UC Regents Approve People’s Park Conversion, Discuss Post-COVID Future

UC Berkeley’s plans to convert People’s Park into undergraduate and community housing can now come to fruition, following approval by UC’s board of directors at its regular meeting on Wednesday.

Recommended for approval by the Regents’ Financial and Investment Strategies Committee yesterday, the project aims to house 1,100 undergraduate students and will provide supportive housing to low-income and homeless community members, according to a report. UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ campus-wide email. She added that construction will not begin until current residents of the park are offered housing and other services.

During this time, more than half of the park will remain open outdoor space for the Berkeley community, and a public memorial will be erected in honor of People’s Park and its rich history.

“Since we announced the plans for the People’s Park project in 2018, I have been confident that we have a win-win opportunity that benefits our students, homeless people in our community and our neighbors across town,” said declared Christ. in the email.

As the transformation of the space drew criticism from residents and advocates of the homeless community, a campus survey in August found that 68% of students supported the project after learning more about it. its goals and plans.

Many local advocacy groups, however, remain strongly opposed to the project, voicing concerns for the homeless community and for the history and heritage of the park.

The People’s Park Historic District advocacy group said the project was helping gentrify the city, making it harder to maintain communities of color. He specifically notes that the black population in Berkeley has grown from 23.5% to 7.9% since 1970.

“The students are not in favor of this,” said Harvey Smith, chairman of the People’s Park Historic District advocacy group, noting a campus protest that took place earlier this month. “Why are they choosing a site that has national significance and an incredible history? “

In addition to voting on the future of People’s Park, the board also listened to concerns from members of the UC community during public comments and discussed the reopening of the system and the post-pandemic future.

During the public comments, several UC system workers called on the regents to increase workers’ flexibility and honor requests to continue working remotely. A number of workers also mentioned concerns about retention and a growing desire among staff to leave the system.

Members of UC-AFT, a union representing university professors, also called on regents to support early-career performance reviews and merit-based retention policies. Many have also said they will be ready to strike if an improved contract is not reached.

“The decision to treat speakers as concert workers undermines my efforts because I never know when my job will expire,” UC-AFT member Chase Hobbes Morgan said in a public comment. “I cannot credibly say to the students that I will be able to support them all along the line. “

Following public commentary, regents and chancellors from various UC campuses discussed plans for the reopening, relying heavily on contributions from Christ and UC Chancellor Merced Juan Sánchez Muñoz, whose campuses have been open for more than a month, unlike those in the neighborhood system.

Christ and Muñoz cited relatively low COVID-19 positivity rates on campuses and high compliance with vaccination and mask mandates as keys to success.

“We decided to return to in-person teaching because productivity and shared experiences on campus are truly essential to building, strengthening and sustaining a strong and inclusive college culture,” Christ said at the meeting. “This is what the students ask for and continue to remind us every day since our return. “

While the Chancellors remained optimistic about their current efforts, concerns were also expressed about the transmission of COVID-19 and allegedly insufficient preventive measures.

ASUC Vice President of Academic Affairs James Weichert specifically noted during public comments that the return to in-person teaching has not been easy, with the campus averaging over 50 cases per week.

He alleged that the higher rates of COVID-19 were helped by the lack of asymptomatic tests and the lack of a quarantine period at the start of the semester.

“For over a month now, Berkeley has been back in person, but not without its fair share of setbacks,” Weichert said during a public comment. “Students, faculty and staff are suffering because Berkeley does not want to take responsibility for its mistakes.”

Meanwhile, UC Student Association president Esmeralda Quintero-Cubillan said many common challenges facing students – including academic and housing difficulties – have since been exacerbated. return to teaching in person.

Quintero-Cubillan further alleged that campuses did not do enough to support these students in times of need.

“I have seen students looking at lessons through windows because the lessons are overcrowded. I watched Facebook ads for individual units inundated with hundreds of desperate responses from students starting classes without stable housing, ”Quintero-Cubillan said at the meeting. “I and other student leaders have had to act and act as public health experts, housing specialists and case advocates to make up for the failures on campus. “

Later in the meeting, the board discussed increasing the capacity of unified communications, an initiative that it hopes will help promote equity in education.

Specifically, UC President Michael Drake has said he would like the university to add 20,000 system-wide students by 2030. That, he said, would be like adding another campus.

While increasing capacity may involve traditional methods, such as constructing new buildings, Drake hopes UC takes a more innovative approach, reducing the time it takes to graduate, strengthening financial aid services. and promoting more online opportunities.

“The demand and value of UC training has only grown over the years,” Drake said at the meeting. “Enrollment growth is essential for the future of the university and the state. And that’s a key priority.

Speaking on potential enrollment increases, Regent Art Torres added that UC must prioritize the diversity of students and faculty, noting particularly low enrollments from African-American students.

However, student regent Alexis Atsilvsgi Zaragoza warned the board, expressing concerns about the possibility of welcoming and housing more students.

“We have students who are placed in hotel rooms,” Zaragoza said during the meeting. “The fact that we even have to look to this kind of option is a huge red flag to me – that we don’t even have the capacity to take care of our current students. … We really have to solve the problems that are directly before us.

The board also heard from Regent Emeritus Monica Lozano, who presented a set of recommendations made by the Recovery with Equity task force, established by the office of Governor Gavin Newsom in August 2020.

These recommendations included increasing faculty diversity, streamlining the UC admissions process, reducing college costs, and promoting more inclusive learning environments.

“It’s not about recovering,” Lozano said at the meeting. “It’s really about reimagining and redesigning a system to make it work for all residents of California.”

Towards the end of their meeting, the regents also heard from UC Health Executive Vice President Carrie Byington, who provided an update on the current state of COVID-19 in California and commended UC researchers for their efforts. scientific contributions.

She hopes that if vaccination rates continue to rise and the variants are attenuated, COVID-19 could turn the corner and become an endemic virus by March 2022.

“We have to mourn the losses we have,” Byington said at the meeting. “But I am so hopeful that thanks to the vaccination, we are coming out of the worst of the pandemic. “

Mallika Seshadri is the editor-in-chief. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @SeshadriMallika.

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