Situated off Telegraph Avenue on Haste Street, People’s Park is a rich part of Berkeley’s history. The creation of the park was fueled by political activism in the 1960s, and the question of what to do with the site of the park has remained a contentious debate between activists and the campus for decades.
On June 6, 1967, the UC Board of Regents approved a $1.3 million allocation for the campus to purchase the land that is presently the site of People’s Park, for the purpose of building more student housing. By July 1968, all former buildings had been destroyed, and the site remained barren.
In April 1969, local alternative newspaper the Berkeley Barb printed that the site was to be transformed into a park — People’s Park. Two days later, this transformation began: People arrived in droves with shovels, ready to plant flowers and trees and determined to make the pit of unused land into a beautiful Berkeley landmark. The campus resisted these efforts, eventually evicting the park’s residents and building a fence around People’s Park on May 15, 1969. This immediately prompted activist outrage; then-student body president-elect Dan Siegel urged a crowd rallying on Sproul Plaza that day to “take back the park,” coining the phrase that would be used for years to come when it came to the question of the park’s ownership.
Taking back the park did not end well for either side — 51 civilians were treated for injuries from shotgun pellets and 111 police officers were harmed in the protest that ensued that day after protesters assaulted police officers with rocks and bottles thrown from rooftops, and the police responded with tear gas and shotgun fire. Then-governor Ronald Reagan subsequently sent the National Guard to Berkeley for 17 days in an attempt to restore safety, and eventually, the campus tore down the fence and put a temporary hold on any possible developments.
The campus continued to negotiate with activists in the years to come, allowing the People’s Park Council to plant in the park for the next 10 years and approving the construction of a stage in the park in 1978. In October 1989, then-mayor Loni Hancock and then-UC Berkeley chancellor Ira Michael Heyman signed a memorandum of accord wherein the campus was to lease the east third and west third of the park to the city. The campus took sole ownership of People’s Park in March 1996 and currently still maintains its jurisdiction over the land.
While a lot has changed with People’s Park throughout its history, what has remained the same is the heated quarrel regarding the park, including the question of whether it should be preserved or converted into student housing.
Last year, Christ decided to break the silence, offering a proposal after years of stagnation: a plan to build on People’s Park in order to allow for more student housing on the land along with housing for homeless citizens. The proposed plan included 1,000 new beds for students and 75 to 125 apartment units for homeless people.
Berkeley currently has an estimated population of about 800 homeless residents. In addition, Berkeley is the UC campus with the lowest percentage of beds for students: only 22 percent for undergraduates and 9 percent for graduate students, astoundingly low numbers. UC Berkeley’s latest goal is to house 50 percent of its undergraduate students and 25 percent of its graduate students.
Christ’s plan clearly aims to address these issues. The chancellor maintains that the proposed development addresses the needs of both Berkeley students in need of affordable housing and the 40 to 50 current homeless residents of People’s Park. Her proposal, however, has drawn criticism from organizations such as the People’s Park Committee, which believes the park is a historical monument that should remain untouched.
While Christ’s proposal offers a hint of a possible compromise, there is no doubt that the fate of People’s Park will continue to be a fight for the people of Berkeley, no matter which side of the debate you’re on. It will be up to the campus to decide which takes precedence in the case of the park: historical preservation or student housing.