UC Berkeley forges ahead with housing at People’s Park, other sites

Chancellor Carol Christ, pictured here in 2017, has led UC Berkeley for two years. She spoke to Berkeleyside this week. Photo: Kelly Sullivan

An architect and a nonprofit organization are now on board to help UC Berkeley build hundreds of proposed housing units at People’s Park, Chancellor Carol Christ said this week.

In a “back to school” interview with Berkeleyside on Thursday afternoon, Christ said the university is continuing to pursue the Southside complex along with other major housing developments.

UC Berkeley students struggle annually to afford or even find a place to live near campus, and the university houses the lowest percentage of students across the UC system. Cal officials have vowed to nearly double the student housing stock, but each of the proposed construction sites, not least the historic People’s Park, comes with its share of controversy and challenges.

Last year UC Berkeley announced plans to build student dorms as well as supportive housing for formerly homeless residents at the park, an old counterculture hub and the site of fatal clashes between law enforcement and student activists in the 1960s. On Thursday, a campus spokesman said San Francisco-based LMS Architects is in line to design the project, and Berkeley’s Resources for Community Development (RCD) is the nonprofit organization that would handle the supportive housing piece. The dorm could hold 600-1,000 beds and the supportive housing portion could include 100-125 beds, Christ said.


“We’re about to move into a period of what I’m sure will be extensive public comment on our plans,” said Christ, sitting in her California Hall office Thursday.

UC Berkeley has secured an architect for its plans to build hundreds of housing units at People’s Park, and a nonprofit developer to oversee the supportive housing portion. Photo: Emilie Raguso

As for the dozens of people who currently live or spend significant time at the park, Christ said, “We’re committed to finding a place for them.” That place has not been determined yet, nor has the population that would live in the new supportive housing units. At the RCD-run development, social services would be available to residents on-site. Christ said that the university’s School of Public Health and the School of Social Welfare could have a role in the supportive housing project.

“I believe strongly that the solution to homelessness is housing,” Christ said.

The residents of the new supportive units will not necessarily be the individuals currently associated with the park, however.

While the campus is forging ahead with the People’s Park project, another development is expected to be built sooner.

“We never thought People’s Park would be terribly attractive to a developer … there’s so much risk and so much political controversy.” — Carol Christ

The “Gateway” project on the northwest corner of Oxford Street and University Avenue could host 750 beds for transfer students, Christ said. A donor came forward with the proposal for the lot, where a hotel had previously been proposed. The Gateway is one of two “donor-developed” projects in the works, Christ said. Another donor is giving the university an apartment building outside of the city, she said.

Also in the pipeline is the development of the university’s Oxford Tract, currently a complex of labs, greenhouses and fields on Oxford Street between Hearst Avenue and Virginia Street. That site could host up to a whopping 3,000 beds, according to the university, but many Cal scientists and students are concerned about razing critical research facilities.

“We haven’t done the planning in any detail for the Oxford Tract, and what the division of the site is going to be,” Christ said.

In 2017, UC Berkeley identified nine potential sites for housing, including the tract and People’s Park. The remaining locations are still being pursued, Christ said, but most of them are smaller, and thus lower priority, lots.

Initially the university had sought a master developer for nearly all the proposed housing sites, but recently “abandoned that plan,” Christ said. According to Berkeleyside’s reporting, the large national developer American Campus Communities had been chosen for the job, and that company is still lined up to develop Oxford Tract and the Upper Hearst project, which has been held up by a city lawsuit.

As for People’s Park, the university is thinking of developing most of that site itself, said Dan Mogulof, campus spokesman. (RCD will develop only the supportive housing portion.)

“We never thought that People’s Park would be terribly attractive to a developer,” Christ said. “It’s just there’s so much risk and so much political controversy.”

Housing at center of town-gown conflict

At other sites, the university has avoided the challenges of new construction altogether, entering into long-term leases, whereby UC Berkeley rents an entire private residential property, and in turn rents out rooms to students.

“The city really doesn’t like our master leasing strategy and has asked us not to do it,” Christ said. “But we really need to. It’s an odd objection, in my view, that they’ve said we’re taking housing opportunities away from the citizens of Berkeley… but I think citizens of Berkeley include students as well as non-students.”

Growing fields and research facilities at the Oxford Tract are slated to give way to student housing development, but details haven’t been hashed out yet. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

City spokesman Matthai Chakko called Christ’s statement a “complete mischaracterization of our view.”

“Our concern is that the campus is willfully adding thousands and thousands of students to the Berkeley community without preparing for the impact of that increase,” he said Friday. “We want them to build housing. This is backwards to massively increase enrollment and then justify random decisions about housing. There’s certainly an impact on affordable housing when they don’t prepare for it. Displacement of people is certainly a concern.” 

The city has raised these concerns in a lawsuit that’s connected to, and has thus halted, a public policy school development at the top of Hearst Avenue. In the lawsuit, the city contends that Cal did not adequately address, in the supplemental Environmental Impact Report for the development, the effects of a more than 30% enrollment increase on city services, like housing and the fire department.

Because the lawsuit pertains to the EIR, not the project itself, it could potentially have a chilling effect on other public-private partnerships the university pursues, Mogulof said. The city has said it would like to reach a settlement with UC Berkeley, but had to meet a legal deadline for filing a lawsuit, a statement the university has disputed.

“The person in me that reads literature is just amused by the irony of it, that the city’s big complaint against the university is that we are creating a housing crisis in the city of Berkeley by our increasing student population, but the way in which they’re choosing to get more money is to stop our housing project,” Christ said. “But the relationships with the city goes on in many, many different ways, many different dimensions. And those collaborations are all going very well.”

(After publication, the city took issue with Christ’s comment, sending a statement in response: “It was the University’s decision to insert a housing project into its contractual relationship with the City for services – including Fire, Public Health and other services they don’t otherwise have for their campus.  If they’d simply addressed massive population growth earlier, when they increased enrollment, we wouldn’t be in this situation. The chancellor was directly asked to avoid this. They unfortunately chose this legal venue.”)

Other buildings might come down

As UC Berkeley is eyeing the construction of new buildings, a new report has revealed the instability of some existing campus structures.

A Regents-ordered assessment of the seismic safety of buildings on all campuses has shown that 62 Berkeley properties have a “poor” rating, according to state code, while six others were deemed “very poor.” In many cases, just a small portion of a building resulted in the low ranking, Christ noted in a letter to the campus. None of the buildings evaluated were given the worst label, “dangerous.”

Christ joked that nobody would “mourn” the loss of Evans Hall if it were demolished and replaced.

While UC Berkeley has already spent $1 billion on seismic improvements over the years, addressing the remaining needs, including demolishing and rebuilding some sites, would cost more than that, Christ said. The cost of seismic upgrades and rebuilding is a significant part of what Christ said was $13 billion in capital needs for the campus.

The “very poor” quality buildings include the prominent Moffitt Library and Evans Hall. The latter is notorious for its unattractive design, and Christ joked that nobody would “mourn” its loss if it were demolished and replaced.

UC Berkeley starting school year with balanced budget

In the hour-long interview, the chancellor also spoke with enthusiasm about a number of other new campus efforts.

A new “basic needs” program offering food and social services to low-income students is highly popular, she said, and the university has tried to support new students better with campus-wide orientations and enrichment programs. Research priorities include “climate change, the future of democracy, the future of human health, the relationship of artificial and human intelligence, and wealth inequality,” Christ said.

The university has also successfully balanced its budget, with the chancellor’s arrival in 2017 helping UC Berkeley emerge from a period of financial disarray and low trust in the administration.

Visitors and students swarm UC Berkeley for Cal Day in 2017. Photo: Nancy Rubin

Christ said the budget turnaround had been achieved 50% through cuts and 50% through revenue increases. Large staff reductions produced significant cost savings. Boosted revenue streams include growth in “self-supporting” master’s degree programs. UC Berkeley passed a significant threshold last year, when master’s students outnumbered Ph.D candidates for the first time in the university’s history. Some students have expressed concerns that the emphasis on non-funded degrees creates equity issues and threatens the public identity of the university. Christ said those programs reflect a societal shift in demand as well as job requirements, and that the university needs the new revenue to maintain its core academic program.

“Berkeley is number one in the country in the percentage of its graduates that come from families in the bottom fifth of American income distribution and wind up in the top 1%. We are an engine of social mobility. And we’re doing all this in order to provide those opportunities for students,” Christ said.

While the chancellor has led the university as it has crawled out of a fiscal hole, Christ said she is alert to the prospect of an economic downturn that could further impact state funding, philanthropy and the university’s health.

“We think about that all the time, and of course we’re concerned about what could happen,” she said. “One of the things about downturns, though, is that in downturns people tend to go back to school.”

This story was updated after publication to include a response from the city.