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To Build or Not To Build

By The Crimson Editorial Board

In the last university riot at Oxford, almost 100 people died over three days of murder and alleged scalping. Six centuries later, universities still make difficult neighbors: With lawsuits and tirades in place of cudgels and staves, the fight has come to Berkeley, California.

This time, the fight is over scarce housing. On one side lies the University of California, Berkeley, which houses only 22 percent of its more than 30,000 undergraduates on campus. On the other is Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods, a community action group suing the university to cap its future enrollment. After a ruling from California’s highest court, the university must now accept 2,500 fewer students than previously planned.

As similar battles over scarce square footage roil the nation, it’s important to properly frame the issue. Berkeley isn’t facing a choice between cutting enrollment or suffering a housing crisis. They could build their way to having both. Instead, they face a choice between maintaining enrollment and preserving the intangible amenities, the general aesthetic, the “feel” of a neighborhood that so often decline in the wake of development.

Given the special value of education and the particular costs of denying it to thousands, the option of building more housing must be seriously considered. Four years at UC Berkeley can change the course of someone’s life, and many of Berkeley’s graduates have changed the course of history. The tuition and government grants attendant with increased enrollment bring tens of millions of dollars to the university which it can use to fund financial aid and research.

Whether providing that opportunity to 3,000 more students every year is worth the costs of development is a legitimate question. However, it is important to recognize that if both UC Berkeley and the city wish to house more students in new developments, they can.

We also recognize the genuine costs of development. Areas of cultural significance are essential to the vibrancy and character of any neighborhood, town, or city, and calls for more development remind us of our caution toward Harvard’s slow but deliberate acquisition and development of Allston. As a public university, Berkeley has a special obligation to its community which some development might violate.

People’s Park, a historic green and the site of a future Berkely dorm, encapsulates those concerns. The potential effects on homeless people living in People’s Park heightens our worry and reminds us that not all anti-development arguments are created equal: we are inclined to frown more on evicting the unhoused than changing the character of well-to-do suburbs.

What, then, to do? We are inclined to come down on the side of skyscrapers for skyrocketing enrollment. We are a pro-housing board in general, and the particular value of access to education makes this an easier case study than most. In the short term, it may be necessary to take drastic steps like reducing enrollment as Berkeley waits for new housing to go up, but that only works if all parties support new housing in the long term. Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods has often failed to do so.

But more so than our particular prescription, we have faith in the value of our framing. When versions of the Berkeley debate are playing out across the country, it's important to frame them properly.

Cities that want elite institutions and affordable housing can have their cake and eat it, too: so long as they are willing to build.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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