UC Berkeley should reconsider its proposed student housing plans at People’s Park, 1921 Walnut St.

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Editor’s note: The following letter was sent by Berkeley community members and UC Berkeley faculty members, students, staff and alumni to UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ and other campus administrators. It has been edited for style and clarity.

On Feb. 22, UC Berkeley announced two ambitious plans for constructing housing for its students.

We, the undersigned faculty, students, staff and alumni of UC Berkeley, together with residents of the city of Berkeley, call on Chancellor Carol Christ to withdraw both plans as inconsistent with the UC system’s mission to “serve society as a center of higher learning.”

We furthermore call on Chancellor Christ to promise publicly that UC Berkeley will henceforth not use police force to advance plans for constructing housing for its students and will not spend money defending itself against lawsuits arising from plans that violate tenants’ rights, undermine historic preservation values and/or threaten environmental standards. Such means to accomplish its ends are likewise inconsistent with its mission.

That UC Berkeley faces a serious problem with regard to affordable student housing is not in question. However, it is a problem that, given the UC system’s mission, the campus must solve through knowledge, not force, and in a way that respects, rather than violates, the human, social, historic, aesthetic and environmental values that it is charged with serving.

Of its two announced plans for new student housing, one, for the development of People’s Park, includes a 16-story tower as part of a complex providing accommodation for students; it also includes a five-story structure providing “supportive housing” for nonstudent residents. The city of Berkeley’s design guidelines for the area, by contrast, call for new buildings to be compatible in design and character with existing ones and to generally not exceed four or five stories, depending on their exact location. A Berkeley City Council resolution also calls for People’s Park to remain “permanent, public open space.” Even if the UC system is generally not legally required to abide by the city of Berkeley’s land use regulations, we see no reason that it should not choose to do so, especially when promoting goodwill within a community it depends on for support would seem in its own best interest. 

The plan is opposed by a broad coalition of students, area residents, historic preservationists and environmental advocates, including the People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group, the People’s Park Committee and even UC Berkeley students occupying the park in protest against the plan.

The other plan, known as the “Anchor Project,” for the area bounded by University Avenue, Oxford Street, Walnut Street and Berkeley Way, envisions a student housing project prioritizing transfer students. Funded by a private donation, the project includes a praised but underexplained provision that the “net operating revenue generated by this residence hall will be dedicated to funding scholarships targeted toward under-represented and first-generation undergraduates.” On the site, however, there currently stands a rent-controlled apartment building: 1921 Walnut St., which was built in 1909 and conforms to the city of Berkeley’s vision for affordable housing and preservation of the city’s architectural heritage.

UC Berkeley purchased the building in July 2020 and plans to demolish it. Its tenants, some of whom have lived there for more than two decades, oppose the project and have declined UC Berkeley’s offers of relocation compensation. Demolition of the building is also opposed by the ASUC, UC Berkeley’s own student government, as well as the Berkeley Tenants Union, the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board and the Berkeley City Council, which passed its “Resolution in Support of 1921 Walnut Street” on July 28, 2020.

We, the undersigned, fully understand that students at UC Berkeley face an acute affordable housing crisis. It is a crisis long in the making, well known to all who live or work in Berkeley or would like to. We agree that it must be solved; UC Berkeley’s students are our neighbors, our local businesses’ customers, our friends, our children, our future. Just like everyone, they need and deserve safe, near, healthful, comfortable, socially supportive and aesthetically pleasing housing if they are to live productive lives, doing the challenging work expected of them as UC Berkeley students, cultivating and using their talents ultimately for the benefit of us all.

What we fail to understand is why UC Berkeley, charged with transmitting, developing and preserving knowledge, cannot imagine a more imaginative, just and forward-thinking solution to this problem than the controversial ones proposed. UC Berkeley hosts world-renowned departments of architecture; landscape architecture and environmental planning; city and regional planning; civil and environmental engineering; history; and economics, not to mention schools of public policy, social welfare and education. Are the proposed plans really the best it can come up with?

We do not casually propose alternative plans here; obviously, finding solutions to this housing problem is a complex challenge, and we appreciate the efforts the campus’s housing task force has made in that direction. We merely suggest that a measure of whether good solutions have in fact been found is that those whose lives would be affected by them broadly consider them satisfactory, and a good measure of that, in turn, is whether they are not considered so unsatisfactory as to provoke opposition that could require police force or legal action to be suppressed. Organized opposition to both currently proposed plans makes clear that they fall far short of this standard.

Finally, in response to UC Berkeley’s description of itself as “land-poor,” we would like to note that UC Berkeley’s beautiful, historic and bucolic campus in the center of Berkeley, and of the entire urban expanse of the East Bay, sits on the territory of xučyun (Huichin), the ancestral and unceded land of the Chochenyo-speaking Ohlone people, who have inhabited the area for thousands of years. In 1820, the land was granted by the king of Spain to Sgt. Luís María Peralta; during the Gold Rush it was occupied by American squatters; in ensuing legal disputes over title, it wound up sold to retired sea captain Orrin Simmons, who sold it to the trustees of the College of California; in 1867, the trustees donated it to the state of California for its new university. The layers of injustice embedded in the history through which the university came to occupy this land may not be able to be undone, but they ought not to be forgotten by those with power and responsibility to make decisions about the precious land held by UC Berkeley.

We call on Chancellor Christ to respect opposition to the proposed plans, return to the drawing board and find alternative solutions to the student housing problem that are broadly acceptable to our entire community.

The following is a partial list of the letter’s signatories.

Kristin Hanson, faculty, English, UC Berkeley
Anne-Lise François, faculty, English and comparative literature, UC Berkeley
Joanna Picciotto, faculty, English and comparative literature, UC Berkeley
Ata Sunucu, graduate student, comparative literature, UC Berkeley
Summer Brenner, longtime Berkeley resident
Harvey Smith, B.A., English and M.P.H., UC Berkeley
Joe Liesner, Omni Commons and East Bay Food Not Bombs
Rumur Dowling, graduate student, UC Berkeley
James Brook, poet, translator, Berkeley resident, UC Berkeley alumnus
Laura Fantone, staff, UC Berkeley
Gillian Christa Boal, retiree, UC Berkeley
Carol Denney, musician, co-founder of the People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group
Katrin Wehrheim, faculty, UC Berkeley
Katie Latimer, Ph.D. student, UC Berkeley
Joni Spigler, graduate alumna, history of art, UC Berkeley
Greg Levine, faculty, history of art, UC Berkeley
Charles Altieri, faculty, English, UC Berkeley
Chana Kronfeld, faculty, Near Eastern studies and comparative literature, UC Berkeley
Daniel Boyarin, faculty, rhetoric, UC Berkeley
Jeffrey Skoller, faculty, film & media, UC Berkeley
Eric Stanley, faculty, gender and women’s studies, UC Berkeley
Aidan Hill, undergraduate student and former employee, UC Berkeley
Alastair Iles, faculty, environmental science, policy and management, UC Berkeley
James Vernon, faculty, history, UC Berkeley
Celeste Langan, faculty, English, UC Berkeley
Michael Burawoy, faculty, sociology, UC Berkeley
Xavier Johnson, Berkeley rent board commissioner, Berkeley Housing Advisory Commission vice chair
Igor Tregub, UC Berkeley alumnus, former Berkeley rent board commissioner
John T. Selawsky, Berkeley rent board commissioner