Cars? In Berkeley? Not a Bad Notion!

By Kevin Powell
Tuesday May 11, 2004

A friend of mine just put a new bumper sticker on her car. It says “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention!” When I first saw it, I quipped, “Or, if you are outraged, stop paying attention!”  

Kudos to the Daily Planet for emboldening Berkeleyites (for whom my quip is gospel when it comes to local politics) to try something different. I include myself.  

In this case: the Great Berkeley Parking Debate of 2004. 

Consider Charles Siegel’s pair of letters in these pages extolling San Francisco’s Union Square. A great model, Mr. Siegel, opines, for a commercially vibrant downtown Berkeley without any parking. 

Now of course Union Square is built atop a parking garage and there are no fewer than 91 other public parking garages within a quarter mile. Not to worry: zealous hyperbole and fuzzy rhetoric masquerading as idealism are rarely challenged in Berkeley. After all, ours is a community where seven out of nine councilmembers drove to the meeting where they brazenly cast a vote against a housing project because it provides “too much parking” for its residents. But what can you do? 

Well, start with simple honesty. In this case: I challenge you, dear reader of this paper, to take a few moments this weekend and search Berkeley for our most vibrant pedestrian area, a place buzzing with people, a place where you might buy a magazine, linger over a cup of coffee, unexpectedly meet someone you know. Most likely, you will have parked your car, bicycle or legs (all equally for free) on Fourth Street.  

You may note with surprise that unlike most commercial areas in Berkeley, Fourth Street is not overrun by cars. You may find this odd, since it is the only commercial district in Berkeley that accommodates those who drive with abundant free parking. Upon closer inspection, however, you may note that there is no frantic circling the block looking for parking—that frantic circling is confined to the parking lot. Did you drive? Probably. And that is because you live in one of the vast number of Berkeley homes built after 1920, by and for people with cars, in a dispersed pattern that is inconvenient to access any other way.  

Now before we abandon Fourth Street and move on to some “progressive” demagoguery excoriating the potential “Walnut Creek-ification” or “Emeryville-ization” of Berkeley, consider the following. If Berkeley had captured 75 percent of Emeryville’s pre-Ikea, pre East Bay Bridge Center annual sales tax revenue, our current budget deficit would disappear. Now imagine if we could finance nearly half of our general fund with sales tax, as Walnut Creek does. Or imagine how our community might spend the $20 million annual infusion we would net if per capita sales tax revenue matched that of the Bay Area’s other university town, Palo Alto.  

Why stop there? What if we matched the boldness and vision of our sister city in the Southland, Santa Monica? How exactly did Santa Monica transform a derelict shopping district into the most vibrant, pedestrian-packed area south of Sproul Plaza at noon? They went against politically correct wisdom; reopened a street that had been closed to cars; capitalized on mid-block parking garages screened from view; made smart commercial use of the median; clear-cut tired city trees and planted new ones; installed accessible, humorous public art. Net effect: bountiful municipal revenue, and more importantly, a place where people park their car, and leave it parked, discovering the joy that is the heart of a city.  

Could it happen in Berkeley?  


Kevin Powell is a Berkeley resident. ›