Drilling for soil samples is beginning this week at People's Park in Berkeley, the first step in the process of developing the site into a 16-story student housing project — the culmination of a public process that has seen the park's fiercest protectors all but give up their fight.
The soil-sample drilling will be done in sections, as Berkeleyside reports, and while construction isn't beginning immediately, it isn't far off — construction is expected to begin in 2022. Ultimately, the complex will provide housing for 1,200 students, with the University of California's stated aim to build enough housing to house half its undergraduate population and a quarter of its graduate students.
But People's Park isn't just any development site. The property, owned by the university, was intended to be developed back in the late 1960s when it had been left vacant and blighted for an extended period. A group of idealistic students and activists took over and occupied the park for months in 1969, installing trees and grass, and christening it People's Park — an effort that culminated in the infamous "Bloody Thursday" on May 15, 1969. On that day, frustrated by hippies and activists who had been squatting in the park, the university fenced off the park and brought in members of the California Highway Patrol, Berkeley Police Department, San Francisco Police Department, and the Alameda County Sheriff's Department to defend it. The street battle that ensued left one man dead and another blinded after deputies fired tear gas and buckshot into the crowd.
SFist sorted through this history in April 2019, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the park's inception. But even then it was known that the university had impending plans to develop the land.
Other plans had been scrapped over the decades, including a plan to build a volleyball court there that was met with a riot in 1991.
But by 2006, as the park became more and more a home for drug use, homeless tents, and vagrancy, many Berkeley residents soured on the place and felt less inclined to continue fighting for it, as the LA Times reported. Since the university announced plans to build student housing there in 2017, there has been little protest.
As the Chronicle reports, plans for the housing complex have not been finalized, and will be presented to the UC regents this summer for approval. The plans — sketched preliminarily in April 2016 but still in flux — call for a tower that is 14- to 17-stories tall, in addition to shorter, attached structures, with classrooms on the ground floor and housing above.
Homeless people currently camped in the park are going to be moved around a bit this year as the preparations begin. Like in San Francisco, enforcement of camping rules for the homeless has been suspended in Berkeley during the pandemic, and an estimated 30 to 40 people have been living in the park, according to Berkeleyside.
For many years, the organization Food Not Bombs has been feeding people at the park every Tuesday, and that is expected to continue through this year.
Photo courtesy of UC Berkeley