In Make UC a Good Neighbor v. Regents of University of California (2023) 88 Cal.App.5th 656, the First District Court of Appeal found the EIR for the UC Berkeley long range development plan (LRDP) and a student housing project inadequate. While the court rejected most of the petitioners’ claims, it held that the EIR failed to consider alternative locations for the housing project, and it did not analyze potential noise impacts caused by students in residential neighborhoods near campus.
In 2021, UC Berkeley adopted the LRDP to guide the university’s development decisions through the 2036-2037 academic year. The LRDP estimated future enrollment levels for planning purposes, but did not establish any enrollment levels. In part, the LRDP provides a strategy to increase housing in response to both a decades-long housing crisis in the region and a projected future increase in the campus population.
Consistent with the LRDP, the UC Regents began planning two student housing projects. One of those projects is located at People’s Park, a historically significant landmark associated with social and political activism in Berkeley. People’s Park is now occasionally used as a venue for special events, but is predominantly used “by transient and unhoused people in multiple encampments” and “is afflicted with crime.”
The Regents certified a hybrid EIR including a program-level review of the approval and implementation of the LRDP as well as a project-level review of the two housing projects.
Petitioners Make UC a Good Neighbor and The People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group filed a petition for writ of mandate alleging the EIR violated CEQA. The trial court denied the petition. Petitioners appealed.
Court of Appeal’s Decision
The court rejected petitioners’ arguments that (1) the EIR’s analysis of alternatives to the LRDP was insufficient, (2) the EIR improperly restricted the LRDP’s geographical scope to the campus, and (3) the EIR’s treatment of impacts related to population growth and displacement of existing residents was flawed. However, the court agreed with petitioners that the EIR’s failure to consider alternative locations for the People’s Park housing project was not adequately justified. Additionally, the court concluded that the EIR did not adequately consider potential noise impacts from student parties on nearby residential neighborhoods.
The court concluded that the Regents did not violate CEQA by omitting an alternative to the LRDP that would limit student enrollment. The court explained that, because the complicated process for determining enrollment levels is separate from the LRDP process, any alternative requiring a cap in future enrollment levels would change the nature and scope of the plan. Given the constrained purpose of the LRDP to “guide future development regardless of the actual amount of future enrollment,” the EIR did not need to include a capped enrollment alternative.
Scope of LRDP
The court also rejected petitioners’ argument that the Regents improperly segmented the LRDP by focusing only on the campus and neighboring properties and excluding more distant locations. While petitioners argued that the LRDP arbitrarily omitted more remote properties, the court reasoned that it was “perfectly rational” for the Regents to focus primarily on the campus and adjacent properties in the LRDP and develop separate plans for more distant locations.
Population Growth and Displacement
Rejecting a third argument by petitioners, the court concluded that the EIR sufficiently addressed impacts from population growth and displacement of existing residents. The EIR found that the LRDP would induce unplanned population growth, but concluded that this impact could be mitigated to a less-than-significant level by ensuring that the Regents provide local and regional planning entities with annual information about university-driven population growth. Despite petitioners’ assertion otherwise, the court declined to assume that these planning entities would fail to plan for the population growth projected in the LRDP.
Additionally, the court rejected petitioners’ argument that the EIR’s treatment of displacement impacts was inadequate. The court concluded that the EIR properly analyzed these impacts and that petitioners failed to produce sufficient evidence to demonstrate that displacement caused by the project would exacerbate homelessness and in turn lead to environmental impacts.
Site Alternatives to People’s Park
While the court found that the EIR sufficiently analyzed alternatives to the LRDP, it agreed with petitioners that the EIR failed to consider a reasonable range of alternative locations for the housing development at People’s Park. The EIR determined that the housing project would have a significant impact on historical resources, due to the demolition of People’s Park and construction of new housing that would be incompatible with other nearby historical resources. Nevertheless, the EIR did not contain an in-depth analysis of any alternative locations for the housing project.
The court concluded that the EIR’s reasons for declining to consider alternatives were insufficient. The EIR explained that an alternative location might reduce the amount of new housing or require the university to acquire new properties, and that many potential alternative sites were smaller than People’s Park or were close to historical resources. According to the court, these reasons were vague and unequivocal, and did not demonstrate that no feasible alternatives existed.
The Regents argued that developing another site would fail to meet one of the project’s primary objectives—to revitalize the People’s Park site—and the record demonstrated that this was one of the project’s main purposes. The court, however, noted that the cited objective referred generally to “a UC Berkeley property” and not to People’s Park, specifically. The court also determined that the Regent’s arguments for rejecting other locations, even if potentially valid, were not reflected in the EIR. Similarly, the court concluded that the EIR did not support the Regents’ argument that all of the proposed housing sites would need to be developed to achieve the EIR’s objectives. Moreover, observing that these explanations differed from those in the EIR, the court concluded that the Regents “hid the ball” and failed to adequately inform the public about the project.
Finally, the court held that the EIR was deficient because it did not analyze potential noise impacts from student parties. In doing so, it determined that substantial evidence in the record supported a fair argument that the LRDP and the housing projects might result in a significant noise impact.
The court acknowledged that “stereotypes, prejudice, and biased assumptions about people served by a CEQA project” cannot constitute substantial evidence for a CEQA claim; however, it rejected the Regents’ argument that concerns about noise impacts from student parties relied merely on improper stereotypes about “loud and unruly drunk college students.”
The court explained that the record revealed noise from student parties to be “a longstanding problem” in the residential neighborhoods near UC Berkeley’s campus. Among other things, the City of Berkeley had previously declared such parties to be a public nuisance and restricted high-density student housing in private homes, neighborhood groups pointed to hundreds of noise citations related to student parties, and the university itself had collaborated with various community groups to address complaints about noisy parties. Given the evidence demonstrating that student party noise was already a problem, the court concluded that there was a reasonable possibility that “adding thousands more students to these same residential neighborhoods would make the problem worse.”