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UC Berkeley can free up People’s Park, site of 1960s protests, for housing, judge rules

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Berkeley’s People’s Park, a symbol of protest and counterculture in the Bay Area for half a century and home to many homeless people for years, is one step closer to becoming a student dormitory and housing for low-income members of the community after on Friday, a judge tentatively ruled that construction could begin.

Alameda County Circuit Judge Frank Roche, in a decision that won’t become official until it’s released in writing, possibly as soon as next week, ruled that the University of California, Berkeley can begin clearing the historic park and begin work on the site, so that the university’s plan does not violate the California Environmental Quality Act.

UC Berkeley and the City of Berkeley proposed to reconstruct the park in 2018, calling it the nation’s first plan to build long-term housing for the homeless on university grounds. The university will also build 1,100 units of much-needed student housing and preserve part of the park as open green space, as well as erect a monument to its illustrious history.

But two organizations — Art People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group and Make UC a Good Neighbor — jointly filed the lawsuit, alleging, among other things, that the university had other housing development options and did not properly explore them, as required by state law. Two other groups filed their own challenges, which will be combined in the judge’s decision.

UC spokesman Dan Mogluff said university officials are “pleased with the judge’s decision and look forward to the court making it official early next week, just as we look forward to starting construction this summer.”

But Harvey Smith, president of the People’s Park Historic District Advisory Group, said Friday he plans to appeal the decision and ask for a stay, preventing the university from starting until a state appeals court rules.

As the legal challenges have moved through the courts, everyone is homeless in the park transitional housing was offered for a period of up to a year and a half, as well as food and social services. There are few homeless people left in the park.

City and university officials hailed the plan as a model for other universities and a landmark solution to California’s homeless crisis and housing shortages at UC Berkeley and other UC campuses.

“It starts with a partnership,” UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ said earlier this spring. “And it also starts with the university recognizing that we have a responsibility to address the tragedy of homelessness in our community.”

But no one familiar with the park or its history thinks change will come easily.

People’s Park was born in 1969, when the university announced plans to develop an area about four blocks south of the Berkeley campus, east of Telegraph Avenue.

Enraged by the proposed development, hundreds of people dragged sod, trees and flowers to the vacant lot and declared it People’s Park. In response, the UC put up a fence. The student body president-elect called on the crowd on campus to “take back the park,” and more than 6,000 people marched on the Telegraph to do just that. A violent clash ensued in which one student was killed and several others injured.

The park has remained a Berkeley institution ever since. Also, according to some, it is a magnet for crime. In May a park was added National Register of Historic Places.

Garrison reported from Sacramento, Leavenworth from Berkeley.

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