As a team of police officers in riot gear kept watch in the predawn darkness, University of California, Berkeley construction workers fenced off historic People’s Park early Wednesday, the first step of a plan to turn the symbol of 1960s counterculture into housing for students and the homeless.
A group of protesters immediately confronted the police and construction crews, shaking the mental fences, with some jumping over the structures to be tackled by California Highway Patrol officers.
The university commenced the action in the middle of the night because redevelopment of the park, while supported by both the university and the city of Berkeley, has long been bitterly opposed by park proponents. They view the space just south of campus, long home to a community of unhoused people and the site of free meals for decades, as hallowed community ground.
Indeed, shortly after 2 a.m. as construction machinery moved in, the Twitter account “Defend People’s Park” issued an urgent call to activists to head to the area. “WE NEED SUPPORT,” the tweet read. “PLEASE COME.”
Many did. One of the protesters had his hand bloodied while trying to break through the fence. “How will your grandchildren feel about this?” he yelled at the officers. “You are a bunch of fascists!”
Behind the officers, crews used chainsaws and other equipment to fell old trees on the property, with the crowd shouting anguished yells with each one that hit the ground.
Activists also summoned park supporters to a rally for the park starting at 5 p.m.
Earlier, UC Berkeley police arrested three individuals for allegedly interfering with the construction work, said Dan Mogulof, a spokesperson for the the university. That number has likely risen.
Harvey Smith, president of the People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group, said his organization plans to ask a court for a stay of demolition as soon as possible.
UC Berkeley and the city of Berkeley proposed redeveloping the park in 2018, calling it a first-in-the-nation plan to build long-term supportive housing for homeless people on university land. The university would also build 1,100 units of badly needed student housing.
“The project will preserve more than 60% of the site as revitalized green space,” the university said in a statement, and will include a memorial to the park’s historic significance.
Four groups filed lawsuits against the university’s plan, including the People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group and Make UC a Good Neighbor. They argued, among other things, that the university had other options for developing housing and had not adequately studied them, as required by the California Environmental Quality Act.
Alameda County Judge Judge Frank Roesch late Friday issued a tentative decision that UC Berkeley could begin clearing the historic park and beginning site work. He made that ruling official late Tuesday, and within hours, the university moved to begin work.
People’s Park was born in 1969, when the university announced a plan to develop the land, which is about four blocks south of the Berkeley campus just east of Telegraph Avenue.
Furious at the proposed development, hundreds of people dragged sod, trees and flowers to the empty lot and proclaimed it the People’s Park. In response, UC erected a fence. The student body president-elect urged a crowd on campus to “take back the park” and more than 6,000 people marched down Telegraph to do just that. A violent clash ensued, leaving one man dead and scores injured.
While embraced by many Berkeley residents as a city institution, others saw the site as a blight and unsafe for nearby residents. The park was added to the National Register of Historic Places in May, but while the Berkeley City Council had once opposed development, the current council is in support of the university’s plan.
In recent years, and especially during the pandemic, the park became an encampment for unhoused people. Working with the city and nonprofit groups, the university offered transitional housing to residents of the park for up to a year and a half, as well as meals and social services.
A few unhoused people could be seen camping in the park Monday morning, but the numbers were far down compared to previous months.
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