People’s Park: Competition or Cooperation?

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Tuesday December 11, 2007

It’s competition vs. cooperation at People’s Park. 

A debate over whether UC Berkeley should sponsor an open competition to choose a new design for the historic site erupted after People’s Park Community Advisory Board member and architect Sam Davis suggested holding a competition last week. 

While some board members agreed that a competition would enhance plans to redevelop the park, others said the move was premature and called for more community involvement instead.  

The competition would be based on the People’s Park Assessment and Planning Study that was prepared by San Francisco-based consultants MKThink over a nine-month period. 

At an earlier meeting in November, park users and stakeholders had emphasized the need for open green space and had criticized plans in the consultant’s study that involved permanent structures.  

Almost everyone involved stressed the importance of fighting crime and homelessness in the park and keeping the spirit of social service alive.  

“There may be disagreements but the document is now finished,” co-chair Joe Halperin said. “It will be provided to anyone who wants to create a plan.” 

He also criticized community members and the university for neglecting the park’s homeless population. 

Davis, who designs homeless shelters and housing, added that recommendations to UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau for solving homeless problems had not received any feedback yet. 

He suggested that a university-appointed task force—separate from the community advisory board—including service providers, the city’s health department and UC faculty specializing in public policy, social welfare and public health, should outline a plan for providing social services to at-risk individuals frequenting the park.  

“We want the cooperation of the city instead of the health department who I am not really impressed with,” said board member Lydia Gans. 

The board also decided to add members from their group to the task force. 

“Coordinating efforts of the city, the university and the churches seems like a responsible thing to do,” said board member George Beier. “I just hope it’s not an opportunity to kick Food Not Bombs off the park.”  

Community members had complained at the November meeting that the report had undermined the importance of Food Not Bombs, which provides free meals in the park to more than 100 people every day. 

“The competition is a good idea,” Beier added. “I could see a landscape architect or a public health class getting involved in it.” 

UC student-member Ionas Porges-Kiriakou questioned whether an architecture competition would allow the public to voice its opinion.  

“It’s not the right time to have a competition,” board member Gianna Ranzzi, who voted against the idea, added. “We should work on the proposals in the report that are doable, such as drainage and solving crime … We have a lot of work to do before we set forth on something like a competition.” 

Community gardener Terri Compost emphasized the need for cooperation.  

“It’s really exciting to see riots once in a while, but I really don’t want to see that,” she said. “People’s Park was created in the spirit of cooperation, so the idea that we could find a design through a competition where one idea would win and others would lose is completely contrary to the spirit of the park … I think the park needs careful collective planning and if the university or the board is unable or unwilling to bring people together to find where we have common ground, then the process has to come from the grassroots.” 

“I think the time is good for the university to step forward, especially since the City of Berkeley is providing $1 million for homeless services,” said board member Mike Bishop. 

The board agreed that the instructions for the competition would emphasize board recommendations and community involvement and require a feature that celebrated the park’s historical significance. 

“The notion that if we hold a competition there will be a riot is absurd,” said Davis. “We need to get the ball rolling. A competition will allow people to see things we haven’t seen and to recommend things we haven’t recommended.” 

Co-chair John Selawsky told the Planet after the meeting that no parameters had been set for the competition yet. 

“People are bristling at the idea of a competition because they don’t want change and fear the unknown,” he said.  

“A lot of students have potential when it comes to contributing new ideas. The Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. was designed by a student … We need to make the park more exciting and turn it into a destination point. Irrespective of whether people like it or not, the university holds the deed to the land. They will be footing the bill and they will have the final say.”