeley’s heavily contested Long Range Development Plan, which aims to add nearly 12,000 new student beds and 8 million square feet of new classrooms, research labs, libraries and other amenities.

The most controversial development in the plan is the proposal to build housing on People’s Park, including a dormitory for students and nonprofit-run apartments for unhoused and low-income people. Many who oppose the project want, instead, to preserve the park and its history as a site for political activism in the 1960s and 1970s.

The suit argues that UC Berkeley didn’t adequately consider alternative sites for all of the new structures in the expansion plan, including the People’s Park housing development, and didn’t properly analyze how noise from students on the newly expanded campus would impact neighbors and city residents.

Though a new state law was passed to clear the way for housing at the park following the original filing of the lawsuit, it is narrowly tailored to this project and to others like it. Legal experts say the court’s decision, though, may still have wide-ranging implications for the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and its power over future housing projects across the state.

Under CEQA, noise is considered a form of pollution but had previously been considered in cases regarding concert venues or industrial sites, for example. This suit is the first to argue that noise generated by future residents is a form of environmental pollution.

In February 2023, an appellate court agreed and ruled that UC Berkeley needed to go back to the drawing board to consider alternative sites for both the new housing at People’s Park and the housing being built elsewhere on campus and that it needed to assess the impact of potential noise from future residents on the surrounding neighborhood.

“This case, to me, presents such a stark violation of CEQA,” said Thomas Lippe, an attorney for the two plaintiffs. “Some people might have been surprised by [the appellate court’s] noise ruling, but the alternative location ruling, it’s really just black letter law. You have to do it.”

California’s legislators disagreed. They quickly passed AB 1307 by Assemblymember Buffy Wicks (D-Berkeley), which amended CEQA so developers don’t have to consider noise generated by future residents as having a “significant effect on the environment” and so that public universities did not have to consider alternative locations for projects. The law was narrowly tailored to the People’s Park project and other housing projects located on public college or university campus grounds. Under the law, the housing development can be no larger than five acres, must be surrounded by urban space, and must have already completed an environmental impact report.

That means housing developers — at UC Berkeley or at any other university across the state — may still have to consider noise from future residents when evaluating projects if they extend outside of those limitations.

However, Elmendorf argued that this case could still have wider implications. Depending on the California Supreme Court’s decision, he said it could determine whether lower courts will continue to interpret and apply CEQA in the broadest possible way, yielding future legal surprises that delay, or ultimately kill, housing developments.


As California’s housing and climate crises grow more dire, CEQA’s impact is even more salient. Since he took office in 2019, Gov. Gavin Newsom has signed more than 20 bills into law that seek to limit CEQA’s scope, including Wicks’ law, in an effort to fast-track more housing being built. Advocates argue that while people wait for housing to be built, they live farther away from city centers, commute more and exacerbate the effects of climate change.

“The assumption that it’s always better to take more time making up your mind before doing something and that’s always going to be better for the environment — that assumption does not make sense anymore,” Elmendorf said.

The university currently provides the lowest amount of student housing within the UC system: about 22% of its more than 45,000 undergraduate and graduate students have access to university-provided housing. The People’s Park project, along with other housing included in the long-range plan, would effectively double the number of beds it currently provides.

Depending on how the Supreme Court rules, UC Berkeley could be required to consider alternative sites or conduct additional environmental studies. The court will hear oral arguments on Wednesday and is expected to release a decision within 90 days of that hearing.

Regardless of what happens, UC Berkeley officials said they remain committed to the decision to build housing at People’s Park and to expand the campus. If they have to do additional studies, they will.

“Even if the Supreme Court should rule against us, that won’t stop the project,” UC Berkeley spokesperson Dan Mogulof said. “If, by some chance, the Supreme Court asks for additional environmental analysis, that’s exactly what we’ll do.”


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