University Avenue Strategic Plan Should Benefit All Berkeley Citizens

Friday May 28, 2004

University Avenue is the most important traffic corridor in Berkeley. As such, decisions about its development should not be controlled by the opinions of highly vocal minorities with vested interests in the outcome of these decisions. Berkeley currently has an opportunity to make plans that will benefit all of its citizens, not just those individuals who are directly and immediately impacted by development along University Avenue. For these reasons, I urge the citizens of Berkeley to contact the Planning Commission, and urge them to adopt the recommendations of the University Avenue Strategic Plan. 

The University Avenue Strategic Plan was developed as a result of lengthy discussion involving all of the parties with potential interests in University Avenue: commercial developers, residents, advocates of low income housing, city planners, small business owners, and any other group with a conceivable interest in development in this area of the city. The plan they developed carefully balanced all of these interests, and provided a blueprint for a new University Avenue that will be an asset to the entire city. The plan provides for large numbers of attractive new housing units, new retail and commercial units to attract small business to the area, and urban designs that encourage foot traffic and that enhance, rather than detract, from the quality of life of residents living in all of the neighborhoods adjacent to University Avenue. 

It should now be apparent that development in the absence of the University Avenue Strategic Plan has been a disaster. The new monolithic apartment buildings that have sprung up along the avenue fail with respect to all of the goals of the University Avenue Strategic Plan. First, the apartment units they provide are unattractive to tenants. These buildings have been unable to rent all of their units, and the turnover on these units is very high, despite advertisements indicating that most of the apartments are designed for long-term tenants (“professionals”), as opposed to students. Given the dire housing shortage in Berkeley, it is obvious that prospective tenants are “voting with their feet”; they did not come to Berkeley to live in huge, monolithic apartment blocks, and they have no interest in doing so. 

The situation with respect to retail units in the new developments is even more of a disaster. Instead of designing units that are attractive to small business owners, developers have designed ground-floor retail units that have remained vacant, months to years after the buildings were constructed. Building retail units that nobody wants to rent runs absolutely counter to the objective of increasing opportunities for small business along University Avenue. In addition, a long row of “for rent” retail units is unlikely to encourage foot traffic along the avenue. 

Finally, as the members of the Planning Department must be aware, years of research in urban design shows that the visual impact (“threat”) of buildings is a direct function of their height and mass, and people much prefer buildings that are in scale with their surroundings, as opposed to buildings that loom over and dominate them. Current development along University Avenue allows for building designs which are not just unattractive, but which discourage people from using them for any purpose: housing, retail, or even “window shopping” by passersby. In contrast, the University Avenue Strategic Plan, which was developed in light of this research, allows for grouped clusters of higher four-story buildings at “nodes,” surrounded by areas with lower development, and provides for building designs which are non-threatening, and which blend into surrounding neighborhoods. The result is a plan which, if implemented, would lead to development that is attractive to long-term renters, small businesses, and pedestrians. In addition, even for those who refuse to abandon their cars, this plan would produce a visually appealing “gateway to Berkeley” for everyone driving along University Avenue on their way in and out of the city. 

Given the time, expertise and input from all relevant parties that went into the development of the University Avenue Strategic Plan, I am alarmed to hear suggestions that many of its provisions may now be abandoned, as a result of pressure from special interest groups of one sort or another. I urge in the strongest possible terms that the planners not bow to vocal or powerful special interests, but instead take all possible steps to implement the provisions of the University Avenue Strategic Plan, to the benefit of all of the citizens of Berkeley. 


Judy Stamps is a Berkeley resident.