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HomeUSCourt ruling halts UC Berkeley from building student housing at People's Park

Court ruling halts UC Berkeley from building student housing at People’s Park


A state appeals court has issued a final ruling barring UC Berkeley from building much-needed student housing in People’s Park and opening up controversial new avenues to block development using the state’s environmental law.

UC Berkeley said it would appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court and reiterated its commitment to transform the park into a student dormitory space and supportive housing for low-income residents. The plan also includes the creation of a memorial display honoring the park’s iconic legacy of freedom of expression and civil rights and an open space of landscaping and trees.

In a decision issued Friday night, the court said the University of California regents need not abandon the People’s Park project, but return to court and “fix the mistakes” in the environmental assessment.

Two non-profit organizations had filed a lawsuit to stop the plan, saying it would deprive neighbors of green space, damage the park’s historic value, and increase noise and other disturbances in the area.

The legal controversy marks the final battle over the historic park, which became a national symbol of people’s power in 1969 when hundreds opposed college plans to develop it and claimed it as their own space. After UC cordoned off the public a few weeks later, thousands of protesters marched to the site and a bloody battle ensued as law enforcement pushed them back with tear gas and buckshot. But over the decades, the once-vibrant community gathering place deteriorated, marred by trash, rats, and crime.

UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ unveiled a plan in 2018 to convert the park into approximately 1,100 student beds, along with 125 beds for those on lower incomes and previously homeless. The Berkeley campus currently hosts only 23% of students, by far the lowest percentage in the 10-campus UC system. Berkeley is a clear example of the acute shortage of affordable campus housing, a crisis of homelessness and instability for students across the state.

But San Francisco’s 1st District Court of Appeal has now shut down the People’s Park project.

It ruled that the California Environmental Quality Act, known as CEQA, required developers to analyze and mitigate a project’s potential noise — in this case, the noise caused by students who may drink, yell, and have loud “unruly parties” , as some neighbors have complained. in documents filed with the court.

UC Berkeley “has not assessed the potential sound effects of loud student parties in residential neighborhoods near campus, a long-standing issue that the (environmental assessment) has erroneously dismissed as speculative,” the final ruling said.

The appeals court also ruled that the campus failed to substantiate its decision not to consider alternative sites for the People’s Park project. UC lawyers had argued that because the goal of the project was to repurpose the park itself, no alternative would suffice.

The court rejected the project’s opponents’ argument that UC should have analyzed how projected population growth could drive up house prices, displace residents, increase homelessness and degrade the environment.

UC Berkeley predicted population growth through 2036-37 in its long-term development plan. It estimated it would add about 13,900 students, faculty, and staff living in campus housing and about 8,200 more without.

“The theory may appeal to common sense, and it may make sense in a region with outrageous housing costs and rampant homelessness,” the court said. But it found that opponents failed to present evidence or expert advice that their feared results would happen.

UC Berkeley denounced the ruling.

“The campus is dismayed by this unprecedented and dangerous decision to dramatically expand CEQA, and the campus will ask the California Supreme Court to reverse it,” the school said in a statement.

“If this decision remains in effect, it will indefinitely delay all planned student housing at UC Berkeley, which is much needed by our students and fully supported by the mayor of Berkeley and other elected representatives,” the statement said. “This decision has the potential to prevent colleges and universities across the state of California from providing students with the housing they need and deserve.”

The campus also said the ruling “gives new privileges and power to the privileged and powerful by arming NIMBY neighbors with additional weapons to hinder the development of all new urban housing, hindering the construction of housing not only for students , but also for the non-housed and low-income families.”

Thomas Lippe, attorney for the two nonprofits that filed the lawsuit against UC, was not immediately available for comment. Make UC a Good Neighbor was founded in 2019 by local conservationists and the People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group was created to preserve the open space of the park and the historic character of the neighborhood, the organizers said.

Earlier this year, Lippe told The Times that criticism that the ruling will allow project opponents to “weaponize” CEQA to keep out those deemed undesirable was “exaggerated rhetoric, not grounded in reality.” He also said that state laws protect against housing discrimination and that state environmental laws provided a democratic way for people to know the environmental consequences of their government’s decisions about them before they are made.

Harvey Smith, president of the People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Grouppraised the court’s decision. He said its members are not “privileged and powerful” NIMBY neighbors, but advocates from across Berkeley and beyond who want to preserve open space in the densely populated city and preserve a vital historic and cultural site listed on the National Register of Historic Places. He blamed UC Berkeley for allowing the park to deteriorate, saying the campus should never have chosen the site for housing, knowing it would spark passionate opposition.

“We want UC to build student housing, just not in a totally inappropriate location,” Smith said in an email Saturday.

Lippe added that the ruling would not stop the People’s Park project, but would only delay it until UC had done the analysis it said should have been done in the first place.

The noise problem had become one of the biggest bottlenecks of the business. While the law requires an analysis of the potential noise generated by, say, a stadium project, the ruling marked the first time a court ruled that the behavior of a particular group of people who might enter a neighborhood through a housing project must be assessed , said the lawyers of the University of California.

UC and others, including student leaders, legislators and progressive law professors, had argued that such a ruling could be used by residents to prevent people deemed undesirable from moving into their neighborhoods.

“This would make CEQA a dangerous and powerful tool for any neighbor who dislikes the social habits and customs of potential new residents,” Nicole Gordon of the Sohagi Law Group, which represents UC, argued in a Jan. 3 letter to the court. “Unfortunately, it is easy to imagine this new ‘CEQA impact’ being applied to perpetuate prejudice and stereotypes.”

In its ruling, the court said it agreed lawmakers never intended the environmental law to be used as a “redlining weapon by neighbors who oppose projects based on prejudice rather than environmental concerns.”

But it took UC officials the task of failing to analyze how much noise hundreds of students living in People’s Park could make. The ruling said opponents of the project had submitted substantial evidence that loud parties and other disturbances had long been a problem and that UC Berkeley itself had worked with the city to try to mitigate it.

“The Regents must analyze the possible sound effects of noisy student parties. Their decision to skip the issue, based on the unfounded notion that the consequences are speculative, was a harmful abuse of discretion and requires them to now do the analysis they should have done from the start,” the court said.

As UC Berkeley appeals the ruling, a state legislature has introduced a bill to prevent the state’s environmental law from being used to block housing projects on the same grounds as the People’s Park project. AB 1700 would specify that population growth and noise effects of a housing development are not an “environmental effect within the meaning of the state’s environmental law.”

“CEQA is being abused to block student housing. I proposed #AB1700 to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Councilman Josh Hoover (R-Folsom) said in a tweet Friday night about the court’s decision.

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