People's Park: California Supreme Court allows new student housing

A California Supreme Court ruling will allow student housing at University of California to be built at Berkeley’s historic People’s Park - a win for UC Berkeley, which has been trying to build more housing for years.

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

"One thousand beds of student housing is going to help relieve the shortage of housing in our community and students deserve access to affordable housing," said Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín, who says the ruling is a win for the city and the university.

UC issued a statement which said in part, "We are pleased and relieved that the Supreme Court’s decision enables the campus to resume construction at People’s Park. The housing components of the project are desperately needed by our students and unhoused people."

Plaintiffs said they felt that the process was unfair. They won in a lower court, but the state legislature changed the law to weaken the foundation of their case.

"I'm disappointed but not surprised," said Harvey Smith, President of the People's Park Historic District Advocacy Group, which was part of the coalition of plaintiffs under the Good Neighbor Group.

"It's been a struggle but to get this far, and to see the process unfold that in essence, money spoke and power spoke," Smith said.

"We won in court and when UC didn't like the decision, they went to legislature and changed the rules," Smith said.

The plaintiffs filed the lawsuit in 2021 trying to stop the housing development plan. They argued the environmental impact review did not include an evaluation of the student noise levels, and it did not include any exploration of alternate locations.

The State Supreme Court said it's ruling is based on a new law, just passed in September that states human noise is not considered a significant environmental impact on residential projects.

Professor David Levine with UC School of Law in San Francisco says the decision will have a broad impact throughout the state.

"It certainly would apply to other sites," Levine said, "There's no question that this was instigated by People's Park for the legislation, but it is not written specific to this project, so the California Supreme Court opinion will have strong precedential value." 

The project set off years of protests over the park — a landmark that is a touchstone of counterculture.

"We are pleased and relieved that the Supreme Court’s decision enables the campus to resume construction at People’s Park," UC Berkeley said in a statement following the ruling.

The university said that the housing is "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 campus is committed to addressing the high cost and low supply of housing close to campus that undermines students' ability to thrive, succeed, and fully partake in all that the university has to offer," the statement continued.

During the contentious battle over the park, students reported having to sleep in their cars, crash on friends’ couches, or commute hours to attend class due to limited dorms and apartments.

Just off Dwight Way and Telegraph Avenue, police have set up a barricade to keep the protesters away.

The court noted that Berkeley provides housing for the lowest percentage of students in the UC system.

UC Berkeley plans for a $312 million housing complex for about 1,100 of its students at the 3-acre People’s Park set off a years-long fight by activists and others who want to preserve the park that at times has escalated into skirmishes between police and protesters. 

In 2022, activists broke through an 8-foot chain fence erected around the park as crews began clearing trees to make room for the housing project. In January, police officers in riot gear removed activists from the park as crews began walling off the site with double-stacked shipping containers.

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

Opponents say there are more appropriate places the university could build, and the park is a rare green space in one of Berkeley’s densest neighborhoods.

Two local organizations, Make UC a Good Neighbor and The People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group, brought the lawsuit, saying that the university system should have considered increased noise under CEQA.

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 university said it needs to revisit its timeline for resuming construction now that all legal challenges have been resolved. Further construction updates will be shared on the project’s website.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.