As a team of police in riot gear kept watch in the pre-dawn darkness, construction workers at UC Berkeley fenced off the historic People’s Park early Wednesday, the first step in a plan to transform the symbol of the 1960s counterculture in housing for students and the homeless.
The university began the action in the middle of the night because the redevelopment of the park, while supported by both the university and the city of Berkeley, has long been fiercely opposed by park developers. They consider the space just south of campus, which has long housed a community of homeless people and the site of free meals for decades, as sacred community ground.
Indeed, shortly after 2 a.m. as the construction machinery was settling in, the “Defend People’s Park” Twitter account posted a Urgent call activists to travel to the region. “WE NEED SUPPORT,” the tweet read. “PLEASE COME.”
Activists also summoned supporters of the park to a Rallye for the park from 5 p.m.
The situation was generally calm Wednesday morning, but earlier UC Berkeley police arrested three people for allegedly interfering with construction work, university spokesman Dan Mogulof said.
Harvey Smith, chairman of the People’s Park Historic District Advisory Group, said his group plans to ask a court for a stay of demolition as soon as possible.
UC Berkeley and the City of Berkeley proposed to redevelop the park in 2018, calling it the nation’s first for building long-term supportive housing for the homeless on university land. The university would also build 1,100 much-needed student housing units.
“The project will preserve more than 60% of the site as revitalized green space,” the university said in a statement, and will include a memorial to the park’s historical significance.
Four groups have filed lawsuits against the university’s plan, including two organizations – the People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group and Make UC a Good Neighbor. They argued, among other things, that the university had other options for developing housing and had not sufficiently explored them, as required by California’s Environmental Quality Act.
On Friday night, Alameda County Judge Frank Roesch issued an interim ruling that UC Berkeley could begin cleaning up the historic park and beginning work on the site. He formalized the decision on Tuesday evening, and within hours the university began working.
People’s Park originated in 1969, when the university announced a plan to develop the land, which is about four blocks south of the Berkeley campus, just east of Telegraph Avenue.
Furious at the proposed development, hundreds of people dragged grass, trees and flowers onto the vacant lot and proclaimed it the people’s park. In response, UC erected a fence. The student body president-elect urged a crowd on campus to “take back the park” and more than 6,000 marched on the Telegraph to do just that. A violent clash ensued, leaving one dead and dozens injured.
While many Berkeley residents were considered a city institution, others saw the site as a blight and dangerous to nearby residents. The park was added to the National Register of Historic Places in May, but while the Berkeley City Council once opposed development, the current council supports the university’s plan.
In recent years, and especially during the pandemic, the park has become a camp for homeless people. Working with the city and nonprofit groups, the university provided transitional housing for park residents for a year and a half, as well as meals and social services.
A few homeless people could be seen camping in the park on Monday morning, but the numbers were much down on previous months.
Stuart Leavenworth of The Times at Berkeley contributed to this report.
Los Angeles Times