EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of a two-part series on the University Avenue strategic plan.
When Berkeley merchants and residents sat down with city officials to hash out a vision for University Avenue eight years ago, it was supposed to be a break with history.
Known for being strong on planning but weak on action, the City of Berkeley wanted to create a strategic plan it could actually implement. The city was willing to pay the price—the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent as consultants, residents, merchants and property owners met with city staff over the next two years.
What they envisioned was a place where people could safely stroll sidewalks and shop in attractive, prosperous stores. Buildings weren’t more than two or three stories tall except in highly concentrated “nodes” where a four-story maximum of retail and affordable housing existed.
Though many thought the final product was a good thing, since City Council adopted the University Avenue Strategic Plan in November 1996, implementation has dragged, residents and city officials agree. And what has been built—Acton Court, for example—is not what the city had in mind, said Councilmember Linda Maio.
All it takes is a trip down the avenue to see that many buildings still need a makeover. Traffic whizzes by empty storefronts on a thoroughfare that’s still heavily car-oriented, still relatively anonymous.
As Maio and others point out, state housing law allowing greater density to bolster financially viable affordable housing development has hamstrung the city’s plans. But the central failure, others say, is Berkeley’s inability to rezone.
And running beneath all of it, say some residents and Planning Commissioner Gene Poschman, is an ongoing debate about housing in Berkeley. On one side is the city’s Planning Department, supporting dense “Smart Growth” intended to preserve open space on the urban fringe. On the other side are residents who want housing that maintains neighborhood character.
Despite a recent request by the City Council for a progress report due in January and a commentary in the Berkeley Daily Planet in which Maio and Mayor Tom Bates called for zoning regulation changes to implement the University Avenue Plan, residents are frustrated by what they call a lack of leadership. They’re also concerned about what they consider oversized buildings dominating the corridor, which runs west from Oxford Street to Interstate 80 and is bounded by Delaware Street to the north and Allston Way to the south.
“All the lip service is there, but there isn’t a lot of follow-through right now,” said Robin Kibby, 30, who has lived in the University Avenue corridor for seven years. “One picture is being painted, but the buildings we’re getting are completely different.”
The reason, said Dave Fogarty, who oversees the University Avenue corridor for the city’s Office of Economic Development, is simple: “The city did not implement the plan.”
“There are two sides to this. One side is the failure to do what could have been done. The other side is approving a plan that had so many complicated, expensive implementation measures that it was never possible to implement it anyway,” Fogarty said. “But because it sounded good on paper, the city went ahead with it.”
For merchant Jay Ifshin, whose Ifshin Violins music store has been a University Avenue fixture for over two decades, the city’s failure to implement the plan is more than a source of frustration. He said he is tired of the city treating the corridor as a dumping ground for what more vocal neighborhoods don’t want.
“No one wants low-income housing in their neighborhood, so it gets dumped on University Avenue,” he said.
What’s left for the corridor, he said, are buildings that are “junky and funky” or far beyond the scope and size of the neighborhood—and lack of parking keeps strong, anchor away. “If the mayor and councilmembers have to write to the newspaper [about getting the plan implemented,] what are we supposed to do?” asked Ifshin. “They’re saying, ‘Oh, yeah, we should implement this thing.’ Well, do it already. They’ve spent eight years dinking around with the thing.”
Thomas Myers, acting manager of Berkeley’s Office of Economic Development, said much has already been done on University Avenue. The city has rebuilt the median strips along the avenue and is now completing the landscaping. Crime reduction was a major focus of the strategic plan, and conditions improved starting in the late 1990s—though that have resulted more from the overall state of the economy than any city efforts, he said.
One of the plan’s six goals is to implement crime tracking along the University Avenue corridor. But the police department still hasn’t answered the question planners asked of it: What does crime along the corridor look like and how does it compare to previous years?
The police are starting to work on their share of the report to City Council, said Berkeley Police Sgt. Steve Odom. The department has already completed some crime analysis along the corridor, but the report now in the works will scrutinize the corridor as a whole.
Although residents want more small community-oriented business, Myers said, it’s difficult to attract them because of inflated lease rates and property values. Moreover, matching grants for capital improvements have dried up the past couple of years, following the recession.
“There have been dramatic changes in the community and the economy since [the plan was adopted,]” Myers said. “Funding amounts have changed since then. I think what the city can afford to put in they have been able to put in.”
When the plan was adopted in 1996, the Planning Commission created a subcommittee to supervise implementation—but when the commission membership changed, the plan fell by the wayside, Fogarty said. Planning for South Berkeley, West Berkeley and the city’s General Plan emerged as more pressing concerns, said Planning Commissioner Rob Wrenn, the former chair of the commission.
Maio and other city officials said that the plan has taken so long to implement because of staff turnover and the plan’s magnitude.
“What happened [with the strategic plan] happens often in Berkeley,” said Deputy Planning Director Wendy Cosin. “There’s so much enthusiasm on working on new plans, [but] we don’t have enough staff to work on new plans and do implementation of new plans. It’s a matter of determining priorities.”
Part Two, Friday: Housing density — who says what’s best for Berkeley