California Supreme Court hears arguments on UC Berkeley’s plans for housing at People’s Park

Should noise from the future residents of a housing project be considered a form of environmental pollution under California environmental regulations? And to what degree should housing developers be pushed to study alternative sites for a project?

These are the questions the California Supreme Court faced Wednesday as it heard oral arguments in a case between UC Berkeley and a group of activists countering the university’s plans to build housing at at People’s Park.

The case goes back to 2021, when Make UC A Good Neighbor and The People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group sued UC Berkeley over the project — which would provide 1,100 student beds and 100 beds for people who are formerly homeless — arguing that the university failed to properly assess noise generated by students living there, or consider alternative sites. The university argued that it is building housing on all of the sites outlined in its Long Range Development Plan, which envisions adding 12,000 new student beds and 8 million square feet of classrooms, libraries and research labs by 2036.

Last year, an appellate court sided with the activists 3-0. Fearing the decision would indefinitely delay its master plan, including any future student housing, UC Berkeley appealed to the state Supreme Court to overturn that decision.

The university also got a major boost last year when, in response to that appellate court ruling, the legislature passed AB 1307, amending the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to clarify that noise generated by a housing project’s occupants can’t be considered a significant impact on the environment.

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On Wednesday at the Ronald Reagan State Office Building in Downtown Los Angeles, UC lawyer Nicole Gordon pointed to the new law, arguing that it undermined the appellate court’s February decision and gave the Supreme Court reason to overturn it.

“CEQA is not meant to regulate people,” Gordon said. “Yes, people cause pollution, but never before has a court said that the people themselves are the pollution.”

The attorney for the People’s Park activists, Thomas Lippe, argued that, while AB 1037 may have rendered moot their argument around social noise regarding the People’s Park project, such noise should still be taken into account by environmental reviews of the university’s more broad long-range plan, which includes both residential and non-residential components.

“The legislature’s purpose was to remove barriers to the actual construction of housing,” Lippe argued. “It makes perfect sense for the legislature to leave a broad requirement in CEQA to… investigate the social noise impacts of increasing population.”

Chief Justice Patricia Guerrero, who presided over the oral arguments, asked how the court should distinguish between the residential and non-residential parts of the long-term plan, and when CEQA should apply.

“You simply would come up with a method… to analyze the effect of the noise of having more students in the city,” Lippe said, adding that some colleges, like UC Berkeley and UC Santa Barbara, “have a party culture” and that could be a “focus of the analysis.”

“Having CEQA require social noise analysis of the long-range plan simply doesn’t interfere with the actual decisions to construct housing,” Lippe said.

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Lippe also argued that UC Berkeley should be required to consider alternative sites as part of the environmental review that it conducts under CEQA.

“It is in the public interest for the court to decide… that the public has the right to be involved in that decision making and have the reasons for alternative sites not being chosen made clear in the [environmental impact review.]”

Geurrero pointed out that this could open up any future project for a court case if a community member contends that the developer hasn’t considered enough alternative sites — but Lippe said that wouldn’t happen, as the cost of litigation and mounting a case are too high a barrier for most community groups.

The discussion continued to come back to one thing: the university’s growth.

“The true target of the opponents’ challenge is really clear, that it is about undergraduate students,” Gordon argued.

Regardless of the court’s ruling on this case, the People’s Park housing project is expected to move forward, UC Berkeley spokesperson Dan Mogulof has said.

The university is in significant need of more housing — it currently provides just 22% of its more than 45,000 undergraduate and graduate students with on-campus housing, the lowest percentage of any UC school. The People’s Park project, plus other housing outlined in the long-range plan, would double the number of on-campus beds.

A decision is due by July 2.

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