A state appeals court in San Francisco decided on Friday that UC Berkeley violated state environmental law in plans to build student housing on People’s Park, but the university plans to appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court.In the decision, Judge Gordon Burns agreed with the plaintiffs’ argument that the university didn’t consider adequate alternatives to building on People’s Park, or the noise impacts of “loud student parties” at the planned 1,100-bed housing development in Southside.
Make UC a Good Neighbor and the People’s Park Historic Advocacy Group filed the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) lawsuit last year. The court had tentatively sided with them in January after halting construction at the park, which Cal attempted to initiate between court battles last summer.
UC spokesperson Dan Mogulof said the university will ask the state Supreme Court to overturn the “unprecedented and dangerous” decision.
“Left in place, this decision will indefinitely delay all of UC Berkeley’s planned student housing, which is desperately needed by our students and fully supported by the city of Berkeley’s mayor and other elected representatives,” Mogulof said. “This decision has the potential to prevent colleges and universities across the state of California from providing students with the housing they need and deserve.”
He said it gives “NIMBY,” or “not-in-my-backyard” neighbors, the ability to block urban housing, emphasizing that the precedent could delay the construction of student housing, as well as low-income housing, like the adjacent 100 affordable units that were planned for People’s Park.
Plaintiffs have strongly pushed back against the idea that their lawsuit is intended to block housing construction in Berkeley, specifying that their aim is to protect the decades-long, radical history of the park, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It has also been a community hub for homeless services and resources.
“They decided in our favor on two issues — most importantly (that) UC failed to analyze alternative sites,” said Harvey Smith with the People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group (PPHDAG). “This is key to what the PPHDAG has been arguing.”
The university has been clear about its intent to build student housing at the park — rather than an alternate location — out of its interest in rehabilitating what it sees as health and safety concerns stemming from the park. Over the last year, Cal also worked with the city to offer alternate housing to people living at the park in an encampment that formed over the COVID-19 pandemic.
After the UC’s failed attempt to close the park in August, the space has again become an encampment with about a dozen residents in tents. Some who moved to the Rodeway Inn last summer returned to the park.
Student activists who successfully halted construction have been advocating for the residents living at People’s Park, and have a distinct set of demands from the two groups fighting UC Berkeley’s development in court. They want the land to be returned to indigenous stewardship, homeless residents who lived at the park to be connected to permanent housing, and to defund the UC Police Department and have those financial resources redirected to services for homeless residents, as well as Cal students and staff.
Their efforts are ongoing, in tandem with the nonprofit groups’ lawsuit. Once UC Berkeley submits its appeal, the state Supreme Court will determine whether to take up the case.
Supriya Yelimeli covers housing and homelessness for Berkeleyside.