Tensions rose between council members and attendees at a Berkeley City Council meeting March 21, held in response to an urgency item proposed by Mayor Jesse Arreguín regarding ongoing university efforts to build on People’s Park.
The meeting began with the recognition of local activist and photographer Martin Nicolas, along with Education and Sharing Day. It was followed by an adjournment in honor of Berkeley High School student Lillia Bartlow, who died March 17.
The main point of discussion was an urgency item authored by Arreguín and co-authored by Councilmember Rigel Robinson, authorizing a letter to the California Supreme Court in support of judicial review in the Make UC a Good Neighbor v. The Regents of the University of California case.
Aside from Councilmember Kate Harrison, who abstained prior to item revisions and later voted “no,” all present council members supported the urgency item. Councilmember Sophie Hahn was absent for the votes.
During public comment, many attendees voiced their disapproval for the council’s decision. One issue brought up by multiple speakers was the park’s positive contribution to the environment; attendees noted the lack of green space in the area and its detrimental effects on both environmental and public health, along with a limited window for change.
Many public speakers noted that the university’s environmental impact report violates the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, by failing to examine other construction sites — some of which CEQA claimed are better and more available options — for this housing project.
Other discussed matters included public safety concerns and pleas for solutions to the substance abuse present across the city. A few agreed with the council’s decision to support judicial review.
In response to these public concerns, Mayor Jesse Arreguín stated his views on safety in regards to the park.
“There have been stabbings at the park,” Arreguín said. “There have been people dying at the park. It is not a safe situation. I respect the fact that people want to keep it a park, but the status quo is not working. I don’t think it’s in the best interest of the community to maintain a situation that we know is unsafe, unsafe for students, unsafe for residents, unsafe for the unhoused people in the park.”
Councilmember Rashi Kesarwani, who supported the urgency item, emphasized that the proposed construction will only take up a fraction of the lot, and that at least 60% of the land will be kept as green space. Kesarwani added that the construction would house 1,100 students from the “unsafe conditions” they might face otherwise.
When responding to the people who brought up how the university could build on other sites, she made the argument that no matter where they chose to build they would experience the same backlash.
“I just want to ask whether you truly believe that the neighbors would not have sued under CEQA to block each and every one of those alternative sites,” Kesarwani said. “We would have heard the same arguments, and the court probably would have issued a similar finding … so we know that our system in our state is broken. The California Environmental Quality Act is broken.”