How Decisions are Made: The People’s Park Housing Project in Berkeley, CA 

By Kathryn Cunningham

Back in 2017, UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ and City of Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín announced a housing development project at People’s Park. This project, set to start construction in late 2022, will redevelop the park into housing for students, low-income residents, and the unhoused. The City also promised to preserve 60% of the land for historical commemoration and green space.  

Not everyone supports the decision to transform People’s Park into housing. The park has a long, storied history. Locals know and love this downtown Berkeley park. They consider it to be the “most consistent place of support that exists in this city” (Ravani and Talley 2022). To them, it is not just a park, but a “…a symbol of activism that is worthy of protection” (Liedtke 2022). It also already serves as a (unsanctioned) housing ground for 55 unhoused people.    

With the understanding that this project is controversial and sensitive, the University and the City attempt to gain support from the public and mitigate adverse reactions. They describe the move as a rational choice. This approach to decision-making is a classic example of planners deploying the Rational Comprehensive Model (RCM). Behind the scenes, however, planners will recognize a more muddled process. This private process resembles less rational paradigms like the garbage can model and the Organization Comprehensive Model. The public should be empowered to see the difference and react appropriately.  

What is the Rational Comprehensive Model? We might recognize RCM in the general sequence of purportedly rational steps that the powers that be took to get to their decision. In Smart Choices: A Practical Guide to Making Better Life Decisions, authors Hammond, Keeney, and Raiffa describe the process for making well-grounded decisions in a rational manner. Their process is as follows: a unified party recognizes the problem, develops solutions, identifies the trade-offs among the solutions using selected criteria, and then ultimately picks the remaining solution as the most rational choice. UC Berkeley and the City of Berkeley followed a very similar process to come to their final decision.  

In this example, the problem the City and University seek to solve is clear to any outsider: Berkeley and the greater Bay Area faces an extreme housing crisis. A sub-crisis of student housing is “driving up rents and displacing long-time Berkeley residents” (Dinkelspiel 2021). Leaders are paying attention. Upon taking office in 2017, Chancellor Christ committed to doubling the number of university beds in the housing system within 10 years. She has made public her view that the university holds responsibility to address this issue and increase the supply of the below market-rate housing in the area (Kell, 2022).  

To address this problem, the university formed a Housing Task Force in 2017 to “enumerate and evaluate potential sites for development …[and] establish criteria that should guide decision making around the development of housing” (Christ et al. 2017). In essence, the task force followed what Graham identified as the RCM process: they established alternatives to the problem and then identified criteria to evaluate the alternatives. This sequence imbues the solution with a sense of rationality and thoroughness. 

Another hallmark of RCM, according to Graham Allison of Harvard Kennedy School, is a unified front. In his essay, Essence of Decision: Cuban Missile Crisis, Allison describes how parties involved in RCM are unified and are taking the rational path forward. He further explains that rationality is derived from the unified party’s preferences, and these preferences then dictate and justify their decisions. The institutions at the heart of the People’s Park decision, including the Mayor and UC Berkeley Chancellor, are certainly presenting a unified front to the public.  

While Mayor Arreguín and Chancellor Christ serve as representatives for the City and the University respectively, they maintain that the two of them – and the two entities they represent – are wholly united in the management and the success of this project. Chancellor Christ said in a UC Berkeley press release, “We are thrilled and humbled by the coming together of this new alliance in support of a new People’s Park…Together, we will provide a true win-win-win …” (Kell 2022). Similarly, Mayor Arreguín said that the “partnership that’s formed is dedicated to solving critical issues facing the city and campus, and to doing so together” (Kell 2022). These leaders project confidence. Confidence fosters trust. The Mayor and Chancellor may hope that their unified approach will generate goodwill for the project among the public. 

By presenting a unified front and displaying their rationality, the University and the City would garner public support for this contentious project. The private decision-making process, however, is riddled with power jockeying and inconsistencies. Here, planners recognize another decision-making model: the garbage can process. In this process identified by J.G. March,  solutions beget problems, and not the other way around. That is, the City and UC Berkeley seized on People’s Park—the asset and potential solution—and crafted it to respond to the problem and context at hand.  

In the People’s Park project, critics of the plan believe that the university always planned on developing People’s Park despite publicly identifying and analyzing alternatives because “an unspoken justification for UC’s dorm is to displace homeless people who hang out at the Park” (Montigue 2021). Many locals say that while they support building more student housing, their central argument against this plan is that they do not think the university examined all their developmental options before ultimately deciding on the park. These critics list the Chancellor’s Mansion, the former site of Tollman Hall, and Clark Kerr campus as viable sites. These were not considered in the housing analysis. Instead, the critics believe that UC Berkeley is intentionally engaging in forced removal of the park’s residents by zeroing in on People’s Park without giving a good enough explanation for why it is being developed over the other options they analyzed–and the options they overlooked. 

Planners might recognize another decision-making process at work: Allison’s Organization Comprehensive Model (OCM). In this model, participants influence decisions through political gamesmanship. Those in positions of power bargain for the best-case scenario for their interests. While the University and the City put on a united front for the public, there is an underlying power-struggle and negotiation between the two entities that ultimately resulted in this decision. 

UC Berkeley and the City of Berkeley signed a 2021 agreement that succinctly relates their negotiated outcome. The University agreed to pay the City $82.64 million over the next 16 years. This sum of money would support City services and various city-related projects. In exchange, the City agreed to withdraw from two lawsuits they are involved in with the University over enrollment and development issues. The city will also not go forward with their plans of filing a lawsuit for a separate issue, nor will they oppose the People’s Park housing project (Dinkelspiel 2021). This latter piece of the agreement is critical for the University. It  guarantees the City’s support for UC Berkeley’s highly contentious project and others like it down the line.  

In the case of the People’s Park project, the Chancellor and the Mayor are not the amiable partnership they project to the public. The two institutions, often at odds, engaged in a series of political back-and-forth’s to get the best-case scenario for their respective parties. The City gets a large monetary sum as well as a win for the mayor’s legacy. This project does add more affordable housing, and voters in Berkeley see this as a priority.  

The University benefits from the agreement because expanding enrollment is a means to increase tuition revenue. Tuition revenue is critical because it accounts for 31% of the campus’ total funds, while state funding only provides 12% of the school’s funds (“People’s Park and the Future of the Public University” 2022). Currently, the university is $2 billion in debt (Dinkelspiel 2022), so more revenue from students, particularly from international students and out-of-state students who pay three times more than in-state students, is an appealing incentive. Because a higher capacity for more beds on campus justifies increased enrollment, getting the support of the project from the city has future monetary payoffs for the school.  

The impression of rationality gives people comfort. Officials hoped the community would believe this decision was rational, practical, and thoughtful if they presented it as a unified front and offered several alternatives. Behind the scenes we find a better explanation for this decision. People’s Park presented a solution, and they matched it to the housing problem. Along the way, the University and the City both accrued perks.  

The public should be aware of this discrepancy between the public and private decision-making processes for the People’s Park housing project. It offers a helpful reminder that “players who make government decisions…” do not make them “…by a single rational choice but by the pushing and pulling that is politics” (Allison 1999). 


“About Berkeley | University of California, Berkeley.” n.d. Accessed September 29, 2022.

Allison, G. T. and P. Zelikow (1999). Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile 

Crisis. Longman. 

“Call It What It Is: Forced Removal at People’s Park.” 2022. June 16, 2022.

Christ, Carol, Fiona Doyle, Ben Hermalin, and Rajiv Parikh. 2017. “Housing Master Plan Task Force Report.”  

“Community Support.” 2021. People’s Park Housing. August 3, 2021.

Dinkelspiel, Frances. 2021. “UC Berkeley Will More than Double What It Pays the City under New Settlement Agreement.” Berkeleyside. July 14, 2021.

Dinkelspiel, Frances. 2021. “The End of the 1960s? Regents Vote to Put Housing in People’s Park.” Berkeleyside. September 30, 2021.

Dinkelspiel, Frances. 2022. “Why Hasn’t UC Berkeley Built More Student Housing?” Berkeleyside. May 8, 2022.

Hammond, J. S., R. L. Keeney, and H. Raiffa (1999). Smart Choices: A Practical Guide to 

Making Better Decisions. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press. 

Kell, Gretchen. 2022. “Campus, City Form Model Alliances to Aid Unhoused People in People’s Park.” Berkeley News. March 9, 2022.

Liedtke, Michael. 2022. “Plan for People’s Park Pits Housing Against History.” KQED. August 29, 2022.

Montigue, J. 2021. “People’s Park – Rumors of Its Demise Have Been Grossly Exaggerated.” March 27, 2021.

March, J. G. (1997). “Understanding How Decisions Happen in Organizations”. In: Organizational Decision Making. Ed. by Z. Shapira. Cambridge University Press, pp. 9–32. 

“People’s Park and the Future of the Public University.” 2022. Versobooks.Com. Accessed September 28, 2022.

Ravani, Sarah, and Emma Talley. 2022. “UC Berkeley Can Move Forward with $312 Million Housing Plan at People’s Park, Judge Rules.” San Francisco Chronicle. July 30, 2022.

Tucci-Berube, Giancarlo. 2021. “In Defense of People’s Park.” February 21, 2021.

Kathryn is a first year Master’s student with the Department of City and Regional Planning whose interests include climate change adaptation, parks, and public space. She studied Environmental Studies at Williams College, and before coming to graduate school, she was in the San Francisco Bay Area managing sustainability projects for a law school. When not in class, she enjoys reading, running, and checking out all of the many concert venues the Research Triangle has to offer.

Edited by Lance Gloss

Featured image: People’s Park. Credit: Jeff Chiu (AP)

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