A possible first in Berkeley: Housing for the homeless in People’s Park
By Tracey Taylor
28 June 2017
Photo courtesy Kelly Sullivan
In the past, the city of Berkeley and UC Berkeley have clashed over issues such as building projects and parking. However both have new leadership, and these days there’s a sense of shared purpose, at least around one issue: Mayor Jesse Arreguín and UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ have both put the housing crisis at the top of their respective agendas.
Both parties have been working on identifying sites for new housing. For the city, that means approving market-rate and affordable housing. For the university, the focus is student accommodation, be it newly built dorms in partnership with private property owners to lease rooms. One place where the city’s and university’s visions converge is People’s Park. The result may be the first example in the country of a campus partnering with a city to build supportive housing to serve the homeless.
A conceptual plan has been drawn up by UC Berkeley that would see the construction of both student housing and separate supportive housing in the storied park. The proposal — outlined in a January report produced by a task force chaired by Chancellor Christ at the behest of outgoing Cal Chancellor Nicholas Dirks — also calls for the preservation of open park space, and “a memorial to the People’s Park history.” Traditional style residence halls would provide 200-350 beds for undergraduates, and probably include food service; while the “long-term indigent” housing would — according to Professor Emeritus of Architecture Sam Davis, who is tasked with overseeing the project — accommodate about 50-60 people.
“You want a minimum of 50 and a maximum of 60,” said Davis, who, as an architect, has built many supportive and affordable housing projects. “You need the critical mass to support the services but not too large so it’s institutional — it should be a home.” Davis said he believes such a joint university and city project would be a first in the country.
“I don’t think any other campus has done this,” he said. Other cities have homeless populations, of course, “but nobody else has People’s Park.”
Many other sites on the university’s list of potential locations for student housing present more compelling benefits. With the potential for just 200-300 student beds, People’s Park represents only a “drop in bucket” in terms of the needs the university must address: UC Berkeley houses only about 22% of its undergraduates and 9% of its graduate students — the lowest percentage of beds for its student body of any campus in the UC system.
The university’s Oxford Tract site — approximately 37,000 square feet of open land with greenhouses and growth chambers used for research by Cal’s Plant and Microbial department, located in the block on Oxford Street between Virginia and Hearst — offers the opportunity for 1,000-3,000 student beds, and is therefore a much higher priority than People’s Park.
Given how early it is in the planning process, it’s unclear whether the two separate housing projects would need to, or could, happen in unison. They each have different financing requirements. Student housing would likely be a public-private partnership between the university and a developer, as has been the case with recent new housing units, such as the soon-to-be-completed dorms on Bancroft Way in the old Stiles Hall building.
For the supportive housing, the University of California — which owns People’s Park as opposed to UC Berkeley — would likely lease a portion of the land to a nonprofit developer who has access to funding, said Davis. That developer would in turn lease the housing and provide supportive services. The city would participate in terms of services and the application for funding. “It’s a mosaic of funding,” said Davis.
Part of the new joint vision is for Cal students to be involved in providing the services made available as part of the transitional housing at the park. The School of Social Welfare’s master’s degree includes a requirement for field education. Davis said he could see students in that program working with Berkeley mental-health services at People’s Park, for instance. (Cal students already run the Suitcase Clinic, which provides medical services to those without housing.)
Asked when he would like to see the supportive housing element get built in the park, Davis said; “I wish it were happening tomorrow, but it will probably be at least two years.”
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