Committee Looks at People’s Park’s Future

By Judith Scherr
Friday December 08, 2006

“The university has no plans to bulldoze the berms or anything else at People’s Park,” said People’s Park Advisory Committee Chair John Selawsky, reading from a UC Berkeley memo to the 35 or so park supporters crowded into the advisory committee meeting at Trinity United Methodist Church Monday evening. 

They had come to protest what they feared was the latest attempt by the university to wrest park control from the people who frequent it. 

Most of the crowd left after the 30-minute public comment, many irked that they did not have the opportunity to speak. And so they missed the substance of the meeting: a discussion of hiring a consultant who could bring significant changes to the 2.8-acre park made famous in 1969 when students and others faced off with police to demand control of the university-owned city block. 

The question of removing the berms or mounds of earth was brought to the university–appointed committee by city and university police who want to remove obstructions to give officers a clear view into the park from their patrol cars, in order to control the drug trade that most acknowledge takes place in the park. 

Reflecting the mistrust between park users and the university built up over 40 years, park supporter Robert Smith cautioned during the public comment period that if the university says it is not going to “bulldoze” the berms, it could use other means to get rid of them. “A backhoe” someone called out. 

The berms have historic significance to park regulars, volunteer gardener Terri Compost told the committee. Buried beneath them are pieces of asphalt torn out from volleyball courts installed against park activists’ will in 1991 and removed six years later.  

The berms serve another purpose, separating the garden from the street and creating a habitat for wildlife, one speaker said. 

“Change can happen in the park,” Compost said. “But it has to be done with respect; it has to involve the community.”  

Nobody argued that there is not hard drug dealing in the park or that there should not be police presence there—park users insisted, however, that the university listen to them on how to address the problem. 

“Taking out the berms will not get the dealers out,” said Michael Diehl, a mental health commissioner, active around People’s Park issues, “Taking out the free box will not get them out—talking to us will get them out.” 

“Go in with a foot patrol and get the drug dealers out,” insisted one park user.  

Neighbors from the Willard Park Neighborhood Association called for a safer park that all can use. 

While Advisory Committee Chair John Selawsky, a school board member, called for tabling the discussion on the berms because the university had said it would not bulldoze them, the committee majority wanted to discuss the question.  

Joe Halperin, an advisory board member who lives in the Willard Park area, argued for the removal of the berms so that passers by can see into the park. He argued that safety is not just an issue for people housed in the neighborhood. “The homeless are subject to crime,” he said. 

But Lydia Gans, advisory committee member representing Food not Bombs, an organization that brings free food to the park, argued: “The park provides sanctuary. It’s a place people can get a little privacy.”  

There may be some reasonable changes needed, she said, adding, “There are so many people who care so deeply, for the university to come along and say to change it, it’s arrogant and stupid.” 

Believing that the berms would not be removed, the committee took no action on the question and, with only about 10 people remaining in the audience, moved to a discussion of hiring a consultant to, perhaps, redesign the park. 

The university has put aside $100,000 for the effort. At this point, the reason for hiring the consultant is vague—the committee is in the process of choosing among applicants. The consultant would work with park “stakeholders” and complete a needs assessment by April, according to the university’s announcement for the job. “The award and scheduling of subsequent phases, including additional planning, design and construction, will be determined as funding permits,” says the announcement. 

While to some “design and construction” could foreshadow big changes in People’s Park, university spokesperson Marie Felde said that isn’t so. The consultant will be hired only to do a needs assessment. The phrase “design and construction” is standard language, used so that if there were design or construction to be done, the winning consultant would be permitted to do that, she said. 

Advisory committee member, George Beier, president of the Willard Park Neighborhood Association, said in a telephone interview on Tuesday that he envisages changes in the park that include a memorial to the free speech movement and a café. 

He added however: “People are so adverse to change. If they think you’re about to change one blade of grass to the berms, 100 people will show up.” 

Also speaking by phone on Tuesday, Mental Health Commissioner Diehl said he is open to changes that would bring in the greater community, and keep out the hard-drug dealers. But simply rounding up people committing minor infractions does not help, he said, noting that a lot of young people that cause trouble in the park and on Telegraph are coming out of the foster care system or juvenile hall. 

“Sending them to prison is not doing much good,” Diehl said, arguing that they go to Santa Rita and come back “hanging with real criminals.”  

Services including jobs and housing should be designed for them, he said. 

Councilmember Kriss Worthington, whose district includes People’s Park, said Wednesday that spending $100,000 on a consultant is wasting money. Housing for the homeless and creating assisted housing for people with mental health needs should be prioritized, along with a detox center, he said. 

Funds need to be spent on community involved policing, where the same officers work the same beats and get to know the people who frequent the area. 

Police should “target people selling hard drugs,” not smoking a joint, Worthington said. “We need a surgical tool, not a sledge hammer.”  

A subcommittee of the advisory committee will evaluate finalists among the applicants for the consultant position at a meeting at 7 p.m., Jan. 8 at Trinity Church, 2362 Bancroft Way.