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Chancellor’s Letter: Developing People’s Park

June 21, 2018
by Carol T. Christ

Even though college students and faculty rarely wear the long, black medieval gowns symbolic of their status, the term “town and gown” still denotes the relationship between a college or university and its local community. The quality of that relationship can vary over time, as it has here, when interests converge and diverge. Yet, our campus and neighboring communities all benefit when we are able to collaborate for the greater good. And that is exactly what we are now doing to address the paired, pressing challenges of housing and homelessness, on our campus and in our city.

The University of California at Berkeley and the city of Berkeley grew up together, synergistically bound from the beginning. The University was founded first, in 1866, when the trustees of the College of California decided to move from its site in downtown Oakland, which they felt had become too crowded and rowdy. In 1868, the University was chartered; and a decade later, in 1878, the town of Berkeley was incorporated. Our histories have been intertwined ever since. The University gives its character to the city, and the city is the home of the University, providing essential services along with an amazing array of recreational and cultural resources.

It’s critical for the University and the city to work collaboratively; we share a place, and we share many common interests and challenges—housing, traffic, public safety, the schools. Many students, faculty, and staff live in the city. Like many faculty, I’ve lived in Berkeley for decades. It is my home and a place I care deeply about, as a neighbor and a member of the University’s leadership.

Both the University and the city are currently suffering a housing crisis. The University has grown, and our booming economy is pushing up rents and housing prices as demand exceeds supply. Gone are the days when students could easily find cheap Berkeley apartments. Increasing numbers of students cannot find—or afford—Berkeley rentals; too many of them live in apartments that are too expensive, too far from campus, and too crowded.

The student housing crisis is a problem we must solve. I have therefore determined that Berkeley will double its housing capacity in ten years, adding approximately 7,500 beds. This goal will require our building on all of our available land, as outlined in the draft report of our housing task force, including locations that may generate controversy.

Yes, I am referring to People’s Park. Acquired by the University for student housing in 1967, the site was never developed, due to lack of funding. In 1969, activists seeking a new off-campus location for demonstrations and expression unfettered by University regulations were determined to change what had become a derelict lot full of rubble into a “people’s park.” Whatever one thinks of the ideals that motivated the creation of the park, it is hard to see the park today as embodying those ideals. It is equally hard to determine who the people are that benefit from the park in its current form. The space currently attracts about 40–50 members of the homeless community on a daily basis. Yet, even though the park is cleared every night, these people, some of the most marginalized in our community, tend to be the victims and not the perpetrators of serious crimes too often committed on the park’s grounds.

I believe that the University has a responsibility for the park, a responsibility to collaborate with the city in support of its homeless population, and a responsibility to address our students’ need for housing. With that in mind, I have decided that People’s Park will be the first University-owned parcel to be developed and revitalized as we embark on our new long-term effort to double the number of beds provided by the University. We are taking this first step in the park, for it is the only site that allows the campus to address student housing needs, relieve demand-side pressure on housing, address crime and safety concerns for the benefit of students and the community, revitalize a neighborhood, and offer improved safety and services for members of Berkeley’s homeless population.

We intend to provide about a quarter of the site to a nonprofit developer for the construction of what is known as “supportive housing” for the homeless, with 75–125 apartments and social services located at the site. The facility will be operated by an experienced nonprofit organization and fully funded by external sources that support facilities like these across the country. Our Schools of Social Welfare and Public Health will have programs there to help provide services to residents and training for our graduate students. Then, using the same sort of public/private partnership that developed the new David Blackwell Hall, we will also build a student residential facility that will provide between 700 and 1,000 new beds. That will leave more than enough room for safe and welcoming open space, as well as a physical memorialization of the park’s history and legacy.

There are many details to be worked out, but none of this would be possible absent an extraordinarily positive and constructive town-gown relationship. We are working closely with and enjoying the full support of the mayor and other elected officials, as well as leaders of civic, religious, and business organizations. Together, we can and will greatly improve upon a status quo that poorly serves the people who will now benefit from the park’s renovation, rehabilitation, and repurposing: the homeless, our students, neighbors, local businesses, and visitors to our campus and city.

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