People’s Park groups sue UC Berkeley for $4.5M in damages to plants

This article was originally published on Thursday, August 17, 2023, in The Daily Californian. You can read an archived version at the Internet Archive.

Update 08/18/23: This article has been updated to include a statement from campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof.

People’s Park advocates filed a lawsuit against UC Berkeley Monday, seeking $4.5 million in damages for destruction that occurred during campus’s failed attempt to begin construction on the park last August.

The lawsuit — filed by People’s Park Council, or PPC, and People’s Park Project/Native Plant Forum, or PPP/NPF primarily revolves around the destruction of trees, shrubs, flowers and ornamental plants in the park. These plants included rare or endangered native trees and the park’s Fred Cody Redwood Grove, also known as the “Council Circle,” according to the complaint.

“We established the garden lawfully with the full knowledge and consent of the University of California,” said David Axelrod, the lawyer representing PPC and PPP/NPF. “They just willy-nilly sawed them down without any recognition of the environmental value as well as the property values, which was an abuse of power.”

Also at issue is a wheelchair ramp to the People’s Park stage, which, according to the lawsuit, was also damaged as the university began construction in the park. The destruction of the ramp unlawfully denied disabled park patrons access to the stage, the complaint alleged.

As of press time, the university has not received formal notice, or service, of the lawsuit.

“This is the latest iteration of a case that has been thrown out over and over again by the courts,” said campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof in an email statement. “The notion that the University will be spending more than $300 million to build urgently needed student housing on a site it does not own in its entirety is simply ridiculous.”

In 1974, the university authorized students to create PPP/NPF with the intention to create a garden in People’s Park. At the time, the relationship between campus administrators and park patrons and advocates was amicable, according to Axelrod.

Agreements between campus officials and PPP/NPF in 1978 and 1979 acknowledged that the purpose of the PPP/NPF was to establish a garden and to contribute “to the landscaping of the entire area.” Campus officials had also allegedly agreed to discuss with the PPP/NPF before making any significant changes to the park. (The Daily Californian was unable to independently confirm whether these agreements are still in effect.)

Axelrod pointed to the agreements as evidence that the gardens in the park were authorized by the university and that it did not have the right to remove them. Axelrod contended that, even if the university owns the park land, the university does not have the right to destroy the plants and gardens that were placed there by park patrons.

“It was our labor, it was our sweat equity that went into planting the native plants and the community gardens in People’s Park, and that was recognized,” Axelrod said, who was also involved in the PPP/NPF from its inception.

The suit contends that property losses amount to $2.8 million, and repair costs amount to $1.7 million, for a total of $4.5 million in damages. Axelrod added that some of the destruction is irreparable, as fully grown trees cannot be replaced.

The destruction goes back to Aug. 3, 2022, when UC Berkeley closed the park in the early morning to begin the construction of a student housing complex. Following unrest and a court order, construction in the park was paused, and it hasn’t restarted since.

Previously released plans for the People’s Park housing project did note, however, that the new development would include “new gardens” with native plants and trees, “many of which” would be preserved from the old park.

Campus spokespeople had also previously spoken of the importance of building student housing on People’s Park.

“Our commitment to addressing an urgent student housing crisis, and to supporting unhoused members of our community, is unwavering,” Mogulof and campus spokesperson Kyle Gibson previously told The Daily Californian.

Monday’s suit is just the latest chapter of a long legal battle between People’s Park advocates, campus and the city of Berkeley.

A lawsuit filed by Make UC a Good Neighbor and the People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group in August 2021 alleged that the university violated California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, in its handling of the People’s Park development plans. That lawsuit received nationwide attention and is set to go on appeal before the California Supreme Court — if the state legislature doesn’t act first to change the law.

In July 2021, the same two advocacy groups filed another lawsuit against the city of Berkeley about People’s Park development plans, alleging violations of Berkeley Measures L and N and California’s Brown Act. Since then, however, the lawsuit has essentially morphed into a breach of contract case against campus over the alleged violation of the decades-old agreements between PPP/NPF and campus, according to Axelrod. That lawsuit is ongoing.

In contrast, Monday’s filing in Alameda County Superior Court does not seek an order that the university adhere to the agreements, but rather monetary damages from campus for its destruction of the park.

Last updated Friday, August 18, 2023. Written by Gabe Classon.

Tags: Alameda County Superior Court, Brown Act, California Environmental Quality Act, Council Circle, Dan Mogulof, David Axelrod, Fred Cody Redwood Grove, Kyle Gibson, Make UC a Good Neighbor, Measure L, measure N, people's park council, People’s Park, People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group, People’s Park Project/Native Plant Forum