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Demolition of People's Park Has Been an Expensive Boondoggle, Costs Rising

by Author
According to their own accounting, the University of California has spent roughly 11-million dollars to turn People's Park into a dirt lot. In addition, the expected cost of their development proposal has increased by a third, now expected to cost 400-million.
The University of California has not learned any lessons from prior development controversies. The construction of UC Berkeley's Jacob's Institute saw a major increase in costs due to protesters, students, and faculty trying to stop (in each their own way) the removal of a lush, and beloved redwood grove on the northern edge of campus. Police overtime and other security measures, as well as costs associated with delays in construction made the building more expensive than it would have been, if the University had gone with an alternative, and less controversial site in the campus core.

The ongoing situation at People's Park is an even bigger financial boondoggle. It is a similar situation, in that there is a development project that could be done cheaper, quicker and without dramatic controversy, if the UC had chosen an alternative site. In this case, the block directly north of People's Park is large enough to hold not only a new student dorm, but also the proposed low-income apartment complex for non-campus-affiliated residents. The UC's extreme stubbornness, driven by some sort of political ideology, is resulting in ballooning costs.

People's Park is an over 50 year old historical landmark, created through political and ecological action. The author Jack Burnham wrote in 1969: "Art is becoming a matter of ecological insight. The Berkeley People’s Park is a real time work of art. Even as a decimated cyclone-fenced lot, it challenges societal norms in the most fundamental way." The violent police response over the People's Park protest inspired Obie Benson of the Four Tops to write the song "What's Going On", which became a staple track for Marvin Gaye. People's Park inspired electronic musicians Paul Beaver and Bernard L. Krause, early adopters of the Moog synthesizer. A track called "People's Park" appears on their 1970 album "In A Wild Sanctuary".

In 2022, the UC attempted to shut down the park. The fence they tried to establish around the park was quickly dismantled by park advocates. The work crew left the property, surrendering some of their equipment to the protest. The police were called back from the scene. The UC spent 4-million dollars on this operation, with nothing to show for it.

This January, the UC made a larger push. For the raid on January 4th, the UC planned a force of 800 to a thousand officers on it's property and in the surrounding neighborhoods (through the assistance of various other law enforcement agencies). Instead of attempting to maintain a perimeter with a chain-link fence, the UC had a work crew construct a wall of stacked shipping containers. This wall still stands, with video cameras, security lighting, and is staffed with security guards all day and all night. The January 4th operation cost the UC, according to it's own reporting, a little under 7-million dollars. There are still ongoing costs of maintain the security presence through January up to today, whilst the matter of the People's Park development project is still being litigated in court.

The 4-million spent in 2022 and nearly 7-million spent in January adds up to a rounded total of 11-million dollars. It has taken that much money just to make a dirt lot out of a park. No rebar has been placed, no foundations have been poured. It has cost that much just to get capture the land, and get to a null point. The property isn't a park, but it isn't a construction site either.

The original estimate of the development proposal, which came forth in in 2021, was 300-million dollars. It has grown by a third, up to 400-million dollars. Ten percent of the additional 100-million dollars has been spent just to get the park to a null point. The 2021 development proposal was a full reversal of UC Berkeley's development strategy. Prior to the 2021 announcement, many UC administrators and staff foresaw building on People's Park as the boondoggle it would become. The official UC development plan recognized that other sites could be used. Housing could be developed without the level of controversy, without the potential for protest, and without the additional financial cost that would accrue at People's Park. Carol Christ, as acting Chancellor of UC Berkeley, ignored the advice and warnings, tossed out a reasonable development plan, and set a target on People's Park.

Whether the derelict buildings north of People's Park be replaced with new housing, or new housing be built on the campus core, or on some other UC owned property in Berkeley, there have been options for the University to consider. The 11-million dollars spent to make a dirt lot could have set foundations for housing elsewhere. As the tally continues to increase, just to guard that dirt lot, the UC should be criticized for the path it chose under the direction of Carol Christ.

The infamous retrofit of Memorial Stadium, and the development of the additional training-facility continues to be a source of debt for UC Berkeley. Without any financial oversight to reign in the project, the total price of that debacle was $500 million dollars. While the development of dorms and apartments is a completely different category than a sports facility, there a similar fundamental issue in that there appears to be no financial oversight on this project. The project has grown by an additional 100-million dollars in a rather short time with nothing to show for it. There is no bureaucratic mechanism in place to manage the costs. Nobody is putting on the breaks and forcing a reassessment of this project, to ask can this be done elsewhere for cheaper.
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