In a contentious battle over the fate of Berkeley's iconic People's Park, neighborhood groups have sought legal action against the University of California Regents. The groups are claiming that university officials "willfully and maliciously" destroyed the community's plants and property, thereby hindering access and enjoyment to the park. This recent development adds another layer to the ongoing conflict surrounding the future use of the land.
Three nonprofits, People's Park Council, People's Park Project, and Native Plant Forum, filed a civil complaint seeking $4.5 million in damages from the university. According to an article by Mercury News, the complaint states that university officials knowingly ravaged the plants, trees, shrubs, and wildflowers in People's Park, despite existing agreements dating back to the 1970s and 1980s between the University of California and community volunteers.
Last August, the university ordered the demolition crews to begin felling trees and fencing in the property at People's Park. The site, originally seized by UC Berkeley through eminent domain and bulldozed in 1968, had eventually been transformed into a park by local residents and eventually emerged as a hotbed of activism. In 2021, the university approved a controversial plan to develop the site into housing for over 1,000 students, and up to 100 units for unhoused residents.
David Axelrod, an attorney representing the People's Park nonprofits, explained in the Daily Californian, "We invested a lot of time, money, effort, and sweat equity in building that park. It was not intended to be a donation to UC Berkeley or the UC Regents, nor did they view it that way over the years." The lawsuit estimates the monetary damages incurred amount to $4.5 million - $2.8 million from lost assets and $1.7 million in repairs.
However, UC Berkeley spokesperson Dan Mogulof spoke to the SF Gate and dismissed the lawsuit as "the latest iteration of a case that's been thrown out over and over again by the courts." Mogulof rejected the idea that UC has ceded ownership of any portion of the property, especially as the university still intends to build a $300 million project there.
While the legal proceedings unfold, one cannot ignore the rich history and cultural significance of People's Park. The site has served as a space for political activism since the 1960s and was declared a historic and cultural landmark by the city of Berkeley in 1984. It was also added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2022. This complex legacy and the park's unique status within the community add more weight to the ongoing debate.
Many protestors and park advocates remain steadfast in their belief that the land should be preserved. People's Park Council member, Joseph Liesner, explained to SF Gate that the money from the lawsuit should go towards reforesting the park. "We'd like to see the park brought back so it's able to be used as a park, with shade and nature, and homes for the owls and hawks that lived there," he said. "We see no reason at this juncture in the history of the climate crisis to destroy a park. They do not need it for student housing."
The recent $4.5 million lawsuit serves as just another chapter in the long-lasting legal battle between People's Park advocates, UC Berkeley, and the city. What was once a cooperative relationship between the university and park patrons has devolved into a tangled mess of conflicting interests.