People’s Park problems

Council Watch

It’s simple: People’s Park, in its current form, needs to go.

Who would have guessed that a square patch of university land would turn into the biggest headache for the city and the school, a third rail in city politics that leads to shouting, screaming and the inexorable retreat?

For all those who hold nostalgia for what People’s Park once stood for — community gathering, freedom of expression, Berkeley in the ’60s — well, you don’t need me to tell you that that era is long gone. And it’s my firm belief that we will never regain that version of the park.

Ask around. I can guarantee you that most students will say “no” if you ask them, “Have you ever spent considerable time in People’s Park?” Rather than cutting across the hypotenuse of the park, most students will opt to walk around the park, even on the other side of the street, to avoid going through.

Because I live on the other side of People’s Park, I regularly cut through because it’s much faster.

However, when I tell friends of my shortcut, many gasp, asking why I would walk through People’s Park when I don’t need to. “Well, why not?” I counter. The sun is shining, and there are plenty of people around. Nothing is going to happen to me. Nonetheless, friends caution me to be safe.

This, of course, is merely an anecdotal offering. But this attitude toward People’s Park and the reputation it bears among students is not unique to my circle of friends.

So what must be done with it? There are a number of alternatives to be explored. One is to transfer the land from the university to the city — resolutions put forth by Councilmember Kriss Worthington and others have previously been passed to allow the park to become open, public land.

This raises the age-old question of who should hold jurisdiction over the park — the city or the university?

Arguments can be made either way. It’s been speculated that the city would do a better job in addressing the decrepit park, as the university has simply sat on the land for the last half-century.

Or, rather than debating about ownership, another possibility would be for the university to simply develop the land.

The university continues to expand every year — just this spring, we had the wellness referendum asking us to fund new gym space. And very recently, plans have been set forth to construct a $15 million project for a brand new aquatic complex. Insufficient housing to accommodate all students led to the construction of the Martinez complex, and it doesn’t look like our student body’s growth and demand for dorm space is going to diminish anytime soon.

In short, the university is constantly seeking spaces where it can erect new facilities and buildings. Want a new gym? Want a new pool? Want new dorms? Want an actual park? Want to accommodate expanding student interests? There’s a nice patch of land on Haste and Bowditch waiting, wide open, for you.

I can already envision the protests and adamant objections that would arise in response to development, which is probably why the school has not bothered to touch it. Despite the park’s unpopularity, the volume at which dissenters cry back is enough to keep the situation stagnant. And naturally, any discussion of People’s Park will always kick back to how we must deal with the homeless population living there.

Cal has always been an institution dedicated to public service. Relocating Cal Corps to a new facility there, opening a soup kitchen adjacent to a new project and dedicating a museum to the history of People’s Park are just a few ways to enshrine the cultural significance this place holds in our city’s history while holding us accountable to those who’ve caught the short end of the stick in life.

But leaving it be? Letting it further devolve into a cesspool of drugs and crime? That simply isn’t an option.

I’m sick of it. Students are sick of it. I personally don’t want to see it developed into another concrete building. I’d rather have it stay a park — but one that’s actually for the students. It’s long been time for the university to step up and deliver.

Here’s my message to you, UC Berkeley:

You OWN this land. Now do something about it. And if it results in people protesting and name-calling, so be it.

Contact Lynn Yu at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter: @lynnqyu.