Public Comment

UC's People's Park megalith and expansion plan: A brighter alternative

Michael Katz
Friday May 08, 2020 - 12:47:00 PM

Friday May 15 (at 5 pm) is our deadline to submit written public comments to regarding UC Berkeley's proposed expansion projects. These proposals include 16- and 11-story towers on what's now People's Park, and a 2036-37 Long Range Development Plan (LRDP) that would increase the campus' overall population by 44% over the previous 2020 LRDP's target.

These proposals were obviously developed before the pandemic. If you find them remarkable in today's horizons of sustained economic distress and physical distancing, now's the time to let UC Berkeley know.

I submitted a version of the comments below. I also submitted a version to UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ, preceded by as polite a preface as I could dream up. I was surprised to get a cordial, personal reply a few hours later.

The world really has changed. I'm beginning to hope that through respectful dialogue, we might end up with a more-contained campus that's more realistic and sustainable, both for the university and for this city's residents. Here's my little contribution – please submit yours. 

A brighter vision for Cal's next 20 years

Bottom Line Up Front: Given current and likely future circumstances, the EIR for the 2037 LRDP should study the overall benefits of a planning alternative that shrinks the campus' local population and physical footprint. Specifically, I suggest studying a rollback to the targets outlined in UCB's 1990–2005 LRDP: 30,000 students and 14,711 faculty/staff, for a total local population of 44,711 people, with a corresponding reduction in physical space occupied outside the central campus. 

Benefits from slightly smaller enrollment (beyond the scope of this EIR) might include: higher quality of instruction, based on higher faculty/student ratios; higher quality of student life, based on a less impersonal environment; more-competitive faculty recruitment, based on more-selective student admissions; and greater resilience against future financial and natural disasters, based on lower campus fixed costs and overhead. 

My lifetime Cal Alumni Association membership reflects my enduring gratitude for the excellent and affordable graduate education I received at Cal. 

I wish I could place corresponding pride and confidence in this great learning institution's ability to learn – from evidence, and from its own past errors. 

In a changed world of global pandemics and physical distancing, Cal's proposed 16- and 11-story towers on People's Park are simply insane. New York City's catastrophic rates of C-19 infection and deaths demonstrate that high-density buildings, with elevator-only access, spread contagious diseases with hideous speed. 

Just one block north of People's Park, Cal's recently built Anna Head West dorms provide 424 units in attractive, contextual, low-rise buildings accessible by multiple stairways. For People's Park, Cal's architects offered a similar low-rise layout called 2.8 Spoke. 

But rather than replicate success, Cal is arrogantly insisting on a monstrosity that will be impossible to bond (finance) and unsafe to occupy. This is as super-stupid as the supersized athletic facility that Cal insisted on building directly above the Hayward Fault. That deficit-plagued white elephant will drain the campus' athletics and (most likely) academic budget for at least a century. 

The People's Park proposal would loom nearly twice as high as anything Cal has ever previously imposed on Southside. This proposal, alone, presents the best case ever (among many previous examples) for voters to simply end UC's archaic constitutional exemption from municipal zoning controls. In any construction outside campus' historic 1873 boundaries, UC is imposing significant impacts on what is now one of California's densest cities. In this 21st-century reality, UC's actions should be 100% subject to adjudication by local voters, and by their elected and appointed officials. 

At its Upper Hearst Project, and on the Oxford Tract, Cal threatens more out-of-scale megastructures that would degrade livability for its own students, faculty, staff, and broader community. (The Oxford Tract's rare patch of open land has provided breathing room for generations of students living on both sides of its block – making it a unique and irreplaceable resource.) 

The demolitions of Tolman Hall and 2223 Fulton Street offer ample footprints for high-capacity, truly on-campus student housing. Yet Cal arbitrarily refuses to build any housing on its main campus, clinging to an accidental precedent that has no clear rationale. If dorms are good enough for Harvard Yard, why not for Cal? 

Cal's refusal to locate even a single dorm bed on its main campus lags behind perhaps every other university and college on Earth. Comparably built-out campuses like UCLA (my other alma mater) are eagerly replacing antiquated central academic and lab buildings with needed student housing. 

Beyond the Tolman Hall and 2223 Fulton St. brownfields, what exactly does Cal intend to do with the large, seismically doomed, original University Art Museum site between Bancroft Way and Durant Ave.? Or with the nearby low-rise Hearst Field Annex temp buildings, which were erected as temporary homes for Pacific Film Archive and for College of Environmental Design classrooms? If Cal wants to put dense student housing somewhere, probably the least disruptive opportunity site is right here, directly south of looming Barrows Hall. 

Let me shift the remainder of my comments to a broader, underlying issue: This campus' fundamental problem is addiction to growth – and enslavement to a growth model from a bygone century. 

Cal's current population of 39,708 already exceeds its 2020 LRDP commitment by 19% (6,258 people), leading to lawsuits for uncompensated impacts on the City. For 2037, Cal proposes to supersize its 2020 target by an astounding 44%. 

The question for Cal leadership is not how to grow by nearly half again, by why? Does anyone seriously deny that the quality of instruction (at all levels) and administration will significantly decline at this still more impersonal scale? How many tenured Cal faculty members send their own children to Cal – versus smaller liberal-arts colleges, where students have a chance to actually interact with their professors? 

Clark Kerr, UC's president during a past rapid expansion, is notorious today for comparing the university to a corporation. Indeed, for-profit corporations must continually grow, to reward their shareholders with higher revenues and valuations. 

But UC is a nonprofit, whose shareholders are California taxpayers. And this dot-edu will soon face a massive funding deficit. If Cal's current leaders want to retain the public's loyalty – and to be remembered as visionaries, rather than reviled as punch lines like Clark Kerr – they must adapt to the new world of distributed learning and research collaborations. 

Cal should be aiming to stabilize and reduce – not expand – its local population, its physical footprint outside its central campus, and its expensive empire of real-estate follies. 

Cal has successfully moved all instruction online this spring. Its brightest future lies in expanding on this trend of virtual knowledge-sharing. In this LRDP's planning horizon of 2020–2037, there is simply no reason why all UC Berkeley–affiliated (or –branded) research and instruction must occur in jammed, expensive Berkeley. 

Harvard and other major universities earn renown for scholarship conducted worldwide, by developing funding to bestow research fellowships on prominent and emerging scholars in tenured and tenure-track positions at other institutions. Carnegie Mellon has transplanted its prominence in digital engineering to a Silicon Valley campus at Moffett Field, where it offers five master's programs. I'm aware of no Cal expansions like these, beyond a Berkeley-Columbia Executive MBA Program that enrolled students alternately on both campuses, and was canceled in 2013. 

Cal helped build the foundations of today's Internet – through important innovations like Berkeley Unix, and through distinguished alumni like Sun Microsystems' Bill Joy. It's time for this campus to get a real return on its research investment. 

It's time for Cal to finally, virtually fulfill its promise to provide extension benefits to residents and taxpayers up and down the state. And to share its research and teaching best practices, so that undergraduate degrees from every UC campus – including newer campuses with greenfields to expand into – will be as prestigious as Cal degrees. 

If a smaller, more cohesive Cal sounds like a counterintuitive goal, this campus has interesting recent precedents for planning for – and thriving with – negative growth: 

  • Above, I recommended studying a re-adoption of the 1990–2005 LRDP's target enrollment of 30,000 students. Surprisingly, when that document was was prepared in fall 1988, the actual enrollment was 31,364 students. So Cal's own recent planning practice offers a precedent of planning for a moderate decrease in enrollment. (As newer UC campuses expand enrollment – while enhancing their research and teaching capabilities and reputations – the UC system's flagship campus can afford to be more selective.) 

  • Cal's 2005–2020 LRDP set a target faculty/staff population of 15,810 people in 2020. Yet the actual 2018/19 faculty/staff headcount was only 15,421 people. Without wading into the controversy of adjunct versus tenure-track academic staffing, this is an immediate precedent for maintaining Cal's tradition of academic excellence while hiring substantially below earlier targets – even after years of expansion in California's economy. 

In conclusion: Cal's most sustainable future lies in physical contraction and virtual expansion. Please acknowledge this new reality, and turn it into a bright reality that benefits UC Berkeley's population as well as the state's. Fiat Lux 'n' stuff.