Berkeley considers suing UC Board of Regents for student impact on city resources

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The city of Berkeley announced that it is considering taking the UC Board of Regents to court, in response to a move from UC Berkeley to increase its previously agreed-upon student population.

The dispute centers on an analysis called a draft supplemental environmental impact report, or SEIR, conducted in advance of planned construction on the Upper Hearst parking lot on Northside. The campus intends to turn the lot into student and faculty housing, as well as add facilities for the Goldman School of Public Policy.

The SEIR released February also included an amendment to the campus’s master plan — the 2020 Long Range Development Plan, or LRDP — which would increase the baseline number of students brought in by the campus. It is this provision within the report that has prompted the city to consider challenging the plans.

The current long-range plan estimated an enrollment count of 33,450 students by 2020. As of fall 2018, campus students totaled more than 42,000.

In response, Berkeley City Council members voted to authorize the city attorney to initiate litigation against the university during a closed meeting Monday, according to a statement from Mayor Jesse Arreguín.

“The City Council’s decision to authorize litigation over the Upper Hearst Development SEIR was not made lightly,” Arreguín said in the statement. “We strongly support Chancellor Christ’s goals to create more student housing. The Upper Hearst Development is a worthy project and should not be saddled by a flawed EIR or cramming the issue of greater student enrollment into the report.”

In a 457-page letter sent to campus April 12, the city contends that environmental analysis of an increase in student population should not be included with the draft SEIR for the Upper Hearst development. The city alleged in the letter that the swelling student population is putting a “profound” burden on city infrastructure and services.

UC Berkeley spokesperson Dan Mogulof said the campus would prefer to negotiate a solution without litigation. He added that the campus would be willing to continue mitigation payments to offset the burden the student population puts on the city until a new long-range development plan is formed, as the current one is nearing its completion in 2020. Though the city says the LRDP should be separate from the proposed project, Mogulof said the two are inextricable.

“The whole purpose of an EIR is to measure impact and projected impact, so you need a baseline,” Mogulof said. “We have been clear about what our student population is, and an authentic EIR process should incorporate that as well.”

A similar contention regarding the student population’s burden on city services led to a settlement in 2005, prompting the campus to pay the city an annual mitigation fee of $1.7 million. A recent study commissioned from the city’s Office of Economic Development, however, found that the student population imposes approximately a $21 million burden on the city annually, according to Arreguín — $5.9 million of which is on the Berkeley Fire Department alone, according to the report.

“I think the existing agreement is not satisfactory, and we need to look holistically on the impacts and what the city can do to address those impacts,” Arreguín said. “I think we need to have a real discussion around all these issues.”

Arreguín added that he hopes the campus and city can reach a “favorable outcome.” Every two months, Arreguín meets with Christ to discuss the relationship between the campus and the community. He said he is looking to the coming weeks before the UC regents meeting May 14 — during which the governing members will vote on the Upper Hearst project — to “have an honest dialogue about how we can proceed as a campus and city.”

“I think everybody here has the best interest of campus and city at heart,” Mogulof said. “We have successfully confronted similar issues in the past.”

Brandon Yung is the lead city government reporter. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @brandonyung1.