Chapter 24 – The School for the Deaf and Blind Site

Note: This history was written by David Mundstock and republished here with his permission. The opinions in this piece are his and do not necessarily reflect the positions of BCA members. For original link go to

The School for the Deaf and Blind Site

Looming over the l979-8l Council term was a horribly complex inter-governmental land use dispute that polarized communities, destroyed traditional political alliances, and probably took up more time than any other issue including rent control.


With a history dating back to the l9th century, the State of California Schools for the Deaf and the Blind occupied a large site a quarter of a mile southeast of the U.C.campus. By l979, the two schools had 620 students, 38 buildings, and several recreational facilities on their 50 acres of land in the City of Berkeley. About 3/4 of everything belonged to the much larger School for the Deaf.

Early in the l970’s, the California Department of Education which ran the schools determined that they had to move. The reason: earthquake dangers from the Hayward Fault which runs under the Deaf and Blind Schools site (and under the Berkeley Hills, the U.C. campus, and much of the East Bay). Many faculty, parents, and students from the two schools disputed this earthquake threat and fought to stay in Berkeley. The City Council passed a resolution opposing the relocation.

But the State Department of Education persisted, acquiring a new site in City of Fremont, just north of San Jose. Work began on a new campus for both schools, which moved steadily towards completion so that the Fall l980 term was scheduled to commence in Fremont. By l979 it seemed that all segments of the School for the Deaf community were resigned to the inevitable move.

But a group of students and parents from the School for the Blind were continuing to resist. Represented by Armando Menocal III of Public Advocates, they sued the State of California to prevent relocation. Plaintiffs felt that, compared to the hospitable Berkeley location, the Fremont campus offered a sterile, incompatible environment for the education of blind children. Their legal arguments included violations of procedural rights pertaining to the handicapped and claims that the earthquake dangers at the Fremont campus were greater than in Berkeley.

This lawsuit was one of many unpredictable factors in the evolving land use dispute. Even after the School for the Blind left Berkeley, there was always a chance that a Federal Court would order it back.

The impending departure of the Schools for the Deaf and Blind left a vacuum which the University of California was eager to fill. A Daily Cal article on November 29, l979 uncovered proof that the University administration had coveted the Deaf and Blind School land for 57 years. The 50 acre site constituted the single largest parcel in Berkeley which might be available for University expansion. Conspiracy theorists even felt that the entire earthquake-based eviction of the schools was merely a University of California land grab plot.

By l979 the University had published a set of alternative plans for the land, often referred to as the “Dwight-Derby Site”, and was seeking legislation to acquire formal ownership. Assemblyman Tom Bates sponsored the University’s bill, AB ll02, under the assumption that U.C.’s takeover would be non-controversial. That was a mistake and Bates had to withdraw his bill.

l979 – The Battle Commences

The University appeared more concerned about obtaining the Schools for the Deaf and Blind land than in detailing its intentions following acquisition. In a March l6, l979 Preliminary Plan, U.C. proposed that the site’s primary use be for housing about 500 students, with the remaining space devoted to faculty housing, University research and administration, plus archival/museum space.

A tidal wave of opposition to the University began taking shape. Students were wanted more housing, not offices. Residents of the area adjacent to the site organized to fight both University acquisition and student housing. They called themselves NABR (Neighborhoods Are Berkeley’s Resource). Afraid of added noise and traffic, these people didn’t want the University of California as a neighbor under any circumstances. They proposed that the City of Berkeley acquire the land for a senior citizen Urban Retirement Center. Many other alternative plans were also being discussed.

The most visible supporters of U.C.’s March l979 plan seemed to be city staff and the Berkeley Planning Commission. The Planning Commission unanimously recommended that the City Council approve University acquisition, subject to various conditions primarily aimed at locking in the uses specified by U.C.’s March l6, l979 proposal.

The City Council’s first public hearing on the Deaf and Blind School site was held May l, l979, inauguration day. In a three and one-half hour parade of speakers, the new Council discovered that the Planning Commission and the University had relatively few allies. Widespread, vehement opposition to the University takeover came from many quarters.

U.C. was attacked for institutional sprawl, for buying up land and taking it off the tax rolls, and contributing to the student housing shortage by failing to provide student housing on the property it already owned and converting residential buildings to offices, while failing to limit enrollment to targeted levels. For all these reasons and more, the speakers didn’t want U.C. to get any more land. The alternative of city-sponsored senior citizens housing on the site had many backers, including the Grey Panthers.

Berkeley City Council public hearings often resemble packing fights, with the winner declared to be whichever side has a clear majority of speakers. By this test, the University decisively lost the May l, l979 hearing, as the Council unanimously declared its lack of support for the U.C. plan. On May 22, l979, with Gilda Feller abstaining, the Council officially opposed U.C. acquisition of the Deaf and Blind Schools site.

The University responded by proposing to increase the amount of student housing on the site while offering the land nearest the neighbors as a potential location for senior citizens housing. Thus, U.C. tried to cement an alliance with the student leadership while also making overtures to the opponents.

But the Berkeley City Council was now determined to develop its own plan for ownership and use of the Deaf and Blind Schools site. Councilmembers, city staff, and citizens spent the next year developing a formal proposal.

Michael Heyman, the new U.C. Berkeley Chancellor, (formerly Councilman Kallgren’s appointee to the Charter Review Committee), made a June l980 offer to permanently divide the site, with the University taking the northern portion and the city the southern. It was rejected by the Council in favor of city ownership for the entire parcel.

On June 24, l980, the Council voted 6-0-2 (Davis and Feller abstaining) to solicit proposals from private developers to use the entire site for 400 housing units, allocated to the following five groups in approximately equal shares of the units: families, students, the disabled, the elderly, deaf & blind persons.

Student housing would be the densest, leading to a 40% student population in the overall project. About 25% of these housing units would be at market rates, with the rest subsidized, hopefully by state and federal funds. Use of most existing buildings, new housing construction, and limited demolitions were all contemplated. The project would be reduced to 300 units if the Blind School remained in Berkeley.

The city’s ambitious housing plan was submitted by Councilman John Denton, who lived two blocks from the site and had assumed leadership of the Council forces wishing to block University expansion. He had the bi-partisan support of Councilmembers Dean and Segesta.

As the Schools for the Deaf and Blind moved out of Berkeley, the city and the University were now in active competition to acquire the site for very different uses. The State of California officials responsible for disposing of the surplus land were going to have a real problem sorting out the rival claims.

Assemblyman Bates had a new bill for l980, AB 3l98 to halt the Blind School’s relocation. It passed the Assembly but died in the State Senate. In August l980, U.S. District Court Judge Milton Schwartz issued a preliminary injunction banning relocation of the School for the Blind on grounds that the state had violated the procedural requirements of Federal laws governing education for the handicapped. But all parties agreed that, as a practical matter, the school had to open the Fall l980 term in Fremont.

The State Department of Education vowed to hold the necessary administrative hearings to satisfy Judge Schwartz so that the School for the Blind could stay in Fremont. The case was scheduled for trial in l98l. The City of Berkeley-University of California battle was put on hold pending an outcome of the Blind School litigation. Meanwhile, the entire site was now vacant and being taken over by weeds.

During this period of delay, partisan Berkeley politics became a significant factor. Berkeley Democratic Club strategists decided that they finally had an issue to use against BCA in the student community. They claimed the John Denton/BCA policy on the School for the Deaf and Blind site was anti-student housing and therefore anti-student. As proof, a motion to have __% student housing had been defeated by the Council on August l, l979. According to the University, U.C.’s current plan called for approximately three times more student housing than the city’s proposal.

On this issue a new political alliance was taking shape: the University administration, some BDC Councilmembers, and many student leaders vs. BCA Councilmembers, the neighbors, and their blind, deaf, senior, and disabled housing allies. U.C. Chancellor Ira Heyman and his lead staff person Dorothy Walker both had strong BDC connections. The University’s student allies were now working with Gilda Feller to both promote U.C.’s pro-student

housing plan and attack BCA.

BCA’s campus supporters were in a very awkward position because they favored more student housing than the city plan called for. Even worse, John Denton and the BCA Councilmembers had formed an alliance with many openly anti-student housing neighborhood people. Supporters of the city proposal often lumped students and the University together as their enemy. The University was also accused of exploiting students for its own selfish, land grabbing interests. But no serious effort was made to defuse this issue by trying to create more student housing on the site without University ownership. Thus, in the upcoming April l98l city election, BCA would be open to attack as anti-student for the very first time.