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Surprise protest interrupts Underhill plan meeting

John Geluardi Daily Planet Staff
Wednesday November 15, 2000

Attendees at the Underhill Area Project community open house Monday night at the Unit II Residence Hall on Haste Street were presented with an unscheduled performance protest complete with costumes, sound effects and stage blood. 

About 50 people were milling around the lower recreation room eating cookies and sipping coffee while studying the latest designs and concepts for the project when about 20 protesters, including Berkeley Councilmember Kriss Worthington, entered the room and began chanting “What do we want? Housing! When do we want it? Now!”  

They were soon followed by the sound of screeching brakes, twisting metal and shattering glass blasting from a large speaker on a dolly. Then a protester inside a car-shaped cardboard costume, with “Underhill Monster” written in large letters on the side, symbolically mowed down four protesters who then lay in a pool of red liquid as the a faint odor of tomato juice wafted through the room. 

Protesters contend the university’s Underhill Area Plan emphasizes parking at the expense of student housing. 

The plan includes a series of structures in a five-block area bounded by Dwight Way and Durant, Telegraph, College avenues that will include a 1,400-car parking structure, a playing field, a dining and office facility and three residence halls, which will provide housing for approximately 870 students. 

Today and Thursday in Los Angeles the UC Regents will be examining the Final Environmental Impact Report, recently released by LSA Associates, Inc. They will be asked to certify the FEIR and approve designs for the dining and office facility and one of the housing structures known as the College Durant Student Housing Project, which will house 120 students in 30 units. 

The construction of the dining hall and offices is scheduled to begin in January and work on the College Durant Housing Project is slated to begin in the spring. The remaining projects are still in the conceptual stage. 

The focus of the protest was the block bounded by College Avenue, Channing Way and Haste and Bowditch streets, in which the parking structure, playing field and dining and office facility is planned. Opponents say there is currently no housing planned for that block and it may be the last chance the university has to build student housing close to campus. 

“There is not one student bed planned in the entire block,” Worthington said. “They could easily build several levels of housing above the garage.” 

The protesters, made up of a loose association of students, members of Bicycle Friendly Berkeley Coalition and members of the Rent Stabilization Board, said the UC Regents are missing an opportunity to provide up to 1,500 student beds in a prime location near the campus. In addition they said the disproportionate amount of parking will only encourage more people to drive, which will have an adverse effect on traffic and the environment. 

Community Relations Director Irene Hegarty said it’s inaccurate to frame the debate as parking versus housing and that it’s better framed as parking and open space versus housing. 

“We could have put more housing on top of the parking garage (where the field is planned) but this is a very dense neighborhood and at some point you have to have open space,” Hegarty said 

After the performance/protest, Worthington, calling the open house a “snow job,” demanded the UC Regents add more housing to the plan and reduce parking. He said continued indifference to student needs by university staff left opponents no choice but to stage the protest.  

“The students have attended meetings for months and have, in a more gentle way, tried to persuade the regents to add more housing, but they’ve been ignored,” he said. 

Rent Stabilization Board member Stefanie Bernay agreed. 

“The university is totally stonewalling us,” she said. “They are turning their backs on the worst student housing crisis Berkeley has ever seen.”  

Campus spokesperson Marie Felde disagreed. She said the university currently houses 5,100 students and the proposed new Underhill housing represents an increase of 17 percent. 

“We’re building nearly 900 beds I don’t think that’s turning your back on anyone,” she said. 

The protest was taken by university staff as a matter of course. Many continued talking about the project’s good points while protesters loudly voiced its shortcomings.  

“This is Berkeley and certain amount of this sort of thing is expected,” Felde said.