By Osvaldo Barba
BERKELEY— The University of California at Berkeley’s imminent plans to develop on People’s Park, a well-known and historically significant public space, have led to significant clashes between students, the administration that claims to represent them, and the unhoused population of Berkeley.
University representatives and developers have been in a dispute with advocates for the unhoused over the land of People’s Park for over 50 years. The university acquired the park on grounds of eminent domain. However, students and community members are largely responsible for the park’s status as a culturally relevant site and a symbol of free speech.
Arguments for development include alleged safety concerns as well as the need for student housing, while opponents believe the displacement of existing residents is deeply problematic, especially for an institution that prides itself on being a bastion of freedom.
The University has owned the land of People’s Park for decades without building housing on the grounds. Now, the administration is looking to develop in the immediate future.
This plan has drawn much criticism (including a series of protests), especially given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and resultant disproportionate impact on unhoused populations.
According to @peoplesparkberkeley on Instagram on Jan. 19, “fencing and solar-powered surveillance were set around sections of the park for the purpose of taking soil samples for building.”
On Feb. 22, 2021, U.C. Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ released an email containing the proposed building at People’s Park. According to the email, the development would benefit “1,000 students and…45-50 unhoused residents.”
While the Chancellor’s message may sound compelling, it requires students to place faith not only in the good intentions of the university, but also in its ability to carry out the plans.
U.C. Berkeley Capital Strategies, a development firm that provides architects, planners, and engineers to the university, claimed the park would be used for “student and supportive housing” and that “new student housing would help mitigate U.C. Berkeley’s severe student housing shortage, while the supportive housing will provide safe and supervised living that is affordable and permanent.”
However, a multitude of students and activists for People’s Park have been rightfully angered by such emails and plans.
On Feb. 23, @peoplesparkberkeley demanded accountability from the university, urging the permanent “stoppage of any development on People’s Park.”
The Instagram page also uploaded short-term demands, including but not limited to: ending Capital Strategies’ development, defunding and disarming the University of California Police Department, and respecting the park users’ autonomy.
According to The Suitcase Clinic, a student organization that offers free social services to underserved populations, U.C. Berkeley is demonstrating a “lack of transparency” and aiming for “the destruction of green space…[erasing] decades of rich cultural, communal, and social history.”
Advocate Luke Wonzen, a U.C. Berkeley freshman, stated that People’s Park “is a habitat for revolutionary ideals and is a living testament to the counterculture movements of the 60s and 70s.”
Austine Peng, the Executive Director of The Suitcase Clinic, stated that the university is purposefully not building on alternative sites because “demolishing current student housing to make more is not convenient for them.” Yet another student, Sahand Hassanipour, highlighted the necessity for representation for the existing residents of People’s Park.
Student activist Amanda Hill confirmed that they are the “sole student representative on the People’s Park academic planning committee”—a lack of representation which is deeply concerning, given that students and park residents will be most significantly affected by development.
These student activists, among numerous others, rightfully criticized the position of U.C. Berkeley in regard to their stance on freedoms of speech.
“U.C. Berkeley has co-opted revolutionary language and mannerisms, such as posturing toward social justice, but, as should be expected, does very little to back up their posturing” said Wonzen,
Juxtaposing the university’s actions with their words, Wonzen points to the Berkeley Division of Student Affairs’ statement on Free Speech, which claims to “guarantee constitutionally protected rights and free expression, speech, assembly, and worship.”
A number of advocates—including students, the Park’s population, and other residents of the city of Berkeley—perceive building on the park as a forceful, violent, and disgraceful gentrification. The University of California, Berkeley, views it as a way to help students and community in need.
As demonstrated by recent protests and social media campaigns, opponents to the development will continue to voice their opinions and advocate for the autonomy of the park.
Students, community members, and witnesses alike wait with uncertainty for answers—will U.C. Berkeley listen to the students and the unhoused population? Or will it continue its plans to develop on People’s Park?
Disclaimer–this piece is an opinion article and thus does not reflect the official opinions of the University of California, Berkeley.
Osvaldo Barba is a writer for The Vanguard at Berkeley’s social justice desk. He is a freshman studying Political Science at Cal. He is from Los Angeles, CA.
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