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Police in Berkeley cleared protests against a park being converted to student housing

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

At a historic park in Berkeley, Calif., this week, law enforcement arrested nearly a dozen activists who were protesting a new student housing project. They cleared the site. Crews walled it off. As member station KQED's Vanessa Rancano reports, People's Park has long been a hot spot of controversy.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: When's People's Park is under attack, what do we do?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Say no, fight back.

VANESSA RANCANO, BYLINE: When protesters gathered this week facing law enforcement officials in riot gear, Lev Marcus' voice was one of the loudest in the crowd. As a Berkeley kid, Marcus grew up with People's Park as part of his cultural identity.

LEV MARCUS: People's Park is definitely a special place.

RANCANO: In the '60s, residents converted what was a dumpy, UC Berkeley-owned lot into a park. They planted trees, made artwork and held antiwar protests. Marcus' parents were among them.

MARCUS: It was a place I heard about growing up. It was, you know, where my parents' generation did a lot of their protesting.

RANCANO: When the university fought to reclaim the land, a bloody confrontation between protesters and law enforcement broke out. Then-Governor Ronald Reagan declared a state of extreme emergency in Berkeley and sent in the National Guard. In the decades since, tensions over control of the park have continued. In recent years, unhoused people have camped in the park, and officials say there's been an increase in criminal activity. Still, it's remained an important gathering place for Berkeleyites like Lev Marcus.

MARCUS: It's a place where I've met a lot of really cool, interesting people that I wouldn't have been able to otherwise. The park has always, you know, been a place for outsiders, I think.

RANCANO: People's Park is now on the National Register of Historic Places. But California has a dire housing shortage, and students aren't immune. A recent survey from the California Student Aid Commission found over half of college students who applied for financial aid don't have secure housing. UC Berkeley's response to the crisis calls for adding more than 9,000 new beds for students, says Kyle Gibson, director of communications for the university.

KYLE GIBSON: More than double our existing housing inventory when we started our housing initiative.

RANCANO: As part of that effort, the university has been trying to build a student housing complex on People's Park since 2018.

GIBSON: We're looking at taking more than just 1,100 students with this project alone out of the private Berkeley rental market. So that not only helps our students, but helps to raise up over a thousand units of housing for the broader Berkeley community.

RANCANO: There will also be permanent supportive housing for about a hundred unhoused people. UC Berkeley third-year Nick Grosh thinks a lot about his classmates' housing needs. He's chair of the student government's housing commission, but he has reservations about this project.

NICK GROSH: Just because I'm in support of student housing, which I am, doesn't mean that all student housing, no matter the context, is good.

RANCANO: Grosh says he would have liked to see the university do more to include community input in the process, and he's concerned that the new student housing might not wind up being affordable.

GROSH: I think that there is a future where there could be housing on People's Park if it's done right, but the way the university is going about it is the wrong way to do it.

RANCANO: The university responded by saying they did a lot of community outreach that informed the final shape of the housing project. They also said all of their housing is below market rate. They plan to keep two-thirds of the site as a public park, but objectors say it won't be the same.

For NPR News, I'm Vanessa Rancano in Berkeley.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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