Last Saturday, Assemblymember Loni Hancock, in partnership with the Greenbelt Alliance, the East Bay Community Foundation, AC Transit, and Caltrans, kicked off a public campaign/planning process whose goal is to make San Pablo Avenue, in Hancock’s words, “a world-class boulevard.”
In the morning, about 60 people, mostly public officials, attended a by-invitation-only briefing session in San Pablo at Contra Costa College. The group then boarded an AC Transit Bus for a guided tour of San Pablo Avenue south to its terminus in Oakland. The afternoon featured a community meeting and “envisioning workshop” attended by about 100 people from the nine cities—Hercules, Pinole, San Pablo, Richmond, El Cerrito, Albany, Berkeley, Emeryville and Oakland—traversed by the 20-mile long street.
The day-long event was designed to introduce the San Pablo Corridor Project to its stakeholders and to sample local sentiment at an early stage in the undertaking. I was able to attend only the 90-minute morning briefing (on a press pass). The three speakers at that session—Hancock, the Greenbelt Alliance’s Lisa Schiller Tehrani, and Caltrans consultant and Oakland architect Phil Erickson—all cited as inspiration the tenets of Smart Growth and the New Urbanism.
To wit: If we want to revitalize our cities and to preserve open space and farmland, we need to end sprawl and lose our dependence on the private automobile. The way to do this is through transit-oriented development. Which means beefing up—or in many suburban locales, instituting—ample public transit on heavily traveled streets. At the same time, we ought to be concentrating new businesses and residences on or near those streets, bringing people closer to their jobs and shopping and thus enabling them to cut their commute time. To achieve the population needed to support the expanded transit and retail, we should zone the areas along and adjacent to transit corridors for greater density.
Transit underpins everything else here. One reason, then, that the backers of the San Pablo Corridor Project think their chosen street is ripe for a Smart Growth/New Urbanist makeover is that even as AC Transit has been losing riders systemwide, patronage along San Pablo has recently increased seven percent. A major factor in this growth is the inauguration last June of AC Transit’s 72 Rapid Bus, an express line that, by making only 21 stops on San Pablo Avenue between Oakland and the city of San Pablo, covers the same distance as the prior Limited bus service in 17 percent less time.
These are impressive figures. But Assemblywoman Hancock and her partners want people to feel as good about getting off the bus as they do about getting on. They’re looking to make San Pablo Avenue a stretch of urbanity as vibrant as the Ramblas in Barcelona. To that end, their vision of a new and improved corridor includes trees and other plantings, public art, street furniture, inviting bus shelters, plazas, gateway monuments and back-of-the-building parking. “We want bread and roses,” says Hancock.
That’s a mighty appealing formula. Nevertheless, the presentations at Contra Costa College left me feeling apprehensive as well as intrigued. What stirred my misgivings was the sense that the backers of the San Pablo Corridor Project are as yet insufficiently attuned to the redeeming particulars of the place as it now exists—at least in Berkeley.
To be sure, “[m]aintaining a strong sense of the history and character of the local community” was one of the major themes of the “envisioning” process. And, it’s to be hoped, on the bus tour, which I missed, that theme got fleshed out in relation to specific venues.
But what was missing from the morning briefing was an adequate acknowledgment that the San Pablo Corridor Project is likely to create gentrification, bringing higher land values, higher rents, and ultimately the forced displacement of those who can no longer afford to stay.
If this scenario comes to pass, Berkeley’s portion of San Pablo Avenue’s 20 miles will be diminished, not enhanced. For the truth is that the street is already one of the most interesting and vital thoroughfares in town. To paraphrase a song that Alice Stuart used to sing at Freight and Salvage (when it was still on San Pablo), our piece of the avenue is in large part funky but clean, home to destination establishments small and large—the Japanese tool shop, the Ecology Center, East Bay Nursery, the custom-made coat shop, the lighting store—to name just a few. All are there not in spite of, but because of the “underutilized” (as developers like to say) nature of the property they inhabit.
While gentrification and its discontents were barely mentioned on Saturday morning, another related issue—local resistance to “densification”— got more attention. “We want development on the street to be a good neighbor,” said Caltrans consultant Phil Erickson. This salutary sentiment, however, was accompanied by a characterization of neighbors as ignorant and/or irrational when it comes to increasing height and density. Erickson told of quelling objections to the proposed height of a project on San Pablo in Berkeley by pointing out to local residents that “some of the trees might be violating the height limit,” as if the height of a tree and a building were equivalent. “Through design,” he said, “we need to work with people to not be afraid of density.”
That assurance was not enough for Berkeley developer Ali Kashani, who raised the most pointed question of the morning. Referring to the current efforts to implement the University Avenue Strategic Plan, Kashani observed that a major issue was the transition between four- and five-story buildings on University and single-story homes behind them. Developers, he said, can’t afford to incorporate rear setbacks, and neighbors don’t want four-story walls towering over their backyards. What’s the solution?
“It’s possible,” said Erickson hopefully, “that residential units on the other side of the block are rentals in decline that will create other opportunities.” In other words: When the neighbors are just tenants, they will have less rights in the matter. “Not in Albany,” murmured the two Albany City Councilwomen who were sitting next to me. Not in Berkeley, either.
In this context, it was disconcerting to hear Assemblymember Hancock ask, “How can we extend our view past our own zoning ordinance and our own piece of the pie and make a street that exemplifies the New Urbanism?”
When I asked her about this comment a few days later, Hancock said that she “did not mean that everybody should rewrite their zoning laws.” What she meant, she explained, is that she’d like the people living along the San Pablo corridor to suspend their assumptions long enough to contemplate some alternatives to “the planning that we’ve all done.” Not necessarily legal alternatives. “This is not a governmental effort to regulate people,” she said, “as much as it is an effort get people thinking about what a world-class boulevard would be like.” She noted that on Saturday she herself had expressed concern about the relation of building heights to street width. Her thought, she said, was to begin the revitalization of San Pablo with some “easy things” like street trees and public art.
I’m hoping that Hancock’s partners in the San Pablo Corridor Project share her perspective. That would go a long way toward earning the community goodwill that will be necessary to make their dream of a world-class boulevard a true urban success story.
Zelda Bronstein served on the Berkeley Planning Commission from 1997 to 2004.ª