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People’s Park: it’s time for change

Sam Davis, professor emeritus, architecture | September 29, 2015

In my over 50 years at the University of California, Berkeley, as a student, professor, department chair, dean, and architect, I have witnessed many wonderful milestones. Be it intellectual, scientific, social, or architectural, the campus has shown leadership, creativity, innovation, and initiative making me proud and grateful to be a part of it. There is, however, one glaring exception, and that is People’s Park. The park has been a problem for over 40 years, and the University has been unwilling to address it.

I was present at the inception of People’s Park in the spring of 1969. For many years I have also tried through architectural consultation, service on the People’s Park Community Advisory Board, and several other park-related committees, to motivate the campus to come to terms with the many problems caused by its neglect. Nothing has happened.

I realize that people who read blogs are used to pieces that are short, pithy, and to the point. I therefore apologize that what follows is not that. I feel that the 46-year history of, and the various attempts to change, People’s Park need an airing in order to give context and rationale to what I propose.  I have divided my comments into four sections: history of People’s Park, the current situation, previous park proposals, and what I believe should happen now.

My proposal assumes that the University will continue to own this land, and therefore must take responsibility for the homeless who now frequent People’s Park. UC cannot act alone, as the City of Berkeley is complicit by not meeting its responsibility to the city’s most vulnerable citizens. I come to this determination based on my 20 years of writing about, and designing facilities for, the homeless.

What follows in the four sections are answers to questions I hear frequently when people know of my association with UC, and my history of efforts relative to People’s Park.

PART  1 – HISTORY

When did it all begin?

In the mid-1950s the University announced its intention to develop a 2.8-acre parcel of land a few blocks south of the University of California campus.  Among the stated needs was additional student housing. As a public agency, it acquired the land for $1.3 million through the eminent-domain process, and eventually removed several houses. Among them was the home of one of my professors, the living room of which served as his architectural office. The funds for development never materialized, and university’s plans had several iterations and false starts. By default the land became an unpaved, and often muddy, parking lot.

How did it become a park?

In the spring of 1969 the University began to plan recreational fields on this site, a low-density use requiring far less funding than housing. The original idea for an alternative park began when a group of young activist who lived nearby held an evening meeting in their apartment and began devising an idealized vision.  One participant wrote a story for the Berkeley Barb, a new alternative newspaper, seeking volunteers to bring materials to the site. Over the next few days, a few hundred park-building volunteers grew exponentially. Some local activist, among them principals of the 1964 Free Speech Movement five years earlier, envisioned this grassroots effort as creating a place of free speech and community gathering. There was no formal planning or design, but they believed this organic development was superior to the plans of UC.

Police action on May 15, 1969

Police action on May 15, 1969

Negotiations ensued between Berkeley campus administrators and the park builders, but before their conclusion, Gov. Ronald Reagan, in an attempt to solidify his conservative political reputation, intervened by sending police to remove landscaping that had already been planted by park proponents, and to fence the park.  After a noon rally at Sproul Plaza, students and community members, at the urging of the ASUC president to take back the park, marched to the site and a riot erupted. Student James Rictor was shot and killed by police, who reported that he was throwing reinforcing bars at them from a rooftop. Alan Blanchard was blinded by police buckshot.

On May 301969, a peaceful demonstration of 30,000 people marched through Berkeley, not just to support the park, but also to protest the intervention by, and action of, police, most notably the Alameda County Sheriff’s officers. I was among them. Ultimately, the University capitulated on the use of the land, and People’s Park was born.

csp_peoples-park

Building People’s Park

The late 1960s was the height of the counter-culture movement, and a time of great mistrust of institutions. The park was a symbol of community autonomy and self-determination that many feel must be preserved as a touchstone of the historic societal changes of the times, and as a memorial to victims of the police action in 1969. I feel the park no longer reflects the intensions of the original park activists and volunteers.

Why hasn’t the park been improved?

Over 46 years, whenever the University has attempted not just to change the use of the land, but also to alter the park, protests followed. The prominent physical features of the park, such as the stand of trees on the east, were a result of random placement during the initial flurry of activity. In 1979 the campus paved the western portion for a student fee parking lot. It lasted one day. Park activists, among them Berkeley Mayor Gus Newport, tore up the asphalt and formed it into mounds that are now grass-covered berms. Attempts at altering any of these features are seen as a desecration by park advocates.

During Chancellor Tien’s tenure in the 1990s, two volleyball courts were proposed. One of the protestors, Rosebud Abigail Denovo, who earlier had been arrested for vandalism and for carrying a concealed weapon while protesting in the park, broke into University House, the chancellor’s residence, with a machete. She was killed by police. Subsequent chancellors were understandably reluctant to deal with People’s Park. The current chancellor has erected a fence around University House to protect against protestors.

The year-long tree-sitting protest over the rebuilding of Memorial Stadium further dissuades Chancellors from initiating change on this politically charged land.

PART 2 – THE PARK TODAY

 Why do homeless frequent the park?

A place of repose, a supply of food, and access to a bathroom (the only roofed structure in the park), have enabled homeless to stay in the People’s Park throughout the day.

Food Not Bombs is an international organization that began in 1980 as an anti-nuclear group advocating nonviolent social change. Each chapter is autonomous and decides how to further the group’s mission. The local chapter has determined that its sole activity is to provide food to the homeless in People’s Park, and each day its volunteers drive a truck into the park to make a delivery.

Beginning in the late 1950s, with the idea that the mentally ill should be cared for within their own communities, California began de-funding mental institutions. While seemingly a sound premise, the concomitant local funding never materialized. Homeless advocates and experts estimate that as many as 30% of nation’s homeless are mentally ill, and another 30% have drug or alcohol addiction.  Many people who cannot fare independently become homeless. According to City of Berkeley social-service officials, many homeless in the park are in need of social services.

In my more than 20 years designing facilities for the homeless — including drop-in centers, supportive housing, shelters, and clinics — never have I seen the sponsors of these facilities separate basic housing or food needs from social services.

Why is this a problem?

Many will say it is not. If people want to live this lifestyle, let them. I, however, feel that the campus has not just abdicated its responsibilities to the most vulnerable in our community, but has exacerbated the problem.

The City of Berkeley is also complicit. The city has social-service outreach personnel who work in the park, but the numbers are inadequate. The city’s closest men’s shelter, with 48 beds, is in the basement of the downtown Veteran’s building. This location is seen as temporary, and has been for 20 years. The building is not seismically safe. Having designed several shelters, I know that even were this facility safe, new, and larger, it would not be the ultimate solution. Many homeless, particularly those with mental health or addiction problems, are shelter resistant. There is a dearth of housing to address the problem of homelessness throughout the Bay Area. Berkeley is no exception.

The campus manages the park with a full-time staff member, whose noble effort as the park “mayor” maintains a degree of social order. While many will praise Food Not Bombs for its humane efforts, and the campus for monitoring the park daily and for allowing food delivery trucks onto its property, nothing is done to address the underlying problems causing homelessness. We are treating the symptoms but not the disease.

Within the last 20 years the easy availability of drugs has also impacted People’s Park. During one of my two years on the People’s Park Community Advisory Committee, 800 needles were found in the park. A recent analysis of crime in and around campus indicated that the People’s Park area has the most crime, regardless of the time of day. Drug dealing is a frequent occurrence, and most recently there have been sexual assaults in and around the park. Incoming students are told during orientation to be wary of the park.

Because homeless stay in the park throughout the day, and food is brought to them, the campus has to mitigate the recurrent issue of food waste resulting in a rat infestation.

PART 3 – PROPOSALS FOR PEOPLE’S PARK

Besides a park, what might the campus do with the land?

It is not within the core mission of the University to operate a public park. Because the property is large, primarily vacant, relatively flat, within a high-density neighborhood, and highly visible, it is no surprise that there have been several proposals for other campus uses over these many years. Among these uses is recreational sports.

Why Recreational Sports?

The recreational facility standard for a campus of Berkeley’s size is 10 square feet/student. The Recreational Sports Facility (RSF), built in 1983, is only 3.5 square feet/student. In the intervening years, recreational pursuits have changed, primarily because far more women now use the facility. The ASUC leadership proposed a new sports center that would focus on overall wellness, and have programs coordinated with the student health facility, the Tang Center.

In 2011 I was retained by the campus and the Department of Recreational Sports to study People’s Park, among other locations, for an additional Department of Recreational Sports building. People’s Park is a sufficient size to house a facility. It is relatively flat, making construction and access feasible. A new facility would be intended to attract those in the community, and not just students and campus personnel. People’s Park is surrounded by non-campus housing, is along bus routes, and is easily accessible to pedestrians. Such a facility, — incorporating indoor swimming, nutrition courses, and stress reduction management classes — would be a magnet for community/university coalescence. It would also likely help the merchants on Telegraph Avenue by bringing more people to the area who might frequent the shops.

What happened to this idea?

Recreational Sports is funded through student fees. Students must vote on a referendum to tax themselves and students many years into the future. While it is possible to have a successful referendum, the resulting modest tax would allow a facility less than half of what is needed or wanted. Without other sources of funding, such as Chancellor’s discretionary fund used to help build the new lower Sproul facility (which also needed a student referendum) such a project could not proceed.

Another issue working against building a wellness center on People’s Park is that a suitable alternative exists. The venerable, historic Hearst Memorial Gymnasium was built just for that purpose, albeit for women. It is in dire need of renovation, seismic reinforcement, and infrastructure replacement, but it is sufficiently large, well located, and beautiful.

The original motivation for acquiring the land was for housing. Isn’t there still a need?

One of the constraints to the recruitment of faculty is the high cost of housing in Bay Area, and particularly in the neighborhoods immediate to the campus. There is also a need for housing of postdoctoral students. Undergraduate student enrollment has increased and even with the addition of new dormitories more beds are needed. The Department of Housing and Dining did commission a study within the last few years to determine the number of students that could be housed on the site.

People’s Park is perfect for housing of any type, including affordable housing and supportive housing for those at-risk. Providing land at low cost to community-based developers would go a long way towards the campus accepting its role in solving the homeless situation it helped create in the park.

Why not housing?

As appealing and compelling as these proposals might be, they are unlikely to occur. All require substantial funding that is not readily available. Housing and Recreational Sports are among those campus components that must be primarily self-supporting (intercollegiate athletics and parking are others). While each such use may be underwritten by campus funds, this is supposedly the exception and not the rule. If either housing or a Recreational Sports facility were to be built on People’s Park, it would have to be through a third-party agreement. For example, a sports facility could be created by a commercial entity like LA Sports, which would then sell memberships to students and community members. Similarly, housing could be produced by a developer. In either case the campus would allow use of the land in return for favorable, presumably below-market, cost to students and faculty.

Student leaders, however, are reluctant to propose a facility on the park, fearing the controversy that would ensue. Given the political exigencies, housing developers will also be reluctant.

If the campus mission does not include operating a public park, and these other uses are unlikely, why not just sell the land?

The University could sell or donate the land to a conservancy that would then be stewards of the park managing it as a public amenity. It could also transfer the land to the City of Berkeley, which would then operate the park under the city’s Parks and Recreation department.

The Regents of UC, the actual owners of the land, continue to view the property as a valuable asset for campus use, and therefore transferring ownership is unlikely. Not being part of the south campus community directly impacted by the park, and not being sensitive to its nearly five-decade tumultuous history, it would be difficult for a regent to appreciate the complexities involved in developing this land.

There was attempt many years ago to transfer the land to the City of Berkeley for one dollar. The University determined that it could not dispose of land acquired with public money for anything less than market value, even though this was another public entity. I am unsure how it made this determination, as the campus did acquire the School for the Blind and Deaf (now Clark Kerr Campus) 25 years ago for a nominal amount.

Rather, it is more than likely that People’s Park will remain as a park for the foreseeable future, and as part of the University of California, Berkeley. This should not mean it should continue in its current state.

If it remains a park, how might it be re-envisioned?

In the fall of 2006, the People’s Park Community Advisory Committee – a group formed by the University that included community members, neighbors of the park, and park advocates – recommended retaining a planning firm to study the park and suggest both policy and physical changes. With the support of campus planners and those in the university’s community relations department who had long sought improvements to People’s Park, the campus agreed, and MKThink was hired. Among their recommendations were:

Collaboration among the University, social service organizations, community groups, and civic organization to increase and improve outreach to at-risk individuals.

Ensure any social services provided in the park are structured, comprehensive, and meet all applicable codes, and administered by trained professional personnel.

The advisory group also recommended using the MKThink report as the basis for an international design competition to re-imagine People’s Park. Among the design requirements would be a feature that recognized and memorialized the park’s history just as the Free Speech Café does for Free Speech Movement of 1964.

What was the campus response to these recommendations?

While these recommendations seem logical and responsible, the university adopted none. While campus staff may have been keen on a People’s Park renewal, the park is the “third rail” for chancellors of UC Berkeley. It is viewed as a low priority, where the risks of change far outweigh the benefits.

Although this is campus property, it is an integral part of the City of Berkeley and change requires some collaboration and coordination with city officials. This is particularly true for the homeless who frequent the park. It is the city’s responsibility to provide social services and housing.

The campus summarily dismissed the Advisory Board recommendations, but some believe that while the University might have been willing to proceed, there was a mayoral campaign in Berkeley and a People’s Park remake would be a distraction for the incumbent. A majority of the People’s Park Advisory Board, having made a compelling set of recommendations, saw little reason to continue and resigned en mass. The University never reconstituted the board.

PART 4 – THE FUTURE

What should be done now?

If the University’s default position is to retain the land as a park, then the land should be reimagined to attract a larger segment of the population and to advance a more proactive approach to the homeless.

First, using the creative minds in the Department of Architecture, the University should develop a building on People’s Park, wherein the campus food service would ensure that the homeless receive the same well-balanced nutrition provided to students in a clean, safe, and comfortable setting. The structure need not be elaborate or even permanent, but it must be substantive enough to indicate a serious commitment to those who use it.

This alone will be insufficient because many in the community, and particularly homeless, do not trust the University. The campus must forge partnerships with local community-based social services providers and City of Berkeley staff who will have an on-going presence at this facility. Services and food will be inextricably linked. The campus will ensure proper, healthy, fresh nutrition as well as hygienic disposal of waste. Social-services personnel, many of whom are known throughout the homeless population, will continue their work but in a coordinated effort in a single place.

The campus should also convene a steering committee focused on best practices in combating homelessness in the community. There are faculty in Social Welfare, Public Health, Public Policy, Environmental Design, and Law, all of whom have an interest and expertise in homelessness. Patience will be needed. It will take time to change the culture, and move the homeless from subsistence to independence.

With a focused, vigorous, and humane approach to homelessness, the campus assumes a responsibility it has long ignored, improves its community relations, improves the situation for merchants on Telegraph, and stands to be a leader in social responsibility in the public realm, one of its core missions. There is little to lose.

What can we hope for?

As the operation of the park moves from mostly laissez faire, with a single staff member, to an ongoing presence that includes food service and social services, the opportunities for further physical improvements emerge. The residents of Martinez Commons, the new dormitory directly across Haste Street, should be among those who view the park as safe and welcoming, but so, too, should all those in the community.

Such a reimagining of People’s Park has risks. Some will be concerned that providing this level of assistance will only attract more homeless, and in so doing allow the City of Berkeley to further abdicate its responsibility to the city’s most needy. This may be true in the short term, but it also means that there is an unmet need, and the status quo is not acceptable. By taking the initiative the university can rally its many assets to find humane solutions to a societal problem, which is the ultimate goal. In the process, this land can become an attraction and focus for campus-community interaction.