State bill would reverse court decision to stop dorms in Berkeley

Lawmaker wants to undo “bizarre ‘people is pollution’ decision” on People’s Park project

State Bill Would Reverse Court Decision on Berkeley Dorms
Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks and 2556 Haste Street in Berkeley (Photo Illustration by Steven Dilakian for The Real Deal with Getty and Google Maps)

A state lawmaker has proposed a bill to help UC Berkeley build controversial dorms for 1,100 students at People’s Park.

Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks, D-Oakland, has introduced Assembly Bill 1307 to reverse a state court decision that blocked the university from building dorms at 2556 Haste Street, CalMatters reported.  It awaits a signature by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

But even if the law is approved, the fate of the project remains in the hands of the state Supreme Court.

A California appeals court ruled in February that UC Berkeley’s plan to build a 17-story dorm and a six-story affordable apartment complex for homeless residents failed to address environmental concerns by not assessing “potential noise impacts from loud student parties.”

The appellate court ruling halted UC Berkeley’s plan to turn its historic People’s Park into housing at the 2.8-acre site a few blocks south of campus. After the decision, nonprofit developer Resources for Community Development quit the project.

Wicks said her proposed law “will reverse the bizarre ‘people is pollution’ decision that was created by the recent appellate court decision (in) the UC Berkeley People’s Park case.” Newsom is expected to sign AB 1307, which was sent to his desk last week.

When the state’s highest court will make a conclusive ruling on the case is not clear. 

“The (state) Supreme Court still has jurisdiction to resolve our pending appeal of the appellate court ruling, even if the statute is adopted,” Dan Mogulof, a spokesman for UC Berkeley, told CalMatters in an email. “The campus will resume construction of the People’s Park project when the lawsuit is resolved and hopes that the new law will substantially hasten the resolution of the lawsuit.”

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The housing project at People’s Park has drawn fierce protest and controversy for years.

A half century ago, a similar plan sparked a violent protest that established People’s Park as a hotbed of social dissent. A 1969 demonstration against UC Berkeley’s plans to build housing on the 2.8-acre site led to a clash of 6,000 protesters, one death and scores of injuries.

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The university now provides housing for 23 percent of its students, the lowest rate in the state university system.

Harvey Smith, president of the People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group, told CalMatters it will “absolutely” proceed with its legal complaint against the campus.

Smith’s group wants UC Berkeley to build the dorms one block away, on the site of a 60-year-old parking garage it says needs to be demolished soon. 

“We don’t see students as pollution, but noise can be an issue, and we certainly are not NIMBY neighbors,” Smith said in an interview. “We want UC to build housing. We want them to do what they neglected to do for nearly a half century. But we see it’s a big problem if you destroy an open space.”

— Dana Bartholomew