BERKELEY — People’s Park was fenced in early Wednesday — officially marking the start of UC Berkeley’s construction of a $312 million student housing project on the historic property.
But within hours, protesters had pried open several sections of the fence and clashed with police, halting tree-cutters who were beginning to clear a section of the three-acre park.
By 1 p.m., more than 50 feet of the fence had been torn down and hundreds of police and security guards had completely retreated from the park.
Bryce Smith, a biology and business major at UC Berkeley, was among dozens of demonstrators who bypassed the fence and barricades. They said they are trying to preserve what’s left of the park, after construction crews had already cut down a majority of the towering trees.
“I’m going to stay here until whatever happens, happens,” Smith said, sitting atop a ramshackle building still standing at the center of the park. “I’m just not willing to let this go away.”
Protesters have destroyed the barricade and cops left pic.twitter.com/RNaayRuJ5C
— Eliyahu Kamisher (@eli_kamisher) August 3, 2022
In the wee hours of Wednesday, the drone of heavy-duty drills echoed across the park as 8-foot metal fencing was erected and bolted into the concrete sidewalks around the perimeter of the park, four blocks south of UC’s campus.
About two dozen protesters and a handful of unhoused people were scattered around the park when activity began. They were quickly surrounded by lines of uniformed University of California police department officers standing shoulder to shoulder — decked out in full riot gear.
As more protesters arrived at People’s Park, skirmishes broke out intermittently throughout the morning, and several people were hit with batons while police attempted to clear crowds away from the site.
The fencing was the first step in UC Berkeley’s plan to construct housing for 1,100 university students and 125 unhoused residents within two 12- and six-story dorm buildings, after an Alameda County Superior Court judge effectively lifted a stay preventing any physical changes to People’s Park.
Within an hour after midnight, each of the four streets bounding the 2.8-acre park were barricaded and cleared of any lingering cars, in an attempt to keep non-residents away from the area as dozens of construction workers and private security guards on site effectively closed down the park.
Lisa Teague, a member of the People’s Park Council, said the operation unfolded just as she feared: slow, methodical and with “lots of backup.”
“It’s almost worse because it’s so calculated,” Teague said, adding that the timing was “perfect” in between the completion of summer classes and the start of the fall semester, before a majority of students would return to Berkeley. “They knew the timeline, so they had a chance to refine their tactics. They didn’t want a shitstorm.”
A small handful of protesters and activists vying to preserve the park — bounded by Telegraph Avenue, Bowditch Street, Dwight Way and Haste Street — were arrested after lying limp in front of construction tractors trying to make their way inside under bright flood lights.
UC Berkeley spokesperson Dan Mogulof said the university wanted to start construction as soon as possible in order to complete the project and welcome new residents within two years, attempting to address the university’s “urgent” student housing crisis. About 82% of the more than 45,000 undergraduate and graduate students enrolled last fall were left to find off-campus housing — the highest percentage among the entire University of California system.
“As soon as we got the green light, of course we were going to be ready,” Mogulof said Wednesday morning. “Safety is what matters right now. Obviously, a time when the park is least populated, that minimizes the chance for confrontation and maximizes the chance for a safe process.”
In addition to 1.7 acres that will be preserved as open space, the university has included tentative plans to honor the history of People’s Park with a memorial walkway, murals and photo displays.
NEW: Protesters have broken through a section of the fence around People’s Park in Berkeley, temporarily pausing crews with chainsaws that have been cutting down several trees @MercNews @EastBayTimes https://t.co/VFNyhWTlon pic.twitter.com/z4CRBqiU78
— Katie Lauer (@_katielauer) August 3, 2022
Prior to construction commencing on site, the park was quiet Tuesday evening, with only a handful of college students, bikers and an occasional car driving by the site, lit primarily by a waxing crescent moon.
Alecia Harger, who stayed at the park while construction crews fenced protesters inside, said there’s no mistaking why UC overtook the park “overnight and under the cover of darkness.”
“They knew that they could not bring out this all-out offensive in broad daylight when there were still numbers in the park,” Harger said. “This falls well into UC’s facade: clean, crisp and put together as an academic institution. They’ve orchestrated this quite well.”
Construction was delayed until Judge Frank Roesch submitted his final judgment, denying several lawsuits — filed jointly last year by the Local 3299 union for UC service workers and community groups Make UC A Good Neighbor and Berkeley Citizens for a Better Plan — that argued that the housing project violated the California Environmental Quality Act.
The groups unsuccessfully argued that environmental impact reports within UC’s long-range development plan, which, in part, lays out how the institution plans to accommodate its ever-growing student population over the next 15 years, were inadequate. They maintained the plans failed to account for how student enrollment growth will negatively impact the surrounding community, from increasing greenhouse gases to clogging already dangerous wildfire evacuation routes.
Additionally, their attorneys claimed that UC officials failed to consider more than a dozen other locations for the housing rather than the historic park, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in June.
After the judgment was filed on Tuesday in the Alameda County Superior Court, the stay that was in place barring any construction at People’s Park was automatically moot – providing a green light for the university to go ahead and begin construction.
Andrea Pritchett, a member of the People’s Park Council who was one of the protesters arrested for blocking the construction action, said she’s now banned from UC property for “trespassing” Wednesday morning.
After getting back to the park Wednesday morning, she said protesting was the only thing she could do to voice her opposition to UC “depriving the community of a sacred space.”
“I believe that when a community gives up its history, it gives up its lifeline,” Prichett said. “If they were proud of what they did, they would have done it in broad daylight. They came in the middle of the night, because that’s what thieves do.”