California governor signs bill to clear hurdles for student housing at Berkeley’s People’s Park

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill aimed at clearing the way for construction of a controversial student housing project in a historic Berkeley park.

The University of California, Berkeley, plans to build a $312 million housing project for about 1,100 of its students at the 3-acre (1.2-hectare) People's Park. While university officials said the project would bring much needed housing to its students, opponents wanted the university to preserve the park and build elsewhere. The park was founded in 1969 as part of the free speech and civil rights movement when community organizers banded together to take back a site the state and university seized under eminent domain.

The bill Newsom signed on Thursday, which takes effect immediately, alters a key state environmental law to say that developers don’t need to consider noise from future residents as a form of environmental pollution.

Construction came to a halt in February after an appeals court ruled that the university failed to study the potential noise issues caused by future residents and consider alternative sites. The state Supreme Court in May agreed to hear the case and will make the final ruling on whether the university could resume construction.

The appeals court's decision prompted Democratic Assemblymember Buffy Wicks, whose district includes Berkeley, to author the legislation.

The law makes it clear that “people are not pollution” under the state's sweeping California Environmental Quality Act, Wicks said in a statement. The law also removes the requirement for universities to considers alternative housing sites for a housing project if they meet certain requirements.

Newsom filed an amicus brief in April urging the state Supreme Court to allow UC Berkeley to continue with the housing project.

“California will not allow NIMBYism to take hold, blocking critically needed housing for years and even decades,” Newsom said in a statement about the new law. NIMBY refers to a movement known as “not in my backyard.”

A UC Berkeley spokesperson said the university will ask the Supreme Court to consider the new law in its ruling.

“The campus will resume construction of the People’s Park project when the lawsuit is resolved and hopes that the new law will substantially hasten the resolution of the lawsuit,” UC spokesperson Dan Mogulof said in a statement.

The People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group, one of the groups that is suing the university over the project, said Wicks didn't contact the group when the legislation was being considered.

“We see this as aberration of that whole process,” said Harvey Smith, the president of the group. “Our case centered around the fact that we felt it was a false choice to have to choose student housing over a park.”

Newsom's administration this year has made major changes to the state’s decades-old environmental law to make it easier and faster to build a slew of projects, including housing, solar, wind and battery power storage.