People’s Park Report Slammed

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday November 09, 2007

Community members urged UC Berkeley to keep People’s Park an open space and sharply criticized a report on possible changes to the park at the People’s Park Community Advisory Board meeting Monday. 

More than 30 people commented on the draft report assessing the park’s needs and future changes prepared by San Francisco-based MKThink, consultants who were paid $100,000 by the university to conduct a nine-month study. 

Park users, UC Berkeley students and Telegraph area residents and merchants stressed that crime was their major concern at People’s Park. 

“We have to face the fact that it’s become very very dangerous,” said Michele Pelegri, a neighbor. “Some changes have to happen. Safety has to happen.” 

Captain Mitch Celaya, UC Berkeley assistant police chief, told the Planet after the meeting that he was extremely concerned about People’s Park. 

“There have been a total of 181 incidents that required police reports at the park this year,” he said. “Seventeen of those were violent crimes. The department supports cleaning it up or pruning the trees and bushes to make it a less attractive place for troublemakers. For individuals who say the park is a safe place, I am not sure they have a realistic view of what’s going on.” 

MKThink’s report proposed pavilions and other structures for the park. 

Sharon Hudson, a resident of Telegraph Avenue, called the proposed buildings in the plans “non-starters.” 

“The university has eyed that portion for development for the last 40 years and that will not happen without bloodshed,” said Gary Spencer. 

Debbie Moore urged boardmembers to look at the process carefully. 

“There is a process that happens every year and UC always wants to build something on it to reap profits,” she said. “If anything is constructed, riots will break out. Everyone wants open ground kept as open ground.” 

Park activist Arthur Fonseca said that the report ignored the existence of the free box—recently destroyed—and the free speech stage at the park. 

Board member George Beier complained that the report had failed to mention ways of honoring the park’s history. 

“We didn’t feel like we were qualified enough to comment on how to recognize the park,” said Mark Miller, the firm’s principal planner. 

Board member Gianna Ranuzzi said that the use of words such as “battleground” and “conflict” had cast a negative shadow on the report’s introduction. 

“We are summarizing what we saw to the board,” Miller replied. “They can take it or toss it.” 

Community members were also indignant that the report undermined the importance of Food Not Bombs, which provides free meals to more than 100 people every day. 

“They keep saying we need professional services,” said Peter Ralph, a park user. “There are a lot of people there who are served by the structure of Food Not Bombs and they didn’t talk to them.” 

Homeless shelter advocate Michael Reagan called MKThink’s suggestion to professionalize social services at the park “asinine.” 

“I could have done the same thing MKThink did for $100,” he said. “The university should have used the $100,000 to feed the homeless.” 

Miller told the board that the firm was not qualified to recommend whether the current social services were useful to the public and that further assessment would be required to come to a conclusion. 

“Engage in some serious thinking, not some MKThink,” one park user told the board.  

Gardener Terri Compost said that the report was based on two false concepts: the park was underutilized. and lacked diversity. 

“It is utilized and one of the most diverse places in the world,” she said. “We can definitely evolve the park. It can change. It doesn’t have to be static. But we need to involve everybody. I don’t think that getting rid of the trees and shrubs will help us to see through the park. Hopefully the university is not hoping to slip in those buildings there.”  

Emily Marthinsen, vice chancellor of facilities at UC Berkeley, said that the public comments would be included in the board’s final recommendations to the university scheduled to be discussed on Dec. 3.