Opinion: UC Berkeley should not build housing at People’s Park

Cal has treated the park with benign neglect, creating the conditions that it hopes will lead to public support of development. It should invest in improving the park instead.

I am troubled by the university’s plans to building on People’s Park and by the strong embrace of this idea by some members of our city’s leadership.

Before explaining why I should admit to two biases. I am writing a book about People’s Park in 1969 that will be published by Heyday Press in 2019. I have read a lot about People’s Park and talked to many people about People’s Park. I believe in history and facts, a belief that might be a bias to some. Secondly, I love our dear old Berkeley, much as Herb Caen loved San Francisco. Berkeley has its own distinct character that is worth preserving. I know – loving Berkeley is a bias.

As for People’s Park, I think that the first mistake that people make in debating its future is to assume that we have to choose between (1) a park infested with used hypodermic needles, blood-borne pathogens, and drug-crazed criminals on the one hand, and (2) shiny new housing for bright Cal students on the other.

Most of the descriptions of People’s Park as a reincarnation of Needle Park that Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne wrote about in 1971 are uttered by people who have never been to People’s Park. I walk it several times a week. I have yet to feel unsafe or threatened — it is not as bad as we are told. It is a little shabby. This I blame on the University, not the park’s population. I’ve seen this play before. Between 1956 and 1967, the University created the conditions that led homeowners of the Haste-Bowditch-Dwight block to defer maintenance, giving the university justification for razing the block.

Today, the university has treated the park with benign neglect, creating the conditions that they hope will lead to public support of development of the park. This is not a binary question and there is a third option — make the university fund and operate the park as the gem it could be with increased services for the homeless. The university should spend more money to make it a beautiful park that students and others would like to visit.  I don’t think that there is a magic bullet for moving the homeless from anywhere to anywhere.  I don’t think that building would get rid of them either.  It’s a really deep and complex problem.

The park is important open green space in an increasingly dense south campus. William Wurster was a fierce advocate of a “greenbelt of natural beauty” with no buildings around the campus. Hearst, Bancroft, and Telegraph (and Shattuck and University and San Pablo) are seeing big new buildings. As we debate the future of People’s Park, I urge that we keep in mind its unique value as a greenbelt, not just as hallowed ground historical ground.

I also question the underlying assumption of the push for housing, the assumption that the university’s rapid increase in enrollment is good, necessary, and a problem that the city of Berkeley has to solve. Growth is a component of capitalism, I know, but growth that is not sustainable is good for absolutely nothing. Thousands of new Berkeley residents create a demand for more water, sewer services, parking, police, and fire which we cannot meet.

The suggestion that 700 students will be living side-by-side with 100 homeless people is a classic bait-and-switch short con. I think that we can all agree that the idea of a dormitory sited next to 100 units for the homeless is dead on arrival. The proposal for 100 units for the homeless is a well-intentioned salve for those who care about the homeless, but I would be shocked if the idea were alive very far into the process. I think I know a fast swindle when I see one.

Lastly, a word about People’s Park in 1969. James Rector was shot and died. Alan Blanchard was blinded by birdshot. Donovan Rundle was gut-shot from 20 yards and sentenced to a lifetime of reconstructive surgeries and pain. They did not shed their blood because they supported the idea of a community-designed, community-managed park. They were all bystanders, not activists or participants. They shed their blood because of a vicious over-reaction by Governor Reagan and Sheriff Frank Madigan. It was the right wing’s all-out assault on Berkeley and our values that led to the bloodshed. You don’t have to agree with the underlying cause of the park to be saddened and angry by what happened to Rector, Blanchard, Rundle, and others.

In the past, development was an issue of the conservative right. Berkeley’s left has an honorable tradition of skepticism about developers, landlords, and unsustainable development. That has changed in recent years, with otherwise progressive politicians cozying up to developers and supporting the wholesale densifying, de-beautifying, and gentrifying of Berkeley. Whichever direction Ronald Reagan headed when he died in 2004, he is looking at our progressive politicians advocating exactly what he was trying to do to Berkeley against the wishes of the south campus area. I can hear him today, cutting loose with his hearty, animated laugh — “Wait 49 years and the progressives will see that the Gipper was right all along!”

Not so fast Mr. President. There is still a lot of talking to do on this one.

Tom Dalzell is the creator of Quirky Berkeley website and a regular Berkeleyside contributor. He is also the author of a forthcoming book about People's Park in 1969 that will be published by Heyday Books in 2019.