June 20, 2024
Nonprofits allege UC Regents intentionally caused $4.5 million in damage and repairs to community plants and property at People's Park.

BERKELEY — Neighborhood groups tied to People’s Park have filed a $4.5 million lawsuit against the University of California Regents, claiming officials “willfully and maliciously” destroyed the community’s plants and property — hindering access and enjoyment of the park in the process.

Three 50-year-old nonprofits — the People’s Park Council, People’s Park Project and Native Plant Forum — filed a civil complaint this week in Alameda County Superior Court, finding fault in how the Regents, the UC system’s governing board, ordered demolition crews last August to start felling trees and fencing in the property a few blocks south of UC Berkeley’s campus.

UC Berkeley has been eyeing the site for development since it seized the land by eminent domain and bulldozed the property in 1968 — leaving behind a vacant, muddy lot that hundreds of residents eventually transformed into a park with sod, flowers and trees in 1969. Amid UC’s continued push to develop the open space, the land subsequently emerged as a hotbed of activism and cradled decades of political protest, including the infamous “Bloody Thursday” conflict between Berkeley residents, students and law enforcement.

By 2021, the university approved its current, controversial plan to develop the site into housing for more than 1,000 students and up to 100 units for unhoused residents.

Demolition finally began before dawn on Aug. 3, 2022, but the entire project was put on hold after a chaotic, million-dollar standoff erupted between police and protesters who wanted to preserve the 2.8 acres of land as open space. The university and its housing plans have since slogged through legal challenges and appeals, and are currently awaiting a California Supreme Court to ruling on whether or not the development can move forward.

In the meantime, Monday’s lawsuit contends that university officials knowingly ravaged the plants, trees, shrubs and wildflowers that students and neighbors fostered at People’s Park — despite a series of oral agreements and signed letters between UC and community volunteers in the 1970s and ‘80s.

Additionally, the nonprofits claim the demolition damaged a wheelchair ramp to the “People’s Stage,” a bandstand constructed in 1979 to facilitate free speech and music at People’s Park, which now illegally limits disabled access.

David Axelrod, an attorney and member of the People’s Park Council, said the gardens, plants and structures are owned by the people who planted and constructed them, estimating that UC’s demolition racked up $4.5 million in monetary damages — $2.8 million from lost assets and $1.7 million in repairs.

“We invested a lot of time, money, effort and sweat equity in building that park,” Axelrod said in an interview Friday. “It was not intended to be a donation to UC Berkeley or the UC Regents, nor did they view it that way over the years.”

UC Berkeley spokesperson Dan Mogulof quickly dismissed the lawsuit as simply the “latest iteration of a case that’s been thrown out over and over again by the courts.” He rejected the claim that UC has ever ceded ownership of any portion of the property, especially considering the fact that the university is still planning to develop a $300 million project there.

Axelrod said there have been several disputes between the university and advocates about the park’s plant life since at least the 1970s, but this is the first time issues about the gardens have been brought to court. While Axelrod concedes that UC Berkeley does own the land at People’s Park, he compared that argument to destroying a car that parks in someone’s driveway.

“That doesn’t mean you own my car and you can wreck it — you’re gonna have to pay, even if I park there without permission,” Axelrod said. But the community organizations “had permission and the university knew we were planning those trees.”

BERKELEY, CA – AUGUST 3: Workers cut down a tree at Peoples Park on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022, in Berkeley, Calif. UC Berkeley plans to begin constructing housing at the site for 1,100 university students and 125 homeless residents. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group) 

According to the complaint, a host of gardeners, botanists, horticulturalists, artists, naturalists and park landscapers established two gardens at the east and west ends of People’s Park, using not only their own resources and funding, but also contributions from the People’s Council, Regional Parks Botanic Garden, California Native Plant Society the Associated Students of the University of California and many other groups and individuals.

The Regents’ employees and contractors “acted willfully and maliciously to saw down living trees and shrubs, including native trees, some of which are rare and endangered,”

Beyond fighting for compensation for the lost vegetation — some of which was native, rare, endangered or personally meaningful, such as the Fred Cody Redwood Grove’s “Council Circle” — Axelrod is fighting to prioritize protecting the plants, trees and gardens that benefit the environment.

“It’s just going in the wrong direction and anti-educational for a great university like UC Berkeley to be attempting to do that damage to our planet and local neighborhood,” he said.