As student numbers swell, UC Berkeley makes some, slow progress on housing

The Oxford Tract in central Berkeley, as seen from Walnut Street. Google Earth

UC Berkeley is making some incremental progress in its efforts to ease the student housing crisis, including its newest residence hall nearing completion on schedule; a report with a compromise suggestion combining housing and current uses on the Oxford Tract, on Oxford and Cedar in central Berkeley; a nascent plan to add housing to a parking structure; and master leases signed on upcoming housing developments.

The goal is to house 50% of the university’s undergraduates and 25% of its graduates. About 15,600 beds are needed, but Cal only has 8,700.

David Blackwell Hall, a 750-bed residence hall under construction on Dana Street between Bancroft Way and Durant Street, is on track to open in August 2018. The first two buildings in privately developed housing projects are expected to open this summer, adding hundreds of beds, and an innovative plan for housing at the parking garage and tennis courts at Channing Way and Ellsworth Street is in the works.

Also, a report on UC’s Oxford Tract suggests keeping its existing agriculture-related activities on site — albeit on a smaller footprint — and building housing on the site,  a compromise approach that aims to add to the amount of student housing available while mollifying the many users of the site who don’t want to lose it. (Councilwoman Kate Harrison is organizing a town hall panel discussion focused on the Oxford Tract on April 2, 6:30-8 p.m., Room 150, University Hall, 2199 Addison St.)

The need for new housing is clear. The university’s undergraduate population increased 15% between 2006 and spring 2016, to 26,094 undergraduates, according to statistics cited in the Master Plan Task Force report. The graduate student population increased 7% during that time, to almost 11,000 students.


The task force has recommended a campus goal of housing approximately 50% of the university’s undergraduate students and 25% of its graduate students. This means about 15,600 beds are needed, while the university has only about 8,700 beds.

Berkeley has the lowest percentage of beds for its student body of any campus in the UC system, with only 22% for undergraduates and 9% for graduate students. Across the system, the average is 38.1% for undergraduates and 19.6% for graduate students.

“We know that the housing market in the Bay Area is really awful,” UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ, who chaired the task force, said in January 2017. “Rents are expensive, housing is hard to find… and when you don’t have affordable housing close to where you’re studying, that can have a negative impact on your academic work. So this is a very high priority.”

David Blackwell Hall, on Dana between Bancroft and Durant, is set to open in August. Image: UC Berkeley

In these efforts, Blackwell Hall is the developments that is furthest along. It is named after David Blackwell, a UC statistics teacher who was the first African American to receive tenure at the university, according to UC Berkeley. It’s a block from campus, on the south side, across from the student union.

Blackwell is expected to feature eight stories of student accommodations and about 7,000 square feet of retail space on the ground floor, according to American Campus Communities, the developer.

Priority for admission will be for newly admitted freshmen and there is a meal plan, according to UC Berkeley. The nearest dining center is Café 3, a block away.

The rooms will have high-speed Internet connections and there will be an on-site fitness center.

The project will include 5,000 square feet of integrated space owned by Stiles Hall, a not-for-profit student service group associated with the University, which was located on the existing site.

Green features of the building include outdoor courtyards for student gatherings that incorporate sustainable landscaping to treat rainwater runoff, aimed at reducing water usage by 50% and heat island effect by 50%.

Other efforts to provide more student housing include three privately developed apartment buildings the university is leasing in their entirety and renting out to students.

The New Sequoia building at Telegraph Avenue and Haste Street provides around 113 beds to students and Garden Village on Dwight Way at Fulton around 210. UC Berkeley is in discussion with management at Panoramic Residences in San Francisco’s SOMA neighborhood about possibly renting to students this summer and if so, how many. Panoramic rented to around 60 students in summer 2017.

In 2017, UC Berkeley created a Master Plan Task Force to come up with some potential sites for housing, and the task force identified nine suggested sites.

According to the report, the two best candidates are the parking garage and tennis courts at Channing Way and Ellsworth Street and the Oxford Street tract currently used by the College of Natural Resources for plant science research.

With regard to the former — the Upper Hearst Parking Structure on the northeast edge of campus — the Goldman School of Public Policy is moving forward with a project that would incorporate faculty and graduate student housing, among other things.

There are three main components of the Goldman School project: academic, housing and parking. The project will  incorporate approximately 128 private apartments for faculty, staff, postdoc and/or graduate students. And a majority of the existing on site parking spaces will be maintained, under the current plans.

The group working on the project plans to bring it to the campus Design Review Committee and the City of Berkeley design review later this year. An environmental review process will also be part of the project approval process. There is no timeline for construction yet.

The project is designed by SCB Architects and will be developed by American Campus Communities (ACC) in collaboration with the university.

The university’s Oxford Tract site — approximately 37,000 square feet of open land with greenhouses and growth chambers used for research by Cal’s Plant and Microbial department, located in the block on Oxford Street between Virginia and Hearst — offers the opportunity for 1,000-3,000 student beds.

However, building on the tract, as well as many of the other proposed sites, including People’s Park, presents political and bureaucratic challenges. As just one example, in December, the Daily Californian reported that Defend the Oxford Tract, a coalition of students, faculty and other supporters held a press conference at Giannini Hall on campus opposing development of the tract.

The Oxford Tract Planning Committee came up with what appears to be a compromise. In its report, the committee recommended what it described as an “agglomeration of research, teaching, and housing programs at the Oxford Tract.”

This approach aims to balance the needs of the current users of the tract with housing for students and was developed after consultation with leaders including Rosemarie Rae, the vice chancellor for finance, and Stephen Sutton, interim vice chancellor for student affairs, with input from other stakeholders of the Oxford Tract.

The committee report suggests retaining the proximity to labs on campus and the Student Organic Garden while doing so within a smaller footprint. The report suggests two options.

  1. Replace the south greenhouse, insectary greenhouse and insectary building, and natural resources laboratory activities with new buildings of smaller total footprint, and reduce the size of the fields. This option would require the establishment of growing fields for research and/or instruction at one or more alternative sites (possibly the Gill Tract, Smyth-Fernwald, and/or the UC Botanical Garden) to make up for the lost acreage. It would provide roughly 1.75 acres for housing development.
  2. Relocate the fields to alternative sites and build all-new OTRF buildings where the fields presently are located.  This option would provide roughly 2.5 acres for a housing development on the land occupied by the OTRF today. The research field possibly could be relocated to the Gill Tract; the instructional field possibly could be relocated to the Smyth-Fernwald site or possibly could be relocated to the UC Botanical Garden, which has regular shuttle service and hence is more accessible to students.

In addition to the compromise proposal for the Oxford Tract, the university also said master lease agreements have recently been signed at privately developed housing projects now under construction. Details on this project were sketchy, though the university said the leases are projected to ultimately expand UC Berkeley’s housing inventory by 665 beds by 2023 and 254 beds for the 2018-19 academic year.