Why building housing on Peoples’ Park is not, and will never be, a good idea.

Photo of People's Park
People’s Park stands at 2.8 acres. (UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small, photo links to website.)

I suspect most Berkeley residents don’t go to People’s Park very often, if at all. Even as one who grew up in Berkeley during ‘the sixties,’ I never set foot in the Park until I was a student at Cal in the late ’70’s. I suspect most people view People’s Park as a destination that they don’t find attractive. Sure, there is a reasonable collection of us who have given sweat and tears, and even blood, to maintain this land as a park, whether that be in the ’60’s as the park was created/reborn, or during the decades since, when the University attempted several times to fundamentally alter the use of the Park. But it is likely that the majority of folks in Berkeley have no strong connection to the Park.

So now, as its 50th anniversary approaches, I suspect that most folks in Berkeley see People’s Park as an ‘attractive nuisance’ at best, and perhaps a ‘dangerous eyesore’ at worst. So the current proposalthat includes 700-1,000 student beds, 75-110 ‘supportive housing’ beds, and ‘park/open space’ with “… an important element … design that will commemorate, honor and celebrate the history and the significance of People’s Park”—will likely be received by most folks as a step forward. I would like to offer, however, an alternative, long-term view of this proposal.

photo of San Pablo sign
San Pablo Park (2012), photo R. Kehlmann. Photo links to the Berkeley Historic Plaque Project website.

About 110 years ago, only 29 years after incorporation, the City of Berkeley bought the land for San Pablo Park. This park was officially opened over 100 years ago. Slightly over 80 years ago, the East Bay Regional Park District began purchasing land in the east bay hills, including Tilden (previously destined for development of high end homes), Lake Temescal, and Roundtop/Robert Sibley. Park lands have always been important spaces for Bay Area residents: From afternoons in the sun, to random weekend picnics, to large community events, we have valued these open spaces. In my 58 years in Berkeley, we have continued to eke out more park space wherever possible. From the Santa Fe right-of-way to the Berkeley dump to ‘pocket parks’ popping up here and there, we have looked for new spaces to create parks.

But, while the open space of our parks provides us with beautiful areas to enjoy the outdoors, the very nature of this space makes it easy for those less fortunate, those with little income and/or housing, to ‘set up camp’ and, frequently, trash our parks. I know many people who are tired of the smell of urine and feces in our public spaces (but I also know that most of the folks who urinate or defecate in our public spaces would much rather do so in a clean restroom!). People’s Park, not fitting in the protected category of a City or EBRPD park, becomes an easy target for closure. There are similar problems associated with homelessness in ML King Jr. Civic Center Park, but can you image the public outrage if someone suggested that we build housing there.

Google Map image highlighting large parks in Berkeley.
Google Map image highlighting large parks in Berkeley.

Homelessness and unsafe drug use are not pretty sights, but history shows us that closing down one area where crime/illegal camping exists does not solve the problem, it just moves it somewhere else. Building housing on People’s Park will not make these problems go away because they will—unfortunately but likely—be with us for decades. But if we build on the lot, we will never get that open space back. In the area south of UC Berkeley, there are two large parks: People’s Park and Willard Park. A city-wide Google map of Berkeley shows only about eight to ten parks in sizes similar to People’s Park.

Photo of History of Berkeley as seen in a park mural along the BART tracks near Gilman St.
History of Berkeley as seen in a park mural along the BART tracks near Gilman St. Link to Berkeley Partners for Parks website.

I ask residents of Berkeley to take the long-view of development in Berkeley. As empty lots are built on and small building are replaced with taller building, the population of our city continues to increase. We will continue to need more open space. We can hope (and as my dad would have said, ‘pray if it works for you’) that one day we will have homes for everyone. And when that day comes, I hope we have retained much open space for our future generations. Our grandparents and great-grandparents were wise enough to set aside land for future generations to enjoy, let us do the same.

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