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People’s Park Shouldn’t Be Sacrificed for UCB Housing

UC Berkeley is currently facing a highly contentious decision in regards to student housing.

While the housing shortage has been an issue for many years, Berkeley’s rising cost of living forced the university to act.

Chancellor Nicholas Dirks created a task-force in the summer of 2016 to assuage the growing concern surrounding the absence of affordable on-campus housing. In order to conform to the task-force’s proposal to house fifty percent of undergraduate and 25 percent of graduate students, the university will need to provide a total of 15,600 beds.

However, there are currently only 8,700 beds available, leaving the task-force to recommend solutions for an additional 6,900 beds.

This daunting responsibility to find space where none exists was met conscientiously.

In its report, the group was proficient in presenting eight viable choices, but conflict is inevitable for its final option: People’s Park. In its chart delineating the potential sites, under the “style” heading, the task force offered that People’s Park could be developed into, “traditional style residence halls on a portion of the site with long term Indigent Housing with services, open space, and a memorial to the People’s Park history.” Clearly, the group understood the historical significance of the park, for not only did they propose a memorial, but in the notes section they allocate uses beyond campus-serving needs in order to provide the community with low-income supportive housing and open space.

Furthermore, it was careful to specify that anything done must be “consistent with [the] historical and continuing cultural significance of People’s Park,” and will require “careful collaboration with City of Berkeley and other community and governmental partners.”

If only carefulness and understanding were sufficient, there would be no complications nor predicaments, but they are not, and the mere suggestion was rightfully ample motivation for protest.

Nobody is arguing the merits of on-campus housing. Cal is justified in feeling that housing is critical for their mission because of the academic and social support, the safe and affordable community, and the amenities that housing provides. Nor is there any dissent that the university has a need. Cal has the lowest percentage of beds on any campus in the UC System, with only 22 percent of undergraduates and nine percent of graduate students provided with on-campus options, despite the fact that Berkeley has the tightest housing market of any UC location. The initiative has the potential to reduce the university’s carbon footprint, increase opportunities for student integration, and take pressure off Berkeley’s housing market, which would aid other student populations in securing housing.

Although eight legitimate choices were presented, and despite the significant benefits of on-campus housing, news coverage focused on the People’s Park idea. The vast majority of sources, especially those with knowledge of historical context, have concluded that a People’s Park development is nonsensical. For that to be true, there must exist a hefty, substantial, and well-reasoned counter argument — and there is.

First and foremost, there is only space for 250 to 350 beds on the lot — important, but not exactly a dent in the massive shortage. The other projects will provide an estimated 2,375 to 5,320 beds depending on the exact plans. Whatever the People’s Park project provides in terms of beds does not — and cannot — outweigh the other downsides.

UC Berkeley is facing crippling debt. They spent massively in order to renovate Memorial Stadium and retrofit other buildings, leaving the college with very limited funds. The projects themselves will have to be specially financed through a public-private-partnership model, which entails a private developer providing the capital for construction, and in return, being recouped with housing rental fees for the duration of the deal. Why then, would the university choose to spend extra money not on housing but on a memorial? It seems ludicrous given their financial struggles to spend a dollar more than they can get away with. Furthermore, whereas many projects add beds by building off of existing structures, People’s Park requires breaking ground on a new foundation. Instead of developing People’s Park and paying extra for a memorial, that money can be funneled towards improving the other developments and the university’s academic programs.

More importantly, the other options are simply better. Sure, the program started last fall to house fifty students at both Holy Names University and Mills College is not ideal — in many ways it is ludicrous — but that speaks to the assured public relations nightmare that a project on People’s Park would entail. The first time Cal attempted to develop People’s Park, in 1969, the students responded with a protest, then-governor Ronald Reagan responded with National Guard troops, and “Bloody Thursday” resulted. Similar, albeit less violent, protests occurred in 1971, 1972, 1979, and 1991. Students voted as recently as 2000 to maintain the area as a park.

That is why it is a serious problem that the chair of the task force, interim Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Carol Christ, has said she would like to see all nine projects completed, including the People’s Park site.

Despite the multitude of benefits, the repercussions are more devastating.

The task force was astute to include the clause in their report that it “Is still in draft form and won’t be finalized until we have engaged with members of the community and gathered their input” because the community has spoken, and they have emphatically declared that a People’s Park project is unacceptable.