What to Know About Plans to Build Housing in People’s Park in Berkeley

How do you solve a problem like People’s Park? It all depends on whom you ask.

The leaders of the University of California system want to build much-needed student housing in the famous park, just blocks from U.C. Berkeley’s campus. But moving forward with the plan hasn’t been easy.

The university’s $312 million project, initially set to break ground last summer, has been repeatedly delayed by protests and lawsuits from Berkeley residents and activists who say they want to preserve the park, the center of bloody counterculture protests in the 1960s, as a historic site. In late February, a state appeals court in San Francisco sided with the opponents and indefinitely halted construction.

U.C. Berkeley officials say they will appeal the decision to the California Supreme Court. The university houses only 23 percent of its students, by far the lowest percentage in the 10-campus U.C. system — and a telling illustration of the Bay Area’s affordable housing shortage.

“Our commitment to the project is unwavering,” Dan Mogulof, a U.C. Berkeley spokesman, told me. The university’s plan for the park includes building housing for 1,100 students, as well as for 125 people who are homeless, with half the park remaining open space.

However, it seems increasingly likely that obtaining permission to proceed with the redesign of People’s Park may come from somewhere other than the courts.

Last year, in a somewhat analogous lawsuit, longtime Berkeley residents won a court order to freeze the university’s enrollment at 2020 levels. In their suit, they accused the university of violating the California Environmental Quality Act, known as CEQA, by essentially polluting neighborhoods by admitting more students than the city could handle.

But California lawmakers headed off the freeze by passing a law tweaking CEQA that short-circuited the court order and allowed the additional students to be admitted.

Similar legislative fixes are already in the works amid the People’s Park standoff.

The San Francisco appeals court found last month that U.C. Berkeley had again violated CEQA in part by not considering noise impacts from the students who would live in the planned housing development. In response to the ruling, Gov. Gavin Newsom said that CEQA needed to change if California was going to address its housing crisis and that he was committed to working with lawmakers this year to do so.

“Our CEQA process is clearly broken when a few wealthy Berkeley homeowners can block desperately needed student housing for years and even decades,” he wrote on Twitter.

State Representative Buffy Wicks, a Democrat whose district includes Berkeley, said she would introduce legislation this month to clarify that people’s voices couldn’t be considered an environmental impact under CEQA. Without such legislation, Wicks said, the People’s Park ruling could spawn new challenges to desperately needed housing construction across the state.

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“That could be a slippery slope,” Wicks told me. “It frustrates me so much, and it’s such a classic example of NIMBYism.”

The opponents of the park project, however, say the problem isn’t with CEQA, but with U.C. Berkeley’s mismanagement of enrollment and student housing. They have urged the university to consider places to build student housing beyond Berkeley’s most storied park.

Thomas Lippe, a lawyer for the two nonprofit groups that brought the lawsuit against U.C. Berkeley, said in a statement to The New York Times: “Contrary to Governor Newsom, the plaintiffs in this case are not ‘a few wealthy Berkeley homeowners.’ They are citizens’ groups financially supported by hundreds of people of all walks of life who care about the historic value of People’s Park.”

Their goal, he added, “is to compel U.C. to build student housing to reduce impacts on the community caused by the shortage of student housing while respecting the historic significance of People’s Park.”

If you read one story, make it this

Despite progress at lower levels of government, and one boundary-breaking vice president, barriers for Black women running for office are slow to fall.

The rest of the news

United Farm Workers: Decades after Cesar Chavez made United Farm Workers a power in California fields, the union has lost much of its clout. But it hopes a new law will turn the tide.

Silicon Valley Bank: Federal regulators said on Sunday they would ensure that all depositors of the failed bank were paid back in full. They also announced that Signature Bank, based in New York, was shut down on Sunday by its state chartering authority.

Among the worst casualties of the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, based in Santa Clara, are companies developing solutions for the climate crisis. The bank worked with more than 1,550 technology firms that are creating solar, hydrogen and battery storage projects.

Here are the latest updates. Read more on how the collapse happened and how it compares with other major bank collapses.

Housing: A coalition of antipoverty advocates are proposing an amendment to the state’s Constitution that guarantees a right to housing for all Californians, The Mercury News reports.

Teacher of the Year accused: A California teacher who won a Teacher of the Year award in August is facing 14 charges in a child sexual abuse case, The Los Angeles Times reports.


Boat crash: At least eight people died in San Diego after the small boats they were in capsized in what the authorities said on Sunday was a human smuggling operation gone awry.


Flood damage: Residents and officials in the San Joaquin Valley and towns on the Central Coast are beginning to assess the damage and the destruction after the Pajaro River levee was breached by flooding.

Kristin Smart: Paul Flores, who was found guilty last year of murdering Kristin Smart in 1996 when they were both students at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison on Friday.


Lake Tahoe: Residents in the Lake Tahoe area are grappling with one of the snowiest winters yet as 52 feet of snow has fallen atop Donner Summit since Oct. 1, The Mercury News reports.

What we’re eating

Air-fryer tofu.

Where we’re traveling

Today’s tip comes from Nicole Valentine, who recommends Borrego Springs in San Diego County:

“It’s a small area in the desert between San Diego and the Salton Sea. It’s home to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, which is famed for its superblooms after a wet winter. It’s also a charming town that has giant metal sculptures of dinosaurs, dragons, elephants, giant birds of prey, horses, giant scorpions and many other fantastical creatures that can be easily toured in a car and on foot. There is incredible hiking all around (best to do fall through spring). The Borrego Palm Canyon campground is one of my favorites in the state. I keep coming back every few years, and there are some resorts in town for those who don’t like to rough it.”

Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to [email protected] We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.

And before you go, some good news

In 2019, Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography — part of U.C. San Diego — opened an exhibit intended to create an ideal habitat for breeding sea dragons, which are colorful cousins of sea horses.

Native to the waters of Australia, the sea dragon is a stunning and unusual fish. But it faces a number of challenges in the wild because of warming oceans, harmful fishing practices and more.

This month, the aquarium is celebrating the arrival of more than 70 newborn sea dragons. The tiny creatures are one-inch long and weigh less than a gram.

As with sea horses, sea dragon males — not females — are responsible for carrying eggs. After a courtship dance, the female transfers the eggs to the male’s tail, where he fertilizes them and then monitors them for four to six weeks until they hatch.

For several weeks, aquarium workers monitored a father sea dragon as he carried dozens of eggs under his tail. Then the eggs began hatching in late February.

“This is huge for us,” said Leslee Matsushige, who leads Birch Aquarium’s sea horse and sea dragon breeding programs. “We’ve been working on this for decades.”

Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. — Soumya

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword.

Briana Scalia and Allison Honors contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].

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