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Downtown Berkeley: Who’s Minding the Shop?

Friday February 06, 2004

What is happening in Berkeley’s downtown core, who is in charge, what is the vision? Despite being a longtime civic activist, I have no coherent idea of what is going on downtown beyond a series of catch-as-catch-can projects of varying degrees of attractiveness and plausibility, and behind the loud noise of a downtown boosterism that evidently masks a lot of confusion. Having checked with other citizen activists and city officials who should be in the know about downtown, I am convinced that no one is minding the downtown shop or has any clear notion of what our downtown will be like in 2020. 


The Idyllic Mid-century Main Street 

Up to the early 1970s, Berkeley had a workable, safe, and presentable small town downtown that included a modest department store (Hinks), a traditional five and dime establishment (Kresge’s), a quality market that even provided home grocery delivery (Blue and Gold), a presentable hotel with hotel restaurant (the Shattuck Hotel), several nice shops that catered to the city’s middle class (such as Morrison’s Jewelry), a few reasonably-priced American-type restaurants suitable for young family outings (Edy’s), and ample parking. Few persons actually lived in the heart of downtown (except for some elderly residents who were grandfathered into the Shattuck Hotel), but it was surrounded by modest and affordable working class homes whose owners and residents seemed to have few gripes about downtown commerce and activity.  

Berkeley High students had their own domain, in which they were reasonably contained, and UC denizens, expanding southward onto Telegraph Avenue and environs, had not significantly encroached across the eastern Oxford Street border into the downtown core. Apart from periodic political eruptions, this mid-century main street was serviceable and somewhat idyllic.  


Transformation and Decay 

Fast forward to the 1990s. By the ‘90s, the all too familiar forces of urban social change and dysfunctional politics, helped by BART construction disruptions, had transformed Berkeley’s downtown core into a scuzzy and dangerous low-rent district that no longer contributed to the city’s economic and social coffers and no longer held much appeal for the city’s middle classes. Put succinctly, there were too many homeless persons and social service establishments. Berkeley High students had become extremely rambunctious. There was no place to buy nice sheets and towels, in fact there was not much of anything to buy, nor to admire, in non-existent shop windows. There were too many copy shops. There were a lot of low-end food establishments but no comfortable place to sit down and dine. Parking became increasingly nightmarish, and the city’s parking control officers feverishly active. During the day, downtown Shattuck Avenue often seemed like an extension of Telegraph Avenue on a bad day. Nighttime was out of the question except for an occasional movie or Berkeley Rep performance, after which one could scurry to one’s car in fear. 

Something needed to be done. 

The Downtown Plan 

A city plan is a general statement of community priorities developed to guide public decision-making and steer day-to-day decisions in the desired directions. Since such plans are by nature general, unless there is clearly articulated vision and regular oversight, such plans are merely malleable documents that are not likely cumulatively honored.  

In 1990, the city enacted the Berkeley Downtown Plan as an amendment to the 1977 Berkeley Master Plan, and this downtown plan was re-adopted as part of the recent Master Plan update in 2002-2003. The downtown plan is chock full of worthy goals, objectives, and policies. Following is a small but important sampling of Berkeley’s goals, objectives and policies for the downtown core: 


“Create an appealing and safe downtown environment…Diversify, revitalize and promote the downtown economy.” 

“Develop a detailed streetscape plan.” (The city subsequently enacted a version of this in 1997, and most of the streetscape improvements mentioned therein and funded by Measure S have since been completed.) 

“Create a sense of community by locating housing for all income types in and near the downtown…Residents of downtown should be of a wide variety of social and income groups” 

“Enhance the economic vitality of the downtown with a mix of business to serve a wide variety of people…Ensure that the mix of uses in the downtown is appropriate to the downtown’s location both as part of Berkeley and the larger region…Strive for a socially diverse, economically thriving downtown, including a strong retail sector…Enhance the shopping activity in the downtown…” 

“Ensure that all public and private development downtown contributes positively to the downtown and pays its share of development costs and impacts associated with housing, traffic, parking, infrastructure and other impacts…” 

“Create adequate parking facilities to support land use policies for the downtown…Provide new long term parking facilities at remote locations adjacent to transit lines or shuttle service.” 

“Consider retail uses and residential uses as the highest priorities for the downtown with retail uses as a first priority…and residential uses second priority…Encourage land uses that will draw Berkeley residents to downtown for shopping and other activities. Attract a major retail anchor (department store or shopping complex…” 


So, since something needed to be done about the decay of Berkeley’s Downtown, the City took the proper first step by enacting the Downtown Plan. But initial clarity on concept was never followed up with clarity of execution. 


Politics and Piecemeal Development Trump Policy and Planning 

Berkeley’s big and perhaps now fatal mistake was to not follow up on the downtown plan with a detailed downtown visioning process and product, a formal downtown oversight body assisted by dedicated top-level staff, and enactment of the powerful legal tools, such as the creation of a redevelopment area, that are a prerequisite for master-planned land use. It is hard to believe, but there is really no one running the show and no show to run. There is no detailed downtown plan. There is no downtown staff czar or even consistent high-level staffing. There is no downtown advisory board representing a range of community interests and expertise. Instead, there is a hodgepodge of downtown development, some good and some bad. And, since there are several Berkeley individuals and groups who do care about downtown and do have opinions on large scale development, there is a hodgepodge of sniping at all proposed projects.  

We have a power void in our city with respect to our downtown and it is being filled by a mayor who, understandably wishing to leave his mark, is acting like a strong mayor in a weak-mayor town, in conjunction with disparate interest groups (such as developers, homeless advocates, creek freaks, ecocity dreamers, affordable housing gurus, preservation partisans) who, while having a right to their viewpoints, do not in any way speak for the community at large. As for Councilmember Spring, in whose district the critical downtown core happens to be located, she often speaks well for the surrounding neighborhoods but she is in no way authorized to be a sole-source provider of downtown input. 


Time to Develop the 2020 Vision 

So, although I am aware that the word moratorium will raise many hackles, and that our city staff and agenda is severely overburdened, I propose that we immediately implement the following measures: 

• Impose a moratorium on all large-scale downtown core development. 

• Establish a council-level downtown task force to undertake a serious downtown visioning/planning process. 

• Hire or appoint top-level planning staff for this task force, a “Downtown Czar” if you will, but a czar who is guided by constituent input and decisions. 

• Within six months, come up with a concrete vision and plan for the downtown core that will guide all large-scale downtown development. The plan should include visuals, recommended legal tools (including possible eminent domain and redevelopment powers), cash flow analyses of city costs and revenues, and all of the necessary ingredients to concretely plan and create a viable downtown for the entire Berkeley community. We already have an excellent framework in the 1990 downtown plan, so we need to move on from there to a detailed, concrete picture and action plan on which the larger community has agreed. 

We cannot restore our mid-century main street, nor would we want to, but we can certainly, together, try to create an updated main street that will be worthy of Berkeley and appeal to the entire community. We need to act immediately, before we are overwhelmed by misplaced “facts on the ground,” i.e., wrong developments. 


Barbara Gilbert is a longtime Berkeley resident and civic activist.