An eerie quiet has fallen over People’s Park as UC Berkeley takes its initial steps toward building the housing development that could soon stand in its place. The encampment that has housed some 60 people since the beginning of the pandemic has disappeared; large piles of mulch and giant logs are poised along Dwight Way; and the park, typically bustling with visitors and volunteers, has fallen silent. In May, City of Berkeley employees began moving residents of the People’s Park encampment into transitional housing at the Rodeway Inn on University Avenue. As of this writing, all 42 of the rooms at the Rodeway are occupied by former residents of the park, according to Assistant to the City Manager Peter Radu. The rest of the residents are living at the city’s new Horizon shelter (a congregate shelter on Greyson Street), have been placed in other local housing, have left the park and remain unhoused, or are unaccounted for.
As UC officials move steadily forward with plans to break ground on People’s Park, activists and community groups are working to keep up a resistance. The park is closer than it has been in decades to development, as the university plans to begin construction this summer. In the wake of these developments, park supporters are doing what they have done for decades: preparing for a summer of protest.
“We’ve been battling this [development] for two or three decades,” says Boomer, a former park resident. “[People’s Park] is the ground where we get to lay it down on the table. If we don’t get to have rights here, we don’t get rights at all.”
In recent weeks, the university has also shut off water at the park, welded the bathroom doors shut, and removed trash cans. Cal spokesperson Dan Mogulof said that the park is scheduled to be closed for construction sometime this summer, but did not provide a specific date. The university’s goal is to complete construction of the 1,100-bed student housing complex by the summer of 2024 so that students can move in at the beginning of the 2024/25 academic year. The People’s Park development plans also include a supportive housing complex for 119 currently and formerly houseless people. UC Berkeley will donate the land for this project to Resources for Community Development, a local nonprofit that builds affordable housing.
When Street Spirit visited the park at the end of June, members of a local church walked around the park with bags of socks and toothpaste, struggling to find people to give them to. An unmarked police car circled the park twice and then drove away. Just one encampment resident—Eddie—remained. Eddie, who is permitted to remain at the park as the city works on securing a housing placement, says the park is the only remaining place where he can exist freely.
“This is a place where everybody who comes is equal, no matter what race, age, or creed you come from. If they take away the park they’re going to take away the only place that identifies us as individual people. The only place where everyone is equal and free.”
Eddie says he is eager to be housed, as long as he can stay in Berkeley. But he does not want to see the park close. He feels confused about the process of finding a transitional housing placement, and says the park should remain open as a refuge for the public, as the number of public spaces that are accessible to unhoused people fade away.
Activists have been fighting to protect the park since first occupying the land in 1969, successfully guarding against UC police and the National guard, who wanted to return the land to the University so that it could build there. The fight to protect the park reignited in 2017 when Chancellor Christ announced that the university would build student housing there. In June, the People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group succeeded in having the park listed in the National Register of Historic Places—a designation the group hoped would force Cal to build elsewhere. But the university was undeterred, arguing that their environmental impact report already evaluated the historic status of the site.
Activists have also taken to the courts to try to halt development plans. On July 29, an Alameda County Superior Court judge will hear a lawsuit by the People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group and community group Make UC a Good Neighbor. The lawsuit argues that the environmental impact report (EIR) accompanying Cal’s Long Range Development Plan—the plan that outlines the People’s Park project, among others— was inadequate. Winning the lawsuit could mean that Cal would have to re-write the EIR, a lengthy process that could delay construction for months and incur hefty fees.
The City of Berkeley was once among the groups that balked at Cal’s Long Range Development Plan (LRDP) and the accompanying EIR. After Cal announced that it planned to increase enrollment by 33.7 percent, the city sued the university in 2019, saying it had not adequately analyzed the impact this enrollment jump would have on city services. Ultimately, the two agreed to settle outside of court, and last summer, UC Berkeley announced that it would start paying the City of Berkeley $4.1 million per year for its use of city services—more than doubling the $1.8 million annual fee it had previously paid.
The city dropped the lawsuit, and also agreed not to sue over the LRDP and EIR—even though the head of Berkeley’s planning department had previously issued a scathing 75-page response to the plans, saying they were so inadequate that they should be fully revised. The city has now joined the university as a partner in the People’s Park project.
“In order to ensure that everyone who had lived in the park wouldn’t be displaced onto city streets or other city parks when construction starts, we wanted to ensure that everyone had a meaningful, safe, indoor option that would provide them a pathway to permanent housing and end their unsheltered status,” Berkeley City Manager Radu said.
The city is taking the lead on outreach to People’s Park residents, placement in transitional housing, opening Sacred Rest (a new daytime drop-in center at First Presbyterian Church), and replacing the park’s restrooms. Berkeley is paying for the majority of the 18-month lease with the Rodeway, using a $4.7 million grant from the state’s Encampment Resolution Fund to pay the lease for 12 months and contract with Abode Services, the agency providing supportive services. Cal will contribute $2.2 million for the remaining six months of the contract.
“This is how stuff gets done: the people with shared values come together to make things happen,” Mogulof says.
Reports from former park residents who are living at the Rodeway are mixed. While some say they are grateful to have a roof over their head, others have shared that the midnight curfew, the no visitor policy, and having no keys to their own rooms have made life there very uncomfortable. Others have said that the food is inedible, that they have been locked out after curfew and not allowed back in, and that they are frequently disrespected by Abode Services staff.
“Don’t get me wrong, of course, I’m grateful because I have a personal bathroom … I feel grateful because I got a roof over my head, I got somewhere to sleep and I sleep good,” former park resident Eric Morales told Berkeleyside. “But when the program says they’re going to support us, they’re not doing that. We have housing, but that’s all.”
Ultimately, whether they remain in transitional housing, find placement in permanent housing, or end up unsheltered elsewhere, the tight-knit community that People’s Park has provided for decades will be hard to replace. Park advocates are planning a protest on June 6, as well as a series of community-oriented events, to voice their support for this community.
“I still come to the park here to see my family,” former park resident Boomer told Street Spirit. “Just because I move indoors doesn’t mean I’m going to forsake my family. Why does there have to be this negative or inferior cloud over us like we’re less than? Like our existence doesn’t matter?”
Alastair Boone is the Editor in Chief of Street Spirit.