People’s Park among targeted sites for UC Berkeley student housing

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Daniel Kim/Staff

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As the campus struggles to house an influx of students, UC Berkeley’s housing task force has drawn up nine potential locations for new student housing — including People’s Park, the site of the historic “Bloody Thursday” protest and clash in 1969.

The task force, established by Chancellor Nicholas Dirks in June, noted the necessary construction and relocation required to build on each of the nine locations. The report comes a year after UC President Janet Napolitano’s announcement of the President’s Student Housing Initiative, which set a goal to create 14,000 additional beds across the UC system by 2020.

“We’re presenting this plan to the regents in March,” said interim Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Carol Christ. “In this period, we’re trying to get campus feedback. The pressure from the UC to increase enrollment will keep going up. … That makes planning for housing even more critical.”

Locations slated for the earliest development under the plan include sites at Channing Way and Ellsworth Street, and the Oxford Tract. If realized, the two developments alone would house 200 to 400 and 1,000 to 3,000 new beds, respectively.

Undergraduate enrollment at UC Berkeley increased by 750 students in fall 2015, part of a three-year plan to increase UC enrollment by 10,000 in-state students systemwide.

Christ said the proposed Channing Way and Oxford Tract developments likely will not be move-in ready until the 2020s. Although the timeline for completing the developments is still uncertain, Christ said she would like to see all nine completed, including the planned site at the location of the university-owned People’s Park.

Other locations slated for construction include Oxford Street and Bancroft Way, a densified Unit 3, the upper Hearst Street parking garage, Albany Village, the Smyth-Fernwald parcel and Richmond Field Station, the former intended site of the now-defunct Berkeley Global Campus.

The task force also assessed progress with the housing goals laid out in the campus’s Long Range Development Plan, or LRDP, which was published in 2005 and had a target completion year of 2020. Among them was an eventual two-year housing guarantee for incoming freshmen — an objective the task force still aims to achieve, though freshmen currently are guaranteed one year of housing.

“It’s too early to say (whether we can accomplish all the goals by 2020),” Christ said.I would be making a statement based on knowledge I don’t have. The task force was appointed in the fall. I pushed them to finish by Christmas, and they did.”

To begin alleviating UC Berkeley’s housing crisis, the task force plans to prioritize housing for new undergraduates. Christ said that such a campus-led initiative could help take pressure off the city of Berkeley’s housing market, in turn making it easier to secure housing for other student populations, such as graduate students.

“Strategically developing Cal’s property could also help alleviate the campus’ budget crisis,” said campus city and regional planning professor Jason Corburn in an email. “At the same time, the campus must continue to be a good neighbor and develop its property consistent with the needs of the broader community — meaning the City of Berkeley’s land use plans and strategic development needs.”

The only new housing built since the LRDP was released in 2005 is Maximino Martinez Commons — completed in 2012 — though the commons were not included in the 2005 LRDP. Stephen Sutton, interim vice chancellor for student affairs, said housing construction was stalled because the campus is finishing seismic retrofittings of existing buildings and renovations of Bowles Hall and Clark Kerr Campus.

“We have a strategic plan for managing space,” Sutton said. “We were focused on keeping up buildings. … We haven’t had a lot of space to build new housing lately.”

With the campus’s spending at debt capacity — UC Berkeley currently faces a $150 million structural deficit — the school can no longer fund capital projects on its own. Instead, the campus’s initial strategy to finance housing is public-private partnerships with American Campus Communities. ACC will back UC Berkeley housing projects, and the campus can then pay off the loans gradually using students’ rental fees.

In the report, the campus housing task force found that of all UC campuses, UC Berkeley has the lowest percentage of beds for the student body, at approximately 22 percent for undergraduates and 9 percent for graduate students. The systemwide average is 38.1 percent for undergraduates. The task force report recommends a target of beds for 50 percent of undergraduates and 25 percent of graduate students.

The report estimates that the housing site planned for People’s Park would provide 200 to 350 beds for undergraduate students, in line with the university’s original intent for the land when it was purchased in 1956. The task force plans to create an “open space” on the site and build a memorial to commemorate the park’s legacy.

The park has a long history of student protests, including its role as the site of the “Bloody Thursday” protest-turned-conflict May 15, 1969, during which then-governor Ronald Reagan sent in National Guard troops to subdue student protesters. A student bystander was shot by police and later died from his injury. In 1969, students protested the UC Board of Regents’ plans to build a soccer field on People’s Park.

In recent years, People’s Park has become home to many members of the city’s homeless population. One of Mayor Jesse Arreguin’s proposals to address homelessness is to find more public land where people without housing can camp and to develop new ways to provide shelter.

“We have to accept some responsibility for the people who live in the park,” Christ said. “The mayor has a homeless initiative. We’d like to be a partner. … There has to be a more integrated solution.”

While the report notes that “careful collaboration” with the city will be necessary to develop the park site into student housing, some in the local community were not responsive to the campus’s plans, especially in light of the park’s use by the homeless.

“Eliminating open space is the easy way out for the Regents,” said Mike Lee, a member of the homeless community and the city’s Homeless Commission, in an email. “The Regents continually expand the student population but not the resources they need like housing.”

Christ said she and the task force are working to find new places for those who were displaced by current housing developments, such as the various programs offered out of Stiles Hall, the former site of which is now under development for student housing. Additionally, some campus College of Natural Resources researchers will be required to move out of the Oxford Tract to allow for construction. According to Christ, individuals in these programs have been extremely cooperative.

“The next steps are being started,” Christ said. “We’ll move as quickly as we can.”

Ashley Wong is the lead academics and administration reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @wongalum.