Court ruling will allow student housing at UC Berkeley’s People’s Park, a counterculture landmark


SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — People’s Park in Berkeley, which since the Vietnam War has been a site for protests and counterculture movements, can be converted into student housing for the University of California, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday, capping a yearslong legal fight over the landmark

The court ruled that a new law enacted in 2023 invalidates the claims by two local organizations that sued the school, saying more students living in downtown Berkeley would add noise pollution to an already dense area.

California is desperate for more housing of all types, including for students at its public universities and colleges. Some students sleep in their cars, crash on friends’ couches, or commute hours to attend class due to limited space in dorms and nearby apartments.

The court noted that Berkeley provides housing to the lowest percentage of students compared to other schools in the UC system.

UC Berkeley plans to build a $312 million housing complex for about 1,100 of its students at the nearly 3-acre (1.2-hectare) People’s Park, which it owns. Protests have at times escalated into skirmishes between police and activists. The park was founded in 1969 as part of the era’s free speech and Civil Rights Movement and for decades served as a gathering space for free meals, community gardening and art projects, and was used by homeless people.

The park turned into both a symbol of resistance and mayhem during a deadly 1969 confrontation known as “Bloody Thursday,” emboldening then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan to send in 3,000 National Guardsmen for a two-week occupation that evoked images of war in a city that was clamoring for peace in Vietnam.

The university said it was relieved by the court’s decision and that it would turn its attention to resuming construction at the site.

“The housing components of the project are desperately needed by our students and unhoused people, and the entire community will benefit from the fact that more than 60% of the 2.8-acre site will be revitalized as open park space,” the university said in a statement.

Make UC a Good Neighbor and The People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group filed a lawsuit against the project, saying that the university system should have considered increased noise under the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA. They also said there are more appropriate places the university could build, and the park is a rare green space in one of Berkeley’s densest neighborhoods.

Harvey Smith, president of the People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group, didn’t immediately answer an email from The Associated Press seeking comment.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom vowed to work with legislators to amend the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, after a state appeals court last year ruled against the University of California, saying that it failed to assess the impact of potential noise “from loud student parties” on residential neighborhoods.

In September, Newsom signed a law that amended CEQA to clarify that housing projects do not need to study the noise generated by prospective future residents.

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