UC Board of Regents approves People’s Park conversion, discuss post-pandemic future

photo of People's Park
Cesar Ruiz/File
A person is seen sitting and reading a book in People's Park. After receiving a recommendation of approval from its Financial and Capital Strategies Committee, the UC Board of Regents approved UC Berkeley's student housing project on People’s Park.

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UC Berkeley’s plans to convert People’s Park into undergraduate and community housing can now be brought to fruition, following approval from the UC Board of Regents at its regular meeting Wednesday.

Recommended for approval by the Regents’ Financial and Capital Strategies Committee yesterday, the project seeks to house 1,100 undergraduate students and will provide supportive housing for low-income and unhoused community members, according to a campuswide email from UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ. She added that construction will not begin until the park’s current residents are offered housing and other services.

Meanwhile, more than half of the park will remain an open, outdoor space for the Berkeley community, and a public memorial will be erected in honor of People’s Park and its rich history.

“Ever since we announced plans for the People’s Park project in 2018, I have been convinced that we have an opportunity for a win-win-win benefitting our students, unhoused people in our community, and our neighbors across the city,” Christ said in the email.

While the space’s transformation has drawn criticism from residents and advocates for the homeless community, a campus survey conducted in August found that 68% of students supported the project after learning more about its objectives and plans.

Many local advocacy groups, however, stand firm in their opposition to the project, voicing concerns for the homeless community and for the park’s history and legacy.

The People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group has claimed that the project helps gentrify the city, making it harder for communities of color to stay. It specifically notes the Black population in Berkeley has dropped from 23.5% to 7.9% since 1970.

“Students are not in favor of this,” said Harvey Smith, People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group President, noting a campus protest that took place earlier this month. “Why are they picking on a site that has national significance and an incredible history?”

In addition to voting on the future of People’s Park, the board also listened to concerns from members of the UC community during public comment and discussed the system’s reopening and post-pandemic future.

During public comment, several workers within the UC system asked the regents to increase worker flexibility and honor requests to continue remote work. A number of workers further cited concerns about retention and an increasing desire among staff to leave the system.

Members of UC-AFT, a union representing university lecturers, also called on the regents to support early-career performance reviews and merit-based retention policies. Many also said they would be willing to strike if an improved contract is not agreed upon.

“The decision to treat lecturers like gig workers undermines my efforts because I never know when my job will expire,” said UC-AFT member Chase Hobbes Morgan during public comment. “I can’t credibly tell students I’ll be able to support them down the line.”

After public comment, regents and chancellors from various UC campuses discussed reopening plans, drawing heavily on input from Christ and UC Merced Chancellor Juan Sánchez Muñoz, whose campuses have been open for more than a month, unlike those on the quarter system.

Christ and Muñoz cited relatively low campus COVID-19 positivity rates and strong compliance with vaccination and mask mandates as keys to success.

“We decided to return to in-person instruction because the productivity and common experiences on campus are really essential for building, strengthening and maintaining a robust and inclusive university culture,” Christ said during the meeting. “This is what students have been asking for and continue to remind us every day since we returned.”

While the chancellors remained optimistic about their current efforts, concerns were also expressed regarding COVID-19 transmission and allegedly insufficient preventative measures.

ASUC Academic Affairs Vice President James Weichert specifically noted during public comment that the transition back to in-person instruction has not been easy, with campus averaging more than 50 cases each week.

He alleged that higher rates of COVID-19 have been aided by the lack of asymptomatic testing and no quarantine period at the start of the semester.

“For over a month now, Berkeley has been back in person, but not without its share of setbacks,” Weichert said during public comment. “Students, faculty and staff are suffering because Berkeley does not want to take responsibility for its mistakes.”

Meanwhile, UC Student Association President Esmeralda Quintero-Cubillan said many common challenges facing students — including academic and housing difficulties — have been exacerbated since the return to in-person instruction.

Quintero-Cubillan further alleged that campuses have not done enough to support these students in a time of need.

“I’ve seen students watching lectures through windows because classes are over-enrolled. I’ve watched Facebook ads for single units being flooded with hundreds of desperate responses from students starting classes without stable housing,” Quintero-Cubillan said during the meeting. “I and other student leaders had to step up and act as public health experts, housing specialists and case advocates to make up for the failures of campus.”

Later in the meeting, the Board of Regents discussed increasing UC capacity, a move it hopes will help promote equity in education.

More specifically, UC President Michael Drake said he would like the university to add 20,000 students systemwide by 2030. This, he said, would be akin to adding another campus.

While increasing capacity may involve traditional methods, such as constructing new buildings, Drake is hopeful that the UC will take a more innovative approach, lessening the time needed to earn a degree, bolstering financial aid services and promoting more online opportunities.

“The demand for and the value of a UC education has only grown over the years,” Drake said during the meeting. “Enrollment growth is essential to the future of the university and the state. And it is a key priority.”

Speaking to potential hikes in enrollment, Regent Art Torres added that the UC must prioritize diversity in both students and faculty, noting particularly low enrollments of African-American students.

However, Student Regent Alexis Atsilvsgi Zaragoza cautioned the board, voicing concerns about being able to accommodate and house more students.

“We have students who are being put in hotel rooms,” Zaragoza said during the meeting. “The fact that we even have to turn to that kind of option is a huge red flag to me — that we don’t even have capacity to take care of our current students. … We really need to fix the problems that are directly in front of us.”

The board also heard from Regent Emerita Monica Lozano, who presented a series of recommendations made by the Recovery with Equity Taskforce, established by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office in August 2020.

These recommendations included increasing faculty diversity, streamlining the UC admissions process, making college more affordable and fostering more inclusive learning environments.

“It’s not about recovery,” Lozano said during the meeting. “It really is about reimagining and redesigning a system so it works for all of the residents of California.”

Toward the end of their meeting, the Regents also heard from Executive Vice President of UC Health Carrie Byington, who provided an update on the current status of COVID-19 in California and lauded UC researchers for their scientific contributions.

She remains hopeful that, if vaccination rates continue to climb and variants are mitigated, COVID-19 could turn the corner and become an endemic virus by March 2022.

“We do need to grieve the losses that we have,” Byington said during the meeting. “But I am so hopeful that through vaccination, we are emerging from the worst of the pandemic.”

Mallika Seshadri is the managing editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @SeshadriMallika.