Appeals court halts further work at Berkeley’s People’s Park

In another setback for UC Berkeley’s plans to convert historic People’s Park into housing for students and the homeless, a state appeals court has issued an injunction temporarily halting construction.

The court’s decision means the university is unlikely to resume work on the site until at least October, assuming it wins the lawsuit.

University construction crews — aided by scores of police officers — had moved into the park early Wednesday and began cutting down trees to begin work on the controversial project, only to pull out hours later in the face of fierce opposition from protesters.

Park supporters regard the UC lot—long a symbol of the 1960s counterculture—as a precious open space and sacred community ground. Many stormed over a newly erected fence, clashed with dozens of law enforcement officers and attempted to dismantle construction equipment. Seven were arrested on various charges and one officer was injured, UC Berkeley said Thursday.

Some park advocates, including Make UC a Good Neighbor and the People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group, also rushed to court demanding a stay of demolition, which was granted late Thursday.

The order, issued by California’s 1st Circuit Court of Appeals, bans UC Berkeley from all construction, demolition, tree felling and landscape alterations in the park until a hearing on opponents’ environmental challenges can be heard. The university is allowed to keep the park closed – although the security fence it erected this week has to be rebuilt because it was almost entirely taken down by protesters.

Protesters stand on sections of fallen metal fences.

Protesters stand on sections of the fence that was dismantled around People’s Park on Wednesday.

(Stuart Leavenworth / Los Angeles Times)

Among other things, the groups argued that in addition to destroying a park that is also a National Historic Site, the university had other options for housing development and had not adequately explored them, as required by the California Environmental Quality Act. A lower court ruled against those groups earlier this week, setting the stage for Berkeley’s late-night rush to build.

“UC used the legal system to destroy as much of the park as possible,” People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group President Harvey Smith said in a statement. “We hope the court will overturn the lower court’s decision and result in the restoration of the park. Why would the university keep a parking lot and destroy a park? In times of extreme climate change, that is irresponsible.”

But university officials have claimed they need all the housing they can find amid an acute housing shortage and said they are sticking to their plans. “We have confidence in the strength of our legal position and will evaluate all feasible options to make up for lost time and open the student residence as planned in autumn 2024,” it said in a statement.

UC Berkeley and the City of Berkeley proposed to redesign the park in 2018, calling it a national first plan to build long-term supportive housing for the homeless on college campuses. The university would also build 1,100 units of much-needed student housing. The university has committed to preserving more than 60% of the 6 acres as a “revived green space” and adding a monument to the park’s historical significance.

People’s Park was born in 1969 when the university announced a plan to develop the property, which is about four blocks south of the Berkeley campus just east of Telegraph Avenue.

Outraged by the planned development, hundreds of people dragged lawns, trees and flowers onto the empty property and declared it a public 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 people marched down the Telegraph to do just that. A violent clash ensued, leaving one man dead and many injured.

Though hailed as a civic institution by many Berkeley residents, others see it as a nuisance and unsafe for nearby residents. That Park has been added the National Register of Historic Places in May. Although the Berkeley City Council once opposed the development, the current council supports the university’s plan.

In preparation for construction, the university has been working with the city and nonprofit groups Temporary housing offered for residents of the park for up to a year and a half, as well as meals and social services.

For the record:

6:14 p.m. Aug 5, 2022An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that 70 People’s Park residents had taken refuge at Berkeley’s Rodeway Inn. While 70 residents have received housing, not all have been relocated to the Rodeway Inn, according to Berkeley City Council member Rigel Robinson.

Berkeley City Council member Rigel Robinson, a UC Berkeley graduate who now represents the city’s campus and Southside, including People’s Park, said housing has been made available to more than 70 residents in recent months and many have already received permanent supportive housing.

“This is working,” Robinson said in a statement. “People’s Park was a powerful symbol of resistance to government repression, but it has since become a symbol of something else entirely: our failure as a region to respond to the housing crisis.”

“The time has come to turn the page and face these challenges head-on,” he said. “By immediately accommodating the homeless community in the park and building the student housing and permanent supportive housing that our city so desperately needs, we are doing just that.”

Stuart Leavenworth of the Times contributed to this report from Berkeley. Appeals court halts further work at Berkeley’s People’s Park

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