California Supreme Court sides with UC Berkeley on People’s Park development (2024)

BERKELEY — The legal fight over the 2.8-acre parcel of land known as People’s Park may be over, with the California Supreme Court ruling in favor of the University of California Regents, who plan to develop the site into student housing for UC Berkeley.

The decision in the case between plaintiffs Make UC A Good Neighbor and the UC Regents, authored by Chief Justice Patricia Guerrero, found that none of the opposition group’s claims has merit.

Good Neighbors argued that an environmental review of the university’s purposed project failed to adequately analyze noise impacts from future residents or alternative sites for the proposal. Last year, First District Appellate Court Justices agreed,and the state supreme court opted to hear an appeal of that decision.

Since then, state lawmakers have approved Assembly Bill 1307, a law stating that noise generated by future occupants of a project cannot be considered a significant impact on the environment under the California Environmental Quality Act. The change in law voided Good Neighbor’s argument, the court ruled Thursday.

“We are pleased and relieved that the Supreme Court’s decision enables the campus to resume construction at People’s Park,” UC Berkeley wrote in a statement regarding the decision. “The housing components of the project are desperately needed by our students and unhoused people, and the entire community will benefit from the fact that more than 60% of the 2.8-acre site will be revitalized as open park space.”

Meanwhile, Harvey Smith with People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group, one of two plaintiffs in the case, said the decision is disappointing, but not surprising. Once state legislators intervened to change CEQA guidelines in favor of the UC’s plans — an effort Smith described as a “backroom deal” — they knew their win would be reversed, Smith said.

“We knew it was a David-and-Goliath struggle, but we were hopeful,” Smith said. “When we went into the court of appeals we played by the rules. Since the UC didn’t like the outcome, they changed the rules.”

Smith said the group’s attorneys are considering possible but limited avenues for continuing their fight.

The university approved plans to build housing for 1,100 university students and 125 homeless residents within two six- and 12-story dorm buildings on the site off of Telegraph Avenue in 2021, pushing forward a vision it has been pursuing since seizing the land by eminent domain and bulldozing single-family homes on the property in 1968.

That goal has been met with protests ever since. Members of the public took over the muddy lot, planting plants, sod, trees and unofficially dubbing it People’s Park in 1969. The space quickly became a hub for activism and political protests and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in May of 2022.

“It’s symbolic of the Civil Rights Movement, the Free Speech Movement, the Anti-war Movement. You have to question, if you have an asset like that why destroy it? It’s an asset, it brings people to Berkeley,” Smith said.

More recently, it was the site of a large homeless encampment during the pandemic, which was cleared and demolished in August of 2022.

University officials say they are honoring the legacy of the park by retaining more than 60% of the site for open space. The plan also calls for setting aside 125 apartments of permanent supportive housing for formerly unhoused people.

But activists who want the park preserved remained unconvinced, and tensions boiled over in January when the university deployed hundreds of law enforcement officers to clear out protesters who’d been occupying the space. At least six protesters were arrested for trespassing or refusing to follow dispersal orders.

Subsequently, a massive barrier of 160 cargo boxes was placed on the perimeter of the park, and it has remained in place as the university awaited the state Supreme Court’s decision. Now, with a ruling in its favor, the university plans to refocus on the construction timeline.

“We are grateful for the strong and ongoing support this project has received from the majority of Berkeley students, community members, advocates for the unhoused, the city’s elected leaders, the state Legislature, and the governor,” the university said in its statement. “The campus is committed to addressing the high cost and low supply of housing close to campus that undermines students’ ability to thrive, succeed, and fully partake in all that the university has to offer.”

California Supreme Court sides with UC Berkeley on People’s Park development (2024)


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