Court blocks UC Berkeley’s plan to transform historic park into student housing
Erika De La Garza
(CN) — The University of California, Berkeley’s plan to construct campus housing at the site of the city’s historic People’s Park that would accommodate 1,100 students and aid in the ever-growing shortage of affordable campus housing was blocked by a state appellate court in a ruling that took issue with the university’s environmental impact report.
The ruling issued Friday by a First Appellate District panel said the environmental review for the construction of two new buildings at the site known as a landmark of the 1960s antiwar and free speech movements, “failed to justify the decision not to consider alternative locations to the People’s Park project.”
“In addition, it failed to assess potential noise impacts from loud student parties in residential neighborhoods near the campus, a longstanding problem that the [review] improperly dismissed as speculative,” the three-judge panel said in their 47-page ruling.
The ruling also found that UC regents’ decision to skip analyzing the potential noise impacts relating to loud student parties was an abuse of discretion that they must address in order to determine whether the potential noise impacts are significant.
The university said in a statement that it would appeal the latest findings, which it referred to as an “unprecedented and dangerous decision to dramatically expand" the California Environmental Quality Act, to the state Supreme Court.
“Left in place, this decision will indefinitely delay all of UC Berkeley’s planned student housing, which is desperately needed by our students and fully supported by the City of Berkeley’s mayor and other elected representatives,” according to the statement.
The legal battle began after two nonprofits, Make UC A Good Neighbor and The People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group, sued UC Berkeley in 2021 in an effort to stop the university’s plans to redevelop the park into student housing and preserve the historic site.
The university acquired the site in the 1960s and had planned to use it for student housing, offices and parking. But when development was stalled because of lack of funding, residents, students, and community organizers transformed it into an unofficial community gathering space that became known as People's Park. It was a hub of demonstrations against the Vietnam War and the site of violent confrontations between protesters and police in 1969.
The three-judge appellate panel heard arguments in San Francisco last month after issuing a tentative decision in December indicating that it would overturn a trial judge’s refusal to temporarily block the development. The appellate court had already halted any demolition of the park pending resolution of the appeal.
In the ruling, the panel rejected the argument by opponents of the project that the UC regents violated the California Environmental Quality Act by failing to consider limiting enrollment at the flagship UC campus.
According to the university’s housing survey, approximately 10 percent of undergraduates and approximately 20 percent of doctoral students had experienced homelessness while attending the university, the ruling says.
In its long range development plan, the university estimated that its population growth through 2036-37 would add up to 13,900 residents, including students, faculty and staff, that would be living on campus. Another 8,170 individuals would be without on campus housing.