In early October, a small group of students and their supporters took over and briefly occupied the campus building housing UC Berkeley’s real estate office. The stated goal of the protest was to stop the university from allowing retail and senior housing developments to proceed on two vacant lots it owns in Albany. Instead, they demanded that these and other adjacent land parcels be set aside in perpetuity for participatory urban farming.
“People Not Profits!” some of their signs said, which was a little ironic, given that doing the right thing for as many people as possible has been the primary driver for our every action in and around the university property known as the Gill Tract. In fact, our plans for the area are the result of an open and inclusive planning process, representing a rare win-win-win for low-income students, the community of Albany and, as it happens, those committed to urban farming.
Where we part ways with these students and their supporters is in our conviction that the land in question — the functional equivalent of a $20 million asset — should not be dedicated solely to the needs of a single, special interest group. In this era of state disinvestment in higher education, we have a responsibility to judiciously allocate our resources for the broadest possible benefit. Now, as the start of construction on the vacant lots approaches, we want to provide you with basic information that, unfortunately, is not always included in petitions and publicity material opposing the development projects. For example, it is not widely known that the university has, in fact, already allocated land and will continue to dedicate significant human and financial resources in support of student and community participation in urban agriculture.
A little history: Back in 1928, the university purchased from the Gill family 104 acres of land west of San Pablo Avenue. Over the ensuing years, the parcel’s open space decreased as, among other things, University Village was established for UC Berkeley students with families, a middle school for the community was built, and the university donated land for public playing fields. (Remember, “People Not Profits!”) While some activists insist on calling the entire area, vacant lots and all, the “Gill Tract Farm,” there has been no farming in anyone’s living memory on the site slated for commercial development. But an adjacent portion of the property has always been set aside for our College of Natural Resources. Today, those 10 acres provide land for faculty agricultural research and the college’s relatively new participatory urban agriculture program.
It was 20 years ago that the UC Board of Regents initially approved commercial development on the two vacant lots that were, at the time, the site of World War II-era barracks. Then, in 2004, the university reached out and asked the campus and Albany communities to participate in an inclusive, transparent planning process for the area. Over the course of dozens of public meetings and workshops that were open to all, including students, a plan emerged that responded directly to the stakeholders’ expressed desires. It called for a quality food market in a chronically underserved area, housing for senior citizens and new retail space that would revitalize the southern gateway to Albany and generate much needed tax revenue for the city. In recent years, the community and its elected leaders have, at every opportunity, reaffirmed their support for these plans at the ballot box, in City Council meetings and numerous community gatherings. We find it hard to understand how a small group arriving at the tail end of this collaborative process can demand that we ignore the democratically expressed will of our neighbors and disenfranchise all who worked with us in good faith.
The university’s mission and our students will also benefit from the development of the vacant lots that will bring needed and convenient retail services within walking distance for our University Village students, while new senior housing will allow more Albany residents, as well as UC staff and alumni, to remain in their community as they age. Leasing the property to developers will also generate just less than $1 million a year in revenue, or an amount that is approximately equivalent to the annual income generated by a $20 million gift to the university’s endowment. A substantial portion of that revenue will be dedicated to subsidizing the rent paid by low income students living in University Village and, in another ironic twist, the funds will also help underwrite the costs of CNR’s agricultural operations on the 1.3 acres of land set aside for its participatory urban agriculture program. In fairness, it must be noted that many of those opposing the nearby commercial development are participating in that program; helping to make what is called the “UC Gill Tract Community Farm” a success. But they want more and insist that the university provide them — a single special interest group — with all that they demand to the detriment of fellow students, faculty and the university’s neighbors, and in complete disregard for the outcome of a decadelong, democratic planning process.
When these students recently met with the chancellor to present their case, one of the group’s leaders expressed concern that there could be a “war” if their position did not prevail, a disappointing stance given the extent to which the university shares this group’s interest in food security, sustainability, and experiential learning. This week, Chancellor Dirks informed those who met with him that he remains committed to the development of the vacant lots in order to provide needed support for important campus priorities. While we wish we had the luxury of giving everybody everything that they want all the time, reality requires us to make hard choices. Fortunately, as our plans and programs make clear, we do not, as some suggest, need to make a choice between urban farming and a development project that will support other, important needs and interests. That’s a false dichotomy — we can have them both.
Nils Gilman is the associate chancellor of UC Berkeley and Keith Gilless is the dean of the campus College of Natural Resources.