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UC Berkeley needs to double down on building out Clark Kerr

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Special to the Daily Californian

OCTOBER 26, 2023

From a mandated enrollment cap on UC Berkeley to legally treating students as noise pollutants in the eyes of environmental law, UC Berkeley’s history with campus construction is rife with controversial litigation. One area of campus’ construction history that is often under-discussed is the development history (or relative lack thereof) of the Clark Kerr Campus. 

However, this wasn’t an accident. 

To understand how the residence hall looks and functions today, one must go back to before the property’s acquisition by UC Berkeley — when Clark Kerr served as the home of the California School for the Deaf and Blind. Upon the school’s plans to vacate the Clark Kerr Campus for a newly constructed campus in Fremont, UC Berkeley and the city of Berkeley partnered in the late 1970s to both acquire and plan for the redevelopment of the property. In settling with the Claremont Elmwood Neighborhood Association, or CENA, UC Berkeley agreed to limit its development plans on its portion of the property in what was dubbed the Dwight-Derby Plan.

Critically, in the covenant it struck with CENA, UC Berkeley was almost entirely barred from developing the Clark Kerr Campus for a period of 50 years after the 1982 effective date. Development on Clark Kerr in this agreement was limited to the rehabilitation and replacement of existing structures on the campus under the Dwight-Derby Plan.

The limitation on Clark Kerr’s development until 2032 prevents underutilized property from being converted to recreational and housing facilities.

For example, a recent instance of the covenant causing limitation involves a lawsuit from CENA challenging the construction of a women’s volleyball court. An Alameda County judge ruled in favor of CENA and ordered a halt to the plans. Keep in mind that the volleyball court was being proposed by the Cal Athletics department as part of “compliance with Title IX.” 

Nonetheless, UC Berkeley backed down afterward, and Clark Kerr yet again remains limited in its form and layout.

While UC Berkeley faces a dire housing crisis, what frustrates me is that the courts say these specific vacant Clark Kerr buildings are off-limits for more housing. On top of that, it’s appalling that the most underutilized parcels on campus are not being cleared to create more student-serving facilities.

Even more infuriating is the state of disrepair that some of these buildings are found in. For example, in one such building known as Building 21, a human skeleton was discovered. 

To those in CENA and elsewhere who vigorously defend keeping the Clark Kerr Campus as is, I ask: What is it about blighted and seismically unsafe campus buildings that is so important to keep intact?

Beyond just the opinions of preservationists such as CENA, the spirit of the Clark Kerr covenant speaks to a larger problem that UC Berkeley has with its development planning: Who decides? 

Since some of Berkeley’s wealthiest homeowners can essentially determine campus development, I find it difficult to see UC Berkeley’s Campus Master Plan as a vision by and for the campus and its community. 

Should some Berkeley residents have more sway over campus development than others? To me, that answer is an unequivocal no. Yet, that is the effective power dynamic when a wealthy neighborhood group can attempt to stop certain projects. The legal efforts to exclude additional students from living near campus add to a long history of exclusion in the Claremont and Elmwood neighborhoods. 

Of all the places in the U.S., Elmwood is the first neighborhood that was zoned for single-family housing in the country. At the same time, the Federal Housing Administration segregated the Claremont and Elmwood neighborhoods through the denial of mortgages to African Americans seeking to live in those neighborhoods. 

While it’s no longer 1950, the use of historical preservation to keep Clark Kerr unchanged brings into question what can realistically be done in the Claremont and Elmwood neighborhoods to rectify their exclusionary past and their strikingly low Black population today.

Taking into account the reasons above, it’s in the best interest of students and the Berkeley community at large to encourage UC Berkeley to challenge the covenant in the courts or through a legislative override. 

UC Berkeley needs to prioritize getting the most use out of every acre of Clark Kerr whenever it is legal to do so, as the future of our campus will depend on it.

Matt Aini is a junior studying political science and business administration at UC Berkeley. Contact the Opinion Desk at [email protected]

OCTOBER 26, 2023