Campus, city perspectives on Oxford Tract housing development addressed at town hall meeting

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Campus and city voices converged Monday evening at a town hall meeting that concerned potential development on the Oxford Tract — a controversial site for housing because of its existing greenhouses, laboratory facilities and research fields.

The panel discussion hosted at University Hall was organized by Berkeley City Councilmember Kate Harrison’s office to address and determine how to balance various community needs, namely housing and educational facilities. Panelists at the event represented a wide range of perspectives and included student leaders, community activists, campus administrators and City Council members.

“I just want to reiterate: We need more student housing. … One reason we are the great city we are is because of the UC,” Harrison, who was also a panelist, said at the meeting. “We’re going to need more housing. The question is where should it be.”

All the panelists agreed that student housing is a top priority, but they also expressed a desire to develop on other sites so as not to interfere with educational opportunities.

In February, the Oxford Tract Planning Committee released a report that underlined the importance of the Oxford Tract facilities in providing resources for the College of Natural Resources. The report, however, also states that “housing programs at the Oxford Tract should be considered,” outlining a plan to accommodate both housing and agricultural research.

The February report was a primary source of discussion at the meeting. The Oxford Tract Planning Committee was asked to consider how to protect the research at the tract, rather than come to a decision regarding development on the land, according to panelist Ruben Lizardo, director of local government and community relations for UC Berkeley.

Lizardo pointed to the Upper Hearst parking lot as a promising site for student housing development. The campus’s goal, he said, is to double the number of beds that the campus currently provides to students. This number, he said, would amount to about 8,000 new beds.

Lizardo added that constructing more campus-owned student housing would benefit both the campus and the city.

Campus senior and panelist Grace Treffinger, who is a member of the Oxford Tract Planning Committee, advocated for consideration of alternative sites near campus for student housing development.

“I agree; we need more student housing,” Treffinger said at the meeting. “I’m curious — what are some alternative sites and some alternative ways we can increase affordable student housing?”

Panelist and ASUC Senator Connor Hughes echoed Treffinger’s support for alternative development sites, stating the importance of not “putting all of our eggs in this Oxford Tract basket.” He pointed to parking lots in the campus area as feasible housing sites that would not come into conflict with educational opportunities.

Regarding the future, panelist and community activist Charlene Woodcock said the potential development sites should be ranked based on how quickly they could be developed, expressing the importance of addressing the “urgent” need for housing.

Harrison said she intends to continue engaging the community in discussions about the Oxford Tract and housing development more generally.

“In an ideal world, there would be some large piece of land that didn’t disrupt anything that is there now. … Unfortunately, that’s rarely the case,” Harrison said at the meeting. “The question is how to prioritize what we’re doing and get some student housing right now.”

Danielle Kaye is the lead city government reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @danielledkaye.