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UC Berkeley gets greenlight on People's Park student housing plans

UC Berkeley cleared to build student housing at People’s Park
UC Berkeley cleared to build student housing at People’s Park 03:35

It's been a symbol of the free speech movement in Berkeley for decades, but following a state supreme court decision, UC Berkeley has the greenlight to transform People's Park into a student housing development.

Like many UC Berkeley students, Cassidy Saunar walks quite the distance to attend summer classes.

"(It's) a 30 to 35-minute walk from one of my classes that I was just coming from," said Saunar.

Saunar will be a senior in August. She and other students said housing shortage is a major issue for student and it means paying for higher rents and living farther away from campus.

"It's pretty difficult to find housing here and you're going to have to expect it to be pretty expensive," said Saunar. 

"The academic rigor here is just insane. So much pressure on so many people that the last thing I think students should be worried about is having to know if they're going to be able to afford rent or having a stable place to live," said student Delilah Devin, who's also entering her fourth year at Cal. 

UC Berkeley has said it is capable of housing only about 20% of the student body, one of the lowest housing capacities in the entire UC system.

"I definitely think that a lot of people would benefit from having closer housing to campus," Saunar said.  

The plan is to build housing for 1,100 undergraduates, permanent supportive housing for more than 100 homeless people, and preserve about 60 percent of the site as public park space.

"We see this as a win-win, we're going to house the students, we're going to house the homeless," said Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín. 

"The shortage of student housing impacts everyone in our city because it constrains our housing market. It makes it more difficult for people to be able to live in Berkeley, it drives up rents," he continued. 

Opponents of the project said they're not against student housing, but rather that they sued the UC Regents because there are better potential housing sites than People's Park. 

The park has a long history of activism and political protest, dating back to the campus free speech movement of the 1960s. In 2022, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

"A high rise in the middle of this park destroys that open space and of course, it destroys the historic nature of the park," said Harvey Smith with People's Park Historic District Advocacy Group. The group had argued the university failed to analyze noise impacts from future residents. But state lawmakers recently passed a bill that voided that argument.

"Our representative basically concocted a sweetheart, backroom deal with UC," Smith said of the decision. Although the decision has changed things dramatically, those fighting for the park's preservation haven't given up just yet. 

"Obviously, our options are becoming increasingly limited. But it's not over until it's over," said Smith.

A construction timeline has not been announced. The university plans to spend over $400 million on project in total, and said costs have gone up significantly from their initial estimates due to a number of lawsuits and higher construction prices.

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