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Blockbuster Leaves Behind Vacant Space, Broken Promises

Tuesday June 17, 2003

One of former Mayor Shirley Dean’s clean-up events took place at the corner of San Pablo and University avenues, where brooms and trash bags were handed out to mostly non-area participants for a highly photographed moment. Blockbuster Video was just laying its controversial foundation. 

A handful of us stood with a sign that read “7,600 parts per billion benzene” and caused a stir. One campus researcher stopped his car to ask where we got our numbers, and we told him they were from the latest test of the wells that dot the intersection, mapping the spread of an underground plume from an old gas station storage tank. 

Blockbuster Video, the neighborhood was promised, would take up only a third of the building on the corner, leaving room for neighborhood retail services; would have an elaborate air ventilation system so that the benzene, which percolates upward, would be re-routed to the roof to protect the employees, and would have severely limited hours. 

Those promises became jokes for us locals, as one by one they were tossed like fast food wrappers and Blockbuster video bags. Blockbuster demanded more retail space, and the building was reconfigured so that the adjacent retail sites were ridiculously long and thin, and stood empty for months. 

Now Blockbuster is gone, leaving behind arguably the ugliest building at the prom thanks to architect Marcie Wong, whose sign proudly claiming responsibility used to hang on the outside wall, and District Rep. Linda Maio, the fifth vote whose excuse for supporting the compromised project was that no one else would build there if the opportunity wasn’t taken. 

The intersection that decades ago hosted the historic gateway to town has had asphalt dumped on its pretty brick walks rather than any honest repair, had two of its best retail spaces stunted by the imposition of zone-inappropriate nonprofits with ties to city council representatives and runs the risk of having its parking lanes turned into freeway on-ramps if the transportation planner gets his way. 

I doubt my neighbors are sorry to see Blockbuster go, since it proved our contention that its patrons had no interest in visiting the other neighborhood shops, and still insists on the ghastly practice of editing the films it rents to the public. It will be interesting to see if the space tailored to Blockbuster’s fussy demands can suit any other business. 

In the meantime, a few of us continue to wish the whole episode never happened, since the whole-hearted consensus of the Calthorpe “University Avenue Strategic Plan” sessions was that we needed our historic gateway rebuilt and a park. The relatively few vacant lots in town, most of which are burdened by unaddressed underground storage tanks, may garner little respect from a city teeming with energetic planners, but at least they’re not Berkeley’s lowest common denominator while they’re still an honest  

expanse of fennel and horizon. 

Carol Denney is a Berkeley resident and a frequent contributor to the Planet’s editorial pages.