Foodscape Map: Hot Spot: Oxford Tract

UC Berkeley is located in one of the most expensive housing markets in the country. The East Bay has seen rapid growth in rent levels since 2010, particularly with growth of the Bay Area tech and biotech industries. At the same time, yearly in-state undergraduate tuition and fees have increased from $8,383 in 2007 to $17,000 in 2018. According to new campus figures, about 96% of first year undergraduates live in university housing, but overall, only 25% of undergraduates do so. Most students must enter the private housing market, and therefore are in a parlous predicament of being squeezed between high, and ever-growing, housing, food, and campus expenses. Lower-paid staff, especially food service workers, lecturers, postdoctoral fellows, and new assistant professors in the social sciences and humanities, also confront harsh housing affordability conditions. A rapidly expanding student population, as the university becomes more accessible to California’s diverse people, has contributed to the competition for housing in close proximity to campus.It was not until the past few years that UC Berkeley began to look more systematically into expanding student housing options in real earnest. The University is one of the largest landowners in the City of Berkeley, holding numerous properties around campus in addition to its Central and Clark Kerr campuses (alongside the University Village in Albany and the Richmond Field Station). There is potential for redevelopment of multiple vacant lots, car park structures, and buildings no longer in use (e.g., the old UC Press and former Berkeley Art Museum buildings). Indeed, one positive step has been toward building the new David Blackwell Hall on Bancroft Street—named for Berkeley’s first tenured black professor— which is set to open in August 2018. Nonetheless, the university has lagged behind in providing affordable housing to its students, compared to other UC campuses. This search for housing development has brought into view a deep challenge: must new student housing necessarily displace or weaken UC Berkeley’s food and agriculture research and educational facilities?

In January 2017, the UC Berkeley Housing Master Plan Task Force identified the Oxford Tract Research Facility as a site of high priority for development of new student housing. It projected that 1000-3000 beds could be provided through traditional high-rise dormitory towers. It noted: “Existing academic research will need to be relocated. Food service operation will need to be included, as well as other uses that will need to be studied further (such as parking, retail, student support areas, etc.)” Eight other possible sites were identified, but it is clear that Oxford Tract is viewed as offering a particularly large scope for redevelopment. In Summer 2016, then Interim Executive Vice Chancellor Carol Christ formed the Oxford Tract Planning Committee (OTPC) to appraise the costs and benefits of reconfiguring and/or relocating the current functions of the Oxford Tract.

The OTPC released a report on February 1, 2018 with recommendations as to the next steps for evaluating the impact on College of Natural Resources research, teaching, and outreach if the Oxford Tract were indeed to become a site for student housing. It presented two options for trying to integrate some facilities with student housing, and suggested that more research be done on possible configurations as well as on other places that the facilities could be moved to. In any redevelopment scenario, Oxford Tract would shrink greatly, and at least some of the facilities would still need to be moved.

The report did not include a formal economic analysis. It did explain that Oxford Tract is used intensively for research and teaching relating to agriculture, plant biology, and biofuels, precisely because it is so close to campus. Its use fulfils CNR’s land-grant mission, dating back to the founding of the university in 1868. Oxford Tract includes three greenhouses, plant growth chambers, an insectary, laboratories, a quarantine facility, and 1.5 acres of farmland for field experiments. If the Oxford Tract facilities were to be moved elsewhere, students, staff, and faculty would have to travel much further to other sites. This could impede research experiments, field laboratory sessions, and teaching. At least five courses and three DeCals use the farmland for their class activities. Over 40 professors, more than 200 researchers, and hundreds of students would be affected. The facilities would need to be rebuilt elsewhere, at a cost that has not yet been determined. The Oxford Tract area is also home to the Student Organic Garden, which has existed since 1971 and has served as an extremely valuable site for many generations of students to learn hands-on skills in agriculture.

Supplementing the OTCP study, the work of Environmental Economics and Policy undergraduate and Haas Scholar Allegra Saggese proposes that the context of climate change and non-monetary values must be considered in analyzing current and future uses of the Oxford Tract site.