Living spaces: A comprehensive look at UC Berkeley’s future student housing options

CAMPUS ISSUES: In 2017, UC Berkeley released a report on 9 potential sites for new student housing. As developments begin, are all the sites really up to the mark?

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Alexander Hong/Staff

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There are a few landmarks that come to mind when UC Berkeley is mentioned: Sather Gate, the Campanile, Wheeler Hall. Although these iconic structures have become synonymous with the school, it’s really the students and faculty who breathe life into the campus culture, making it the vibrant place that it is.

But when class ends and the lecture halls empty out, students have to go somewhere. In recent years, with skyrocketing housing prices and limited on-campus options, finding that somewhere has been harder than ever.

In January 2017, the campus Housing Task Force released a master plan to develop more affordable student housing. Today, as these developments start to come to fruition, Berkeley and the surrounding community will undoubtedly see a major shift in the landscape. So, here’s our breakdown of the nine proposed plots, assessing whether these new beds are really worth the risk.

Oxford Tract — Yes

The rows of triangle-roofed greenhouses and overflowing plants in the Oxford Tract, just a short walk from the north side of campus, could be replaced with traditional residence halls and apartments — enough to house a staggering 1,000 to 3,000 students.

Currently home to greenhouses, growth chambers, lath houses and field spaces, the Oxford Tract is used primarily for research. Activists have protested talks of developing the tract, arguing that the loss of educational space would be detrimental to the campus. Several have even gone so far as to say that moving the facilities would make research inconvenient, thereby discouraging potential researchers from coming to UC Berkeley.

Maybe inconvenience can be a factor in convincing someone to forgo research at a top-tier university, but an even greater detractor is the lack of housing in the area.

In response to the research concerns, campus has stated several times that it would relocate Oxford Tract facilities. If campus can present a suitable location that will preserve ongoing research in a satisfactory manner, it’s time that the research community support the development on the tract.

The other inhabitant of the Oxford Tract is the Student Organic Garden, which is run in part by the Student Organic Garden Association, or SOGA — an organization whose presence on campus serves as an important educational tool. While the cute, handmade signs welcoming visitors to the garden would disappear with this development, there are other options for students interested in organic farming. Considering how large the tract is, the amount of surface area exposed to the sun at the top of the proposed apartment buildings would be more than enough to house a student garden. Who doesn’t love a rooftop garden with breathtaking sunset views?

The Oxford Tract is certainly a crucial hub of academic activity at UC Berkeley, and relocation efforts would likely take time and money. But the fact of the matter is that UC Berkeley needs housing, and it needs housing now. The number of beds that this development would bring is more than enough reason to move forward with the project.

University Village — Yes

At approximately 3.5 miles away, University Village in Albany would be much farther away from campus than some of the other options for constructing housing. Despite this, it’s still able to help families and graduate students who have fewer specialized housing options.

As University Village is already home to many students, multiple transportation options are already in place. AC Transit’s 52 bus — which comes every 20 minutes — runs directly from campus to the housing complex in less than 45 minutes, and University Village allots one parking space per apartment. Recently, however, guest parking rates have been imposed in University Village lots, and residents have expressed anger at the lack of available parking in the area.

University Village also offers more space than other housing options located in the thick of Downtown Berkeley. This space would offer housing designated for married students or students with children, which is less available than housing for single undergraduates. The housing complex already holds 974 apartments, and the plan would be to increase this by 150 to 200 more. Building these new apartments would give new occupants a chance to take advantage of amenities such as the recreational facility, child care and the café.

However, University Village has had a history of maintenance issues, such as when the power went out on the western side for the village for 30 hours last November. It is hard to believe that, if University Village expands, these maintenance issues will go away or even lessen.

But despite these possible issues, the ample housing, the relative proximity to campus and the target population this plot would serve all make University Village one of the most obvious and advantageous spaces for the expansion of university housing.

Bancroft Way and Oxford Street — Yes

Directly across from the southwest corner of campus sits the campus Office of Communications and Public Affairs. Just steps away from the Tang Center, the Recreational Sports Facility and Downtown Berkeley, the site is a nearly perfect location for a student residence hall.

Although the 2200 Bancroft Way site houses campus administrative offices such as the Office of Communications and Public Affairs, relocating office space is a burden the campus can and should bear. During a housing crisis, it should not be the responsibility of local businesses — as has been the case recently for businesses such as Indian Flavors Express and Avant-Card — to pack up and move out to accommodate this influx of students. The campus must not displace local businesses in its mission to build a necessary 100 to 200 more apartment units for students.

Currently, while the vast majority of freshmen receive campus housing offers, the rest of the student body must fight to find a spot in campus housing. UC Berkeley’s housing website only offers four different options to graduate students seeking campus-owned housing. Building residence-hall- and apartment-style units that attend to this demographic — as the housing at Bancroft and Oxford intends to do — will offer housing and security to at least a few hundred more students who are usually left to their own devices to find housing.

In short, the campus should deal with the consequences of building housing on this site in order to accommodate the enormous student population. Sure, it’s not ideal for those who might have to relocate their offices, but relocation of campus entities internally is a much better alternative to the unfair displacement of local businesses and residents.

Unit 3 — No

It used to be that, for those in the know, Unit 3 was the place to be. With its Bear Market open until midnight, its own dining hall smack in the middle of the complex and its location a brisk five-minute walk to campus, Unit 3 was the smart choice for the student who isn’t fooled by outside appearances.

Admittedly, the renovation or replacement of Unit 3’s dining hall, as suggested in the housing report, is a welcome suggested improvement. While UC Berkeley’s housing page may promise that the dining hall is colorful and modern, anyone who has visited the concrete structure recently knows that they must mean “modern” in the sense of 1960s modernism — it’s in dire need of an upgrade.

But, also included in the housing plan is a goal to add 650 to 900 beds to a unit that already houses approximately 230 students in each of its four high-rise buildings. Roughly, that’s a more than 50 percent increase in the population of each building, even adjusting for the fact that the smaller Beverly Cleary Hall will likely be made to take on more students as well.

Not only is Unit 3 cramped as is, but in recent years, the campus began turning many of the lounges of the building into temporary quads. This living situation was far from ideal: Students would be evicted from their homes at some point in the fall and often moved into new residence halls, typically with new roommates, severing them from their first-semester homes and friendships.

While the details of these bed additions to Unit 3 have not yet been made public, presumably most (if not all) doubles will be turned into triples, and multiple “temporary quads” will become permanent. Not only does remove meeting spaces from most floors in the unit, it also means that the bathrooms will be more crowded and the resident assistants will be overwhelmed.

The plan states that bed ranges are “estimates that require more detailed analysis and planning.” Hopefully, this analysis will show that cramming 650 more beds into some of UC Berkeley’s oldest high-rise structures is far from reasonable, as desperately as housing may be needed.

Channing Way and Ellsworth Street — Yes

With dozens of tennis courts located in or around campus, most UC Berkeley students don’t have trouble finding a place to play tennis. What they do have trouble finding? Housing.

The housing report, which would turn the parking structure and tennis courts currently located at the corner of Channing Way and Ellsworth Street into student housing, might change that. And that’s a good thing. While spaces for recreation and parking are undoubtedly important to the UC Berkeley community, they pale in comparison to the importance of providing every student with a comfortable place to sleep, eat, study and live.

Located just two blocks from campus, the property would be an extremely convenient place to build new student housing. And because it’s located so close to campus — among both private student housing complexes and the campus’s units — it would be less invasive than building housing in a more residential part of Berkeley. What’s more is that no one — neither current residents nor businesses — would be displaced in order to make this housing unit a reality, minimizing its adverse effects.

The proposed housing plan would turn the property into a combination of traditional residence halls and apartment-style housing for undergraduate upperclassmen and graduate students. This would accomodate 200 to 400 students from a part of the student body that needs it the most.

While the loss of the tennis courts and the parking structure will undoubtedly have a negative impact on a certain portion of Berkeley’s population, the number of people whom this housing change will ultimately benefit is far greater. The campus can afford to lose some tennis courts, but it cannot afford to let students lose out on a place to live.

People’s Park — No

UC Berkeley decided to build on People’s Park this year, and the timing is chilling: Just after the space’s 50th anniversary, the campus plans to overrun a home for the homeless and initiate construction on the park.

Since “Bloody Thursday” in 1969, when riots broke out to protect the park, many have found a home and a safe space within the space on Bowditch Street and Dwight Way. People’s Park represents the community and values of a city that is deeply rooted in social justice.

To the homeless, who must be honored as well, it represents a home base within an increasingly student-dominated area. Flanked by Unit 1, Unit 2, Crossroads and Maximino Martinez Commons, the park is a bastion against campus-initiated gentrification. But to the campus, this space represents just another a way to house 200 to 350 more students.

The answer as to whether to build is not simple. There are two undeniable truths in this situation: The campus must build more student housing, and the space is a historical safe haven for the city’s homeless community. How can these two truths be reconciled?

Chancellor Carol Christ has tried — the housing report suggested adding “long term Indigent Housing with services, open space, and a memorial to the People’s Park history.” Additionally, the supportive housing is planned to include between 75 and 125 apartments for low-income individuals.

While this might seem like the school’s golden solution, additional survey of the campus’s plan reveals otherwise. From a matrix of several campus press releases, it is clear that the campus will not pay for the supportive housing and the campus will not coordinate the construction nor the funding for the additional supportive housing. The UC has simply promised to “provide the land through a ground lease” that could be built into supportive housing by some unidentified “nonprofit and government (city, county, state and federal)” program.

Now, the answer is simple: Before the campus moves forward with its ambitious plans to develop People’s Park, it must provide a clear plan as to who will fund the supportive housing and how displaced homeless people will benefit from this new building. A compromise can be made, but it will take much more than the one that the campus has put forth. While the need for student housing is inextricable from this situation, People’s Park is home to our homeless community, and we absolutely must honor that.

Smyth-Fernwald — Yes

Situated just a few blocks southeast of the UC Berkeley campus, the physical location of the Smyth-Fernwald property makes it the most desirable housing site for graduate students and faculty members outlined in the housing report.

The property is a mere mile from central campus, an estimated 20 minutes away on foot. Compared to some of the other proposed housing developments dedicated solely to campus graduate students and faculty — one in Albany, one in Richmond — the short commute to campus from the Smyth-Fernwald property should make developing this site a priority for UC Berkeley administration. Campus graduate students, who have suffered threats to their well-being for too long, deserve more housing options in the city they study in.

Foundations for the Smyth-Fernwald property were first laid around the same time UC Berkeley was founded, with renovations taking place throughout the 1900s. In 1999, sections of the property were demolished because of structural concerns, and the rest of the property was demolished in 2013 — with the exception of the Smyth House, a 19th-century building that currently has a “poor” seismic rating. When the campus moves forward with developing this site, it is crucial that it does not cut any corners in ensuring that the housing is seismically safe. The property’s location in the Berkeley Hills puts it at great risk for earthquake damage, and the campus must show that it takes students’ and faculty members’ safety seriously.

According to the housing report, UC Berkeley intends to create 200 to 250 apartments on the approximately 9-acre hillside property. That’s only 22 to 27 apartments per acre. In comparison, each of the four high-rise halls in Unit 2 — which spans about 3 acres — houses more than 200 undergraduate students. Considering that UC Berkeley currently only houses 9 percent of its graduate student population, it is imperative that campus consider increasing the number of apartments it plans to build.

Upper Hearst Parking Garage — Yes

Located at the intersection of La Loma and Hearst avenues, the Upper Hearst Parking Structure is just across the street from the northeast corner of campus, on a quiet block diagonal from the Foothill residence halls. It’s a convenient location for student and faculty housing, especially for anyone who might be teaching or studying at the Goldman School of Public Policy or at Cory Hall, which are both right next door.

According to a proposal presented by the UC Berkeley administration at the Berkeley Landmarks Preservation Commission meeting July 5, the new residential building would have 132 one- and two-bedroom units rented at market price and would provide housing for faculty, graduate students and postdoctoral scholars.

The parking garage is currently home to 325 parking spaces, which are available to students, faculty and the public, but part of it will be demolished to create space for the new building. Once construction is complete, the number of parking spots will be reduced to 224. The proposal for the building did not include plans for replacement parking, which could potentially lead to problems, as Berkeley seems to have a shortage of parking spaces close to campus. Going forward with this project, UC Berkeley should create replacement parking spaces or provide an alternative form of transportation, such as rideshares, for students and faculty members who regularly park in the lot.

Another drawback is the size of the proposed building. It would add four floors of height on top of two floors of parking, making it much taller than many of the surrounding buildings.

Regardless of these disadvantages, the building will provide much-needed housing in a convenient location. The benefits for faculty and students far outweigh the loss of parking spaces, especially if the campus can provide replacement parking spaces elsewhere.

Richmond Field Station — No

Disregard the fact that the Richmond Field Station is located six miles away from the heart of UC Berkeley. Forget that the most efficient form of transportation is a 25-minute shuttle ride to campus, with just one bus every hour. Ignore all distance-related concerns regarding the Richmond Field Station — as it is intended for graduate students and faculty members, according to the housing report, so the location may in fact be an advantage for those doing research there — and it’s still far from an ideal site for housing.

The Richmond Field Station already houses a variety of campus-affiliated spaces: studios for art practice graduate students, one of the largest earthquake-simulating shake tables in the world and a library storage facility housing more than 7 million books. The campus housing plans are creating a domino effect of shifting research spaces away from their current locations to build housing — this transfer of space has to end somewhere.

Outside the existing buildings lies a vast space that preserves the coastal grassland environment that used to cover this region. It’s home to a variety of animals, including the near-threatened Ridgway’s rail, a robust brown bird that survives mainly in salt marshes such as these. Increased development on the site would undoubtedly harm this species’s tenuous survival in the area.

But even if campus finds a way to protect the birds and preserve the academic facilities and improve transportation, Richmond Field Station still has one major drawback: the pollution. Back in the early 1900s, the area was home to the California Cap Company, which left contaminants such as mercury and lead in the ground — contaminants that still linger to this day. Ever since 2002, contaminated soil has been transported offsite and replaced with clean dirt from the bay; still, any activities that could disrupt soil must be approved. As a result, construction activities on the site must be overseen carefully through a many-layered, multi-agency process, making this housing location far more trouble than it’s worth.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the Editorial Board as written by the opinion editor.

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