Berkeley may be a town-gown city, but that doesn’t mean the two always see eye to eye. In the past, the city and UC Berkeley have clashed over issues such as building projects and parking. However both have new leadership, and these days there’s a sense of shared purpose, at least around one issue: Mayor Jesse Arreguín and UC Berkeley Chancellor Designate Carol Christ have both put the housing crisis at the top of their respective agendas.
Before he was even in office, the new mayor made clear housing and homelessness were top policy priorities. And Christ, in talks given in the months before she takes up her post on July 1, has stressed the need to address the dire lack of housing for the university’s students.
Both parties have been working on identifying sites for new housing. For the city, that means approving market-rate and affordable housing. For the university, the focus is student accommodation, be it newly built dorms in partnership with private property owners to lease rooms. One place where the city’s and university’s visions converge is People’s Park. The result may be the first example in the country of a campus partnering with a city to build supportive housing to serve the homeless.
A conceptual plan has been drawn up by UC Berkeley that would see the construction of both student housing and separate supportive housing in the storied park. The proposal — outlined in a January report produced by a task force chaired by Chancellor Designate Christ at the behest of outgoing Cal Chancellor Nicholas Dirks — also calls for the preservation of open park space, and “a memorial to the People’s Park history.” Traditional style residence halls would provide 200-350 beds for undergraduates, and probably include food service; while the “long-term indigent” housing would, according to Sam Davis, professor emeritus of architecture at UC Berkeley, who is tasked with overseeing the project, accommodate about 50-60 people.
“You want a minimum of 50 and a maximum of 60,” said Davis, who, as an architect, has built many supportive and affordable housing projects. “You need the critical mass to support the services but not too large so it’s institutional — it should be a home.” Davis said he believes such a joint university and city project would be a first in the country.
“I don’t think any other campus has done this,” he said. Other cities have homeless populations, of course, “but nobody else has People’s Park.”
The report identifies nine possible sites for building student housing in Berkeley. The creation of housing for people experiencing homelessness is only being talked about for People’s Park.
Mayor Arreguín is enthusiastic about the plans for the park and the conversations about them that have already taken place between the city and the university, although he stresses they are only “conceptual” at this point.
“There is a lot of interest in re-envisioning the park so that it serves a variety of needs,” he said last week. “Right now, he said, “the park is largely a homeless encampment, although others use it for open space and recreation. I have always thought providing shelter though homeless housing would be a fantastic thing to serve the population there.”
It is significant that People’s Park is on a list at all. For many years, the idea of effecting change at the park, created during the radical political activism of the late 1960s, was anathema. For those who lived through the tumultuous years that led to the park’s formation, the consensus has been to leave well alone.
Arreguin suggested that a changing of the guard at the top of city government has played a part in moving forward on a subject that has been seen as too sensitive to tackle, not least because of a core group of vocal park defenders.
“[Former Berkeley Mayor] Tom Bates grew up when People’s Park was being established,” he said. “I have a different conception about it. Students don’t feel safe walking in and around the park — I didn’t when I was a student at Cal. We need to re-envision the space — make it both an open and functional space. Now is the time to start the conversation.”
The timeline for development
The timeline for developing People’s Park is uncertain. Many other sites on the university’s list of potential locations for student housing present more compelling benefits. Since the nine sites where housing could be built were identified, a tenth has been added, at the university-owned property where Mike’s Bikes is located on University Avenue, according to Ruben Lizardo, director of local government and community relations in the office of the chancellor. Previously, the university planned to build a 10-story hotel there.
With the potential for just 200-300 student beds, People’s Park represents only a “drop in bucket” in terms of the needs the university must address, Lizardo said this week. UC Berkeley houses only about 22% of its undergraduates and 9% of its graduate students — the lowest percentage of beds for its student body of any campus in the UC system.
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, and is therefore a much higher priority than People’s Park, said Lizardo.
“People’s Park is not even a second or third priority,” he said, adding that he doesn’t see anything happening there in terms of new student housing for 5 to 6 years.
“But we have this park and we want to do better and be a partner with the city,” he said.
In his time spent talking to local constituents south of campus, Lizardo said he hears a clear call for change.
“Students don’t use the park,” he said. “Not everyone is comfortable being there. People with real mental health issues can be aggressive. Mostly I see homeless people in conflict with each other,” he said.
The First Church of Christ, Scientist, on Dwight Way, whose property borders the park, is concerned about crime in the park and the people who use the park putting belongings on church property, Lizardo said. “These are very compassionate people who want to know how they can help, but they have been asking us how we can avoid their property being a dumping ground,” he said.
Lizardo is more than aware that any changes proposed for, or made to, the park prompt an immediate response. There was talk of protests when the university cut down around 29 trees there in 2015, citing safety concerns. “The way we run the park — it’s a nuisance to them,” he said, referring to the people who spend time there. “They think if we are taking down trees we will bulldoze the park. But our biggest priority is the homeless,” he said.
Given how early it is in the planning process, it’s unclear whether the two separate housing projects would need to, or could, happen in unison. They each have different financing requirements. Student housing would likely be a public-private partnership between the university and a developer, as has been the case with recent new housing units, such as the soon-to-be-completed dorms on Bancroft Way in the old Stiles Hall building. For the supportive housing, the University of California — which owns People’s Park as opposed to UC Berkeley — would likely lease a portion of the land to a nonprofit developer who has access to funding, said Davis. That developer would in turn lease the housing and provide supportive services. The city would participate in terms of services and the application for funding. “It’s a mosaic of funding,” said Davis.
Part of the new joint vision is for Cal students to be involved in providing the services made available as part of the transitional housing at the park. The School of Social Welfare’s master’s degree includes a requirement for field education. Davis said he could see students in that program working with Berkeley mental-health services at People’s Park, for instance. (Cal students already run the Suitcase Clinic, which provides medical services to those without housing.)
Asked when he would like to see the supportive housing element get built in the park, Davis said; “I wish it were happening tomorrow, but it will probably be at least two years.”
A “ridiculous” plan
Dan McMullen remembers the first time he went to People’s Park. It was in the mid-1980s when he had come to Berkeley to visit his cousin. “I walked into the park and had the weirdest feeling that the world had tilted sideways,” he said recently. “There were weeds and wild plants growing everywhere. Plants that would normally be removed in a park. I looked at the wild fennel and found it so refreshing that people could go and plant and work in the park’s garden and also leave things alone. It was a beautiful thing. I’ve loved that place ever since.”
McMullen, who describes himself as a “park enthusiast” and an activist for the homeless, visits People’s Park three times a week. He drops off clothes for the people who spend time there and visits with them. He helps put on events at the park, such as concerts and the annual anniversary shows — the park celebrated its 48th anniversary on April 23.
McMullen describes as “ridiculous” the university and city’s proposal to build housing in the park.
“People’s Park is only green space in the entire area in a congested part of town,” he said. “It’s the only breathable air anywhere in Southside.” He points out that the other locations under consideration for housing would be much easier to develop.
But the biggest reason not to proceed, he argues, is the historic nature of People’s Park. “There is nowhere else like it,” he said. “For once citizens had their way in the world… people lost their lives over this park,” and, he said, that should be preserved. “It’s about the freedom in this country. People should have some kind of ownership of their environment.”
Speaking this week, McMullen said his impression is that the park is generally peaceful these days. He says nobody sleeps in the park and he estimates a core group of about 40 people hang out there every day. When the East Bay Food not Bombs group comes by in the afternoon, the numbers swell to around 150, he said, as people come to eat the food they provide.
McMullen said students come to to the park too. “There are lots of students there these days,” he said. “They sit on blankets and do homework, or play basketball… just doing what students do. They realize that what they hear about the park is mostly hype.”
McMullen concedes that there are times when problems erupt. “The powers that be are giving no help whatsoever to those with mental illnesses,” he said. “So every so often one goes off.”
McMullen said he believes the university “throws out” the idea of change at the park every couple of years “to see how hard people will fight for the park.” Asked if the park community is prepared for a next fight, he responded: “Absolutely. We’re not dead yet.”
A death and an attempted murder
Two recent incidents have drawn particular attention the park.
In April one of its most well-known figures, Hate Man, died. His was a remarkable story. Born in Washington, D.C., he grew up in Stamford, Connecticut, and served in the Air Force and the Peace Corps. He started work as a copy boy at the New York Times in 1961 and eventually rose — with some time off in Thailand — to be a metro reporter.
Hate Man could often be found in People’s Park, smoking his ubiquitous Virginia Slims cigarettes and clutching a cup of coffee with lots of sugar. He eschewed the free food distributed at the park and preferred to salvage for his meals in dumpsters. After he died, the New York Times ran a story about him. Those who frequent People’s Park feel the loss of the idiosyncratic regular at the park and say it feels like the end of an era. A mural at the mark that depicts Hate Man seems like the most fitting memorial.
Then, earlier this month a child playing at People’s Park was rushed to the hospital after a woman put a tootsie roll in his mouth that contained methamphetamine. A nanny was at the play structure at the park with two small boys, ages 2 and 3, when a stranger walked up and “shoved an unknown substance” into the 2-year-old boy’s mouth, according to UCPD. The 36-year-old woman, Sayyadina Thomas, had a history of violence against authorities. She was arrested on suspicion of attempted murder. The boy recovered, but the incident caused a shockwave in the community. Mayor Arreguín cited the case when discussing crime at the park with Berkeleyside, as did several other people interviewed for this story.
Crimes at People’s Park are not uncommon. In the past couple of years, Berkeleyside has reported on a spate of sexual assaults, drug deals, a man being stabbed in the neck, and another waking up in the park to find he had been sodomized.
Data provided to Berkeleyside by UC Berkeley Police show that in the past three years to June 25 this year, there were 99 arrests involving alcohol, drugs and/or violence in the area defined by the department as People’s Park. Out of all crimes, by far the largest category was for battery (California Penal Code 242). The other major crime category was for obstruction and resisting arrest (9.1% of all incidents in that period).
Outreach and oversight
No plan for People’s Park, or indeed any other housing project, be it for the homeless, students or the general population, makes progress in Berkeley without extensive outreach to all the relevant stakeholders. On that, there is also consensus between the city and the university when considering the park that much of the world associates with the nexus of the counterculture movement.
“We have to have a community process,” said Arreguin. “We need to get community buy-in around a vision for a park and honor the history of the park. There is a core group of activists who feel passionately about keeping the park in its current form. It could be enormously controversial.”
Under the direction of Chancellor Designate Christ, the university has appointed a social worker whose job will be focused entirely on People’s Park and the surrounding neighborhood. That person, who starts next month, is in addition to the full-time post occupied by Cal staffer Devin Woolridge who is based at an office in the park and oversees permits and general maintenance issues.
Davis said the new hire will help connect people in the park and the area to the services that exist, and also “provide advice on what we should be doing.”
He will work in concert with the city’s newly formed team of outreach workers focused on getting chronically homeless, mentally ill individuals off the streets and into housing.
There will also be enhanced oversight of People’s Park starting in January 2018 as the result of a recent decision by the Telegraph Property Business Improvement District to expand its boundaries to include the park (see map below). The Telegraph PBID group, whose members are made up of businesses and property owners in the Telegraph Avenue area, has doubled the size of the area it covers, according to the organization’s director, Stuart Baker. The move will mean that the number of street “ambassadors” that work the area, cleaning graffiti and litter, providing safety escorts, and generally keeping an eye on what’s going on, will also double, to about 10.
“The BID is working very well for the community it serves and what’s good for the center is also good for the greater Southside,” Baker said on Monday. Beginning in 2018, the TBID will be responsible for managing the sidewalks and the streets around People’s Park.
“If issues arise we are there to help, though the ambassadors are not the police — but it provides an additional set of eyes.”
The Telegraph PBID recently organized a 50th-anniversary celebration of the Summer of Love on Telegraph and in the park. Big events at the park tend to go well and draw big crowds.
But Baker said it’s the day-to-day reality of being near People’s Park that can sometimes be challenging.
“There are security concerns, graffiti and litter — we’d really like to make a dent. One of our main missions is making sure the public realm is clean and safe,” he said.
Baker mentioned the incident of the child being given methamphetamine and said such cases send alarm bells to the greater community. As a result, people stay away.
Asked about the joint city-UC Berkeley proposal for the park, Baker said, “It seems like the university is taking a thoughtful approach that addresses the needs of people who use the park right now, that pays homage to its original concept, will take in the views of stakeholders and also provides for a student housing crisis the likes of which we haven’t seen in our lifetime.”
Carol Christ takes up her new position as Chancellor of UC Berkeley next week, and has already shown she is not afraid to bring up the troubled Berkeley park in conversation. Meeting with Councilwoman Lori Droste on Tuesday, she said she was “deeply concerned about student housing affordability, neighborhood relations and People’s Park,” according to a tweet by the councilwoman.
Christ has set up a new advisory group to take the next steps and build on the work of the housing task force’s work. Specifically, the group will be assessing the feasibility of the identified sites for student housing, prioritizing them, and exploring potential financial plans for each one. Also on the brief: determining mutually beneficial points of collaboration with the city. (See the advisory group memo.) According to Ruben Lizardo, the group is expected to report to the chancellor by the end of the year.
“Nobody has ever said ‘the university is doing a great job with People’s Park,” said Lizardo. But, he added, he feels like there is a convergence of visions, with the mayor being a champion of the homelessness and the incoming chancellor’s commitment to the homeless also. “The new chancellor sees this as a legacy issue,” he said.