BERKELEY (BCN) — A state appeals court order issued Thursday prohibits the University of California at Berkeley, at least temporarily, from doing more work to build housing at People’s Park. Workers moved into the park early Wednesday morning to start work on a $312 million housing project and by late morning had cut down trees.
Protesters halted the work while law enforcement arrested seven people in the process, according to the university. The melee injured two law enforcement officers, UC officials said. The housing project would provide more than 1,100 below-market apartments for undergraduates and housing for extremely low-income and formerly homeless people.
A judge earlier in the week gave UC Berkeley the official go-ahead to begin work at the park, which was the site of protests in the 1960s and 70s when the university tried to convert it from open space.
“UC took advantage of the legal system in order to destroy as much of the park as it could,” said Harvey Smith, president of People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group, which is involved in the appeal. “We are hopeful that the court will overturn the lower court decision and lead to the restoration of the park.”
Under the ruling in the 1st District Court of Appeal Thursday, UC Berkeley must refrain from further demolition, construction, and tree-cutting as well as altering of the landscape. However, the workers for the university can alter the landscape for public health and safety reasons and erect a fence, the ruling says.
The university is determining the best way to put up the fence, university spokesperson Kyle Gibson said. Smith’s group and Make UC A Good Neighbor, the two groups that filed the suit against the university, contend that the university should have considered other readily available sites for the housing proposed at People’s Park.
The park is on the National Register of Historic Places, though that status does not prevent the university from building there, university spokesperson Dan Mogulof said. Smith has said his group and other community groups want UC Berkeley to build more student housing, but they say the university has identified numerous more appropriate sites.
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One potential site is a parking structure at Channing Way and Ellsworth Street, about a block from People’s Park and slightly larger in acreage than the park. The parking structure is seismically unsafe, Smith said.
Mogulof agreed that housing could be built there, but also said the university has such a shortage of student housing that it needs the land at Channing Way and Ellsworth Street, People’s Park and other land for housing. University officials said on Thursday, before the court granted the stay, that they are assessing their next move, which may take a few days.
“We need to get it right,” Mogulof said.
Smith’s group envisions improving the maintenance of People’s Park if it remains a park. His group wants the park to be equal in quality to any park in Berkeley or at the university, which owns the land. The appeals court granted the university an expedited review of the case, the order says, so a ruling may come as soon as October.
University officials will be looking for ways to make up for that lost time as the stay will delay and add costs to the effort, Gibson said.
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