People’s Park faces ambiguous future in light of UC housing plans

Daniel Kim/Staff

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“The Earth was made a common treasury for everyone to share all things in common, all people one. We come in peace — The order came to cut them down.” — Leon Rosselson, “The World Turned Upside Down”

These lyrics, painted in a mural decorating the bathroom at People’s Park, mirror the struggle between the competing interests of the different “people” of People’s Park. How the interests of these different stakeholders — the park’s owners, residents and surrounding community — are prioritized will determine the park’s future, especially in light of campus plans to develop student housing on the site.

“The ‘people’ of People’s Park right now are somewhat of a defined community of folks. … It is defined by the people that actively use it,” said Stuart Baker, executive director of the Telegraph Business Improvement District. “Nobody should feel like it’s is the territory of (a) single group.”

As part of a wave of anti-establishment fervor in and around Berkeley, community members built People’s Park in 1969 at the intersection of Haste and Bowditch streets. Christopher, a community member who said he was present for the park’s founding but declined to provide his full name, said the original vision for the park was a “community-based and community-operated space.”

Since 1996, the UC Board of Regents has had sole ownership of People’s Park. The park is maintained by the facilities services department in the UC Berkeley Real Estate division, according to campus real estate spokesperson Christine Shaff.

Ownership of the park is a large gray area. The University of California ostensibly is a public institution, but the UC regents operate the park as private property. The park also belongs to the city of Berkeley, the students and the local community,” said Arthur Fonseca, treasurer of the People’s Park Volunteer Defense Committee. “The park is a living embodiment of the Free Speech Movement, and students are behind the curve in being educated about its history.”

In January 2017, UC Berkeley’s Housing Master Plan Task Force published a report identifying People’s Park as one of nine potential sites for new student housing development, estimating that the space would provide 200 to 350 beds for undergraduate students. The plan would create an “open space” on the site and build a memorial to commemorate the park’s legacy.

“We have such a large deficit in student housing — less than half of what we need,” said Carol Christ, interim executive vice chancellor and provost and chair of the task force, in an email. “We need to double our capacity; it’s hard to imagine doing that without, ultimately, using the land we have.”

Several community members in the park have dismissed the details of the current People’s Park housing proposal, citing the importance of preserving the cultural legacy of the space. Historically, there have been many activist demonstrations against university development of the park, including the 1969 “Bloody Thursday” protest, a 1991 demonstration against a volleyball court development and, more recently, a 2010 89-day sit-in at People’s Park.

“I don’t see any problem with finding other sites. … With the good (People’s Park has) done for the people of this area, the park deserves to stay,” said Turtle, a community member of Berkeley since 1989 who declined to provide his full name. “Why (does the university) want to gentrify this space?”

People’s Park is treated as “any other part of campus,” according to Shaff —  trash is picked up daily by the staff, and the restrooms are serviced and pressure-washed once a week by custodians and campus groundskeepers, respectively.

Several park advocates, however, have alleged that the park’s daily upkeep is inadequate. During facilitated discussions with some residents of People’s Park, Vanessa Briseno, a member of the Suitcase Clinic, said that the cleanliness of People’s Park’s bathrooms was regularly brought up as a point of frustration. Briseno said that she and Suitcase Clinic members raised these concerns last year directly with Devin Woolridge, the UC Berkeley facilities manager of People’s Park, but she was unsure of what exactly had resulted from those discussions, as she does not regularly visit the park.

“The university is not in the park-maintenance business. I know the budget already for the park is a pretty high amount,” Baker said. “The university is already in a financial crisis, and I don’t know if it needs to pour more money into this space.”

There are also safety concerns among some living in the vicinity of People’s Park. Some UC Berkeley students noted instances when they felt threatened by park locals while passing through the area.

UCPD spokesperson Sgt. Sabrina Reich said People’s Park has a history of public-nuisance and illicit-drug-use crimes. Both UCPD and Berkeley Police Department actively work to address habitual problems in the park and provide resources to park residents and visitors, according to Reich.

“The police take our values,” Turtle alleged. “The city wants to call Berkeley ‘hippie central’ —  well, here we are. Don’t take claim where claim isn’t due.”

With the approach of the 50-year anniversary of People’s Park, a number of park residents and locals expressed their desire to see the park designated as a national historic landmark rather than as a student housing site. If designated as a historical landmark by National Park Services, the park could receive protections from development and eligibility for federal preservation grants.

“People’s Park is a significant cultural space. We have the opportunity to keep it alive, or we can keep it mundane,” Christopher said. “Everything eventually is going to end. So what do we want to last longer?”

Contact Bobby Lee at [email protected].