Public Comment

Updated: People’s Park: Chancellor’s Mistakes Redux

Christopher Adams
Sunday May 03, 2020 - 03:48:00 PM

Here we are locked down in our houses, unable live normally and certainly unable to conduct public business as usual, and the Chancellor at UC Berkeley insists on forward march with her plans to build on People’s Park, without even the usual public hearings that would give Berkeley citizens a chance to comment and discuss these plans. And so the story of the University ignoring its host community continues.

In 1873 the University of California moved from its one-block site in downtown Oakland to a farm at the mouth of Strawberry Canyon, in what is now Berkeley. Legend has it that the University then sold a portion of the land south of the creek for building lots in order to buy Strawberry Canyon and its springs to provide water for the new campus. Whether that legend is true or not, by the 1950s the campus was eyeing much of the area south the campus for expansion. Its first move was to buy the commercial blocks on Telegraph Avenue just south of Sather Gate (actually the “gate” is a bridge over the creek).

That move precipitated the University’s first big fight over land use in l964. The students had used the public sidewalks leading up to Sather Gate to set up tables for every sort of political and social cause. Once the land became part of the campus, the chancellor, Edward Strong, decreed that the tables would have to go. The students rebelled, and the Free Speech Movement was born.

I came to Berkeley four years later as a graduate student in the College of Environmental Design. A few years after that I joined the UC Office of the President, where I worked for 30 years. I read studies about the University’s plans to clear the land south of the campus for housing, and I listened to the University’s real estate officer give me his backstory on the acquisition of the land where People’s Park sits. Even later I worked closely with and got to know Roger Heyns, who had been the chancellor during the creation of People’s Park and resulting protests.

The intellectual and political underpinnings for the south campus clearance and redevelopment were articulated in a University report called, as I recall, “Students at Berkeley.” It was a classic example of 1950’s slum clearance or “urban renewal,” justifying wholesale destruction of old housing and its replacement with high-rise towers. Photos of the existing south campus brown shingles, taken with the maximum effort to show deterioration and decay, were juxtaposed with sketches of new dorms in the brutalist style of the French architect Le Corbusier.

Armed with this kind of intellectual underpinning the University moved to acquire entire blocks of south campus land. Then came a revolt by students to living in typical dorms—tiny rooms, one bathroom per floor, etc. (This revolt was not limited to UC; on a visit to the University of Maryland, I once toured a dorm complex that was being completely reconfigured into clusters of co-ed student apartments.) UC’s dorm building slowed down, but the properties were already acquired. UC was not good at maintaining rental properties in old brown shingles. As my real estate officer colleague told me, they were expensive to repair, and the tenants were smoking marijuana. “We had no choice but to tear them down.” The land remained vacant.

In 1969 the memories and passions of the Free Speech Movement were still strong and simmering. Activists began planting trees at what became People’s Park. Roger Heyns, forgetting or ignoring the experience of his predecessor Edward Strong five years earlier, ordered a 10-foot fence to be built around it. The fence was an irresistible attraction for Dan Siegel, the student body president, who perhaps dreamed of becoming another Mario Savio, and who urged students to tear it down. Alameda County deputies were called in, and one of them killed a protestor. Governor Reagan sent in National Guard troops and put the city under curfew. Protests and the police reaction embroiled the campus and the town. While studying in my apartment north of Hearst I was left choking in teargas fumes which were released by helicopters flying overhead.

I detail all this to emphasize that these memories are still with us. I am now on the Berkeley Landmarks Preservation Commission. Even though it was not an agenda item, People’s Park protestors appeared at a meeting of the Commission last year. All of them were loud and vigorous, and all had very gray hair. I also want to emphasize that Chancellor Heyns over-reacted. This was not the only time. When the Wheeler Hall auditorium burned in the same year, which I remember well because I had a class in Wheeler, he immediately posted a letter blaming the fire on arson. Later it was determined to have been caused by an electrical malfunction. In my much later encounter with Heyns, which involved investigation of the malfeasance of the Santa Barbara chancellor, he acted with wisdom and patience that were sadly lacking in 1969.

We live in a very different world now. The errors of urban renewal have been recognized. The California Environmental Quality Act requires public comment and technical review before projects can be approved. Sometimes, as I can personally attest from my experience planning the new campus at UC Merced, these processes can be frustrating and block things that should not be blocked. But we have these processes because of errors made in the past. Without reminding ourselves of these errors and learning from them we risk making new mistakes. That is precisely what the current chancellor is doing in forging ahead in this time of the coronavirus pandemic to get University projects approved.  

Let me explain just one small part of the process that will not go on as it should. Because of the shelter-in-place order the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s meetings have been suspended; the Commission cannot meet in May and will only meet in June subject to pending approval of Berkeley’s Director of Emergency Services. The Commission has no jurisdiction over the University, but it does have some say over 16 designated landmarks which are in the vicinity of the People’s Park site. The First Church of Christ Scientist is a National Historic Landmark, one of only 2,500 buildings so designated in the entire United States. There is no way that the Commission or the Berkeley citizens whom it serves can learn about the University’s plans or discuss their impact on the adjacent landmarks under the current shelter-in-place rules. Every sort of University activity is stopped or slowed down by the current rules, so why must it charge forward with the LRDP and housing project EIR? In my 30 years working for the University in ordinary times I do not recall any project that was ever seriously damaged by a delay caused by compliance with CEQA. And these are not ordinary times.  

In a small way the University’s intransigence is analogous to the recent decision by the US Supreme Court to not allow a delay in Wisconsin state elections. Despite a situation of crisis caused by the pandemic the court ruled that the elections had to go ahead on schedule, many presume because the court majority thought it would be to the advantage of one political party. Here the University has decided it must go forward in the face of the same crisis, one presumes because the University thinks doing so will suppress opposition to its plans. This reminds me too much of Roger Heyns. It is hubris and impatience combined. It will not ultimately benefit the University. It may likely harm it. And it undoubtedly will increase the mistrust and animosity of Berkeley citizens.  

Make no mistake. I am not happy with the current People’s Park. I served on a sub-committee of the Landmarks Preservation Commission to consider how to build a fence around the First Church of Christ Scientist in order to reduce vandalism from People’s Park occupants and to prevent its use as a night-time toilet because the University won’t maintain one on the Park. As it exists the Park is a blight. Under the right conditions I would support the University’s use of the site for housing or other purposes.  

That does not mean supporting the tower currently proposed, which from an urban design standpoint will overpower all the historic landmarks around it. What is needed a design that respects the low-rise character of the adjacent historic landmarks and recalls the historic memory of the low-rise neighborhood which was destroyed. Codes have changed since I was involved in plans for student housing at UC Merced, but I think it is safe to say that mid-rise, that is up to six stories, would be less expensive and provide an acceptable density. The proposed building on People’s Park is ten stories.  

While the Chancellor proposes a monument or plaques recording the history of People’s Park, that is not enough. The University must in a real way acknowledge the entire sorry history of its land acquisition, its destruction of housing, the death of protesters, and the military occupation of the city. What gets built cannot simply memorialize that history, it must attempt to make up for it by building something that is still appropriate to its surroundings. 

Finally, it does not mean the University can ignore public process and the interests and reactions of the citizens of its host community.