Assembly bill would sidestep lawsuit over student dorm construction at People’s Park

People's Park in Berkeley, Calif., in early 2023, where the University of California at Berkeley wants to building student housing amid community opposition (Keith Burbank/Bay City News)

Two groups trying to save People’s Park in Berkeley from the University of California’s plans to build housing there may lose their bid if a bill introduced earlier this year passes the state Legislature.

Assemblymember Buffy Wicks, D-Oakland, helped introduce Assembly Bill 1307, which takes aim at housing requirements in the state.

As currently proposed, the bill will eliminate the requirement to curb the effect of noise on other people caused by residents and guests of residential projects in California.

If passed, the bill will also eliminate the need for colleges and universities to consider, in an environmental impact report, alternative housing sites for a residential or mixed-use housing project if certain requirements are met.

According to a recent appeals court ruling, the need to mitigate noise by undergraduates and to consider alternatives must be considered under the California Environmental Quality Act, regulations that must be met by developers like UC Berkeley.

“We write to express our strong opposition to AB 1307,” said leaders of both the People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group and the group Make UC A Good Neighbor in a letter Monday to assemblymembers. “This legislation effectively rewards the University of California, Berkeley (UCB) for its blatant failure to comply at the most basic level with the heart of the California Environmental Quality Act: the evaluation of alternatives for a project,” leaders of the two groups said in the letter.

The groups and UC Berkeley are in litigation over noise and alternative sites for student housing, and Wick’s bill would sidestep the litigation. The opposition groups argue the university can build student housing at other sites besides People’s Park, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. The historic designation does not prevent development of the park.

Still, the university has tried for decades to build housing at the park and failed because of community protests like one last August. Two law enforcement officers were injured in the protest and seven people were arrested before the university halted efforts to prepare the park for construction.

“UCB has identified and studied 13 locations for student housing that would avoid the negative impacts of its proposed project on People’s Park, several of which would provide more units than are proposed for the park site,” the opponents’ letter says. “There is no need for this legislation since there is a path forward for UCB to build the much-needed student and supportive housing on a site other than People’s Park, thus preserving a nationally recognized historical resource and a valuable public open space,” the letter says.

The groups say in the letter that Wicks has not communicated with them, even though many live in her district. Wicks’ office did not respond to a request Monday for an interview.

While the two groups oppose housing at the park, they want to see the university building more housing for students and to recognize the need for more housing statewide.

Without the changes offered by Wicks’ bill, “UC Berkeley’s student housing program would be delayed indefinitely,” said Michael Bedard, the University of California’s senior legislative director in a June letter to state Sen. Scott Wiener, chair of the Senate Housing Committee.

UC Berkeley spokesperson Dan Mogulof said Tuesday that “the campus is committed to full compliance with CEQA and never asked that the People’s Park project be exempted from CEQA.”

Wicks’ bill is currently in the Assembly. The bill will take effect immediately if it becomes law.

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