Editorial: Berkeley’s Ugly Edifice Complex

Becky O'Malley
Friday January 16, 2004

“The business part of Berkeley lies west of the campus, the center of the shopping section being enormously wide Shattuck Avenue, which is desolately ugly as it takes its way southward towards Oakland. The few shopping blocks in the center of town have some very good-looking buildings, a few in the modern streamline type that are as successful as any to be found anywhere, but no effort has been made to achieve a harmony. One lone skyscraper sticks up like a sore thumb, increasing the similarity at night, when what is an untidy-looking scaffolding by day transforms itself into a flaming red sign. The decent and considerate skyline of the street is made to suffer, as well as the view from every house on the hills behind. An achievement not only in bad taste but in poor psychology, for many a Berkeley citizen rages against the insult to the city’s beauty.” 


As the French say, plus ça change, plus la même chose—the more things change, the more they remain the same. The above quote is from now out-of-print Romantic Cities of California, written in 1939 by Hildegarde Hawthorne, a Christmas present found for me at the flea market by my daughter. The new candidate for the Insulting Sign award is on the Power Bar building, and the newest Sore Thumb is the Gaia Building (soon to be joined by The Golden Bear Double-Marriott if we aren’t careful), but the principles remain the same. Berkeley citizens still rage at will against insults to the city’s beauty, and other forms of stupidity. 

Current case in point: Eddie Bauer’s departure. We hate to say we told you so, but we told you so. Last issue, the Planet printed excerpts from a remarkable file of contemporary citizen letters which pointed out, step by step, what was going wrong with the Eddie Bauer project. It should be required reading for every first-year planning class, though it probably won’t be.  

Berkeley citizens, all kinds of Berkeley citizens, myself among them, told Mayor Dean and Councilmembers that it was a colossal mistake to allow a popular downtown restaurant, the only one open for the after-movie crowd, to be squeezed out for a mall store which would never succeed in Berkeley. It was a huge error (and We Told Them So) to allow one of the few surviving turn-of-the-century buildings which lent a bit of character to Downtown Berkeley to be demolished by stealth. Even the old building’s 1941-remodelled streamlined façade was more interesting than the bland Walnut Creek faux-moderne ticky-tacky structure which replaced it.  

In that first-year planning class which will never happen, particular study should be given to the role of City of Berkeley employees in perpetrating this outrage to civic sensibilities. When Eddie Bauer closed, the Acting Manager of Economic Development said that “We think it will be easier to do a transition from Eddie Bauer to some other clothing store because of the improvements already made in the building.” Wrong. It would be easier to get a distinctive and successful tenant for a distinctive Berkeley-style building. For examples, look at some of our most successful businesses, located in interesting restored buildings: Rasputin’s, the Cheese Board, the Downtown restaurant, even Orchard Supply Hardware, and of course, par excellence, all of Fourth Street. Tenants like Eddie Bauer who want a mall ambience can and do go to the real malls. 

And then there’s the damage done to the civic fabric by the well-documented irregularities in the Planning Department’s administration of permit rules which turned rehabilitation into demolition. Much of the current citizen anger with the planning process can be traced back to the transparent cynicism with which city employees greased the skids for architect Marcy Wong and Eddie Bauer. It is disheartening to note that newly re-hired Planning Director Dan Marks was the original planner of record for the Bauer project, but perhaps he’s learned something from the experience. 

Public outrage over a series of successive perversions of planning (can you say Gaia?) bubbled to the surface at recent meetings of the Mayor’s Task Force for Permitting and Development. It has taken its toll in the unexpected coalitions which have formed to oppose what might prove to be an unavoidable increase in property taxes. Questions about taxing new developments have made things worse. If citizens feel that they can’t trust government, they don’t want to pay for it—it’s that simple.  

There are many current opportunities for city government to dig itself even deeper into the big muddy. The proposal to demolish the Blood House on Durant for yet another Big Ugly Box for luxury students is one prospective pitfall. More, among many: the University’s downtown hotel scheme, the Ed Roberts Campus, University Avenue developments, including West Campus…it’s a long list. 

On the other hand, elected officials and city staff could choose to show that they’ve learned something from the Eddie Bauer debacle and will pay more attention to citizens in the future. They would be wise to do so, especially if a tax vote is in the offing.  

Becky O’Malley is executive editor of the Daily Planet.