Editorial: Doing Over Downtown: One Example By BECKY O'MALLEY

Tuesday October 04, 2005

As Berkeley prepares to remake its downtown once again at the behest of the University of California, we had the pleasure of spending Friday night in downtown Santa Cruz, which remade its downtown at the behest of the Loma Prieta fault. After the 1989 earthquake, the city hastily demolished many of the buildings on Pacific Avenue, and has been rebuilding the streetscape there ever since, with the aid of a redevelopment authority to coerce reluctant property owners into going with the flow. Berkeley won’t have the Draconian power that the earthquake gave Santa Cruz (G_d forbid we should have such an earthquake here!) But it’s useful to take a look at what works and what doesn’t, in a situation where almost everything’s possible.  

First, they didn’t ban cars on Pacific, though many trendies argued for this. What they did do is make it much harder for cars to use it, with one-way sections, traffic barriers diverting drivers to parallel streets, and very short-term and expensive parking meters that operate until 8 at night seven days a week. So you can still pick up your to-go pizza at Pizza My Heart, but if you want to stay longer you have to park at one of the big garages on the side streets or walk downtown as we did. This is much more sensible than Berkeley’s approach, where surface parking is cheaper than most off-street garages and free after six and on Sundays. Buses use parallel streets, not Pacific, making walking and bicycling in the street and on the sidewalk there much more pleasant than it is in Berkeley. Someone here seems to have decided that diesel fumes will add to the outdoor dining experience on our main streets.  

Pacific, always narrow, has been made even narrower, with the expanded sidewalks a good venue for street life of all kinds. We had dinner at a perfectly acceptable Mexican restaurant which had been allowed to set up tables on the wide sidewalk. Purists in our group thought that the owners should have been made to pay the city for the privilege, but we all enjoyed being able to eat outside, especially because the 4-year-old, up past her bedtime, was making a lot of noise from time to time.  

She was pleasantly diverted by the appearance of the Umbrella Man, dressed all in pink and carrying a pink parasol. He insists on walking slowly straight down the middle of the sidewalk—if anyone blocks his way, he just stands absolutely still until the person moves on. Because the woman in his way was engaged in an energetic conversation and didn’t notice him, he stood next to our dinner table for more than 10 minutes. The 4-year-old finally went over and asked him why he would only walk in a straight line. “Because I want to,” he said. Of course. 

There’s an ongoing battle between those who think that straightforward old-fashioned panhandling ought to be allowed on Pacific and those who think that only entertainers should be able to accept donations there. This currently seems to have resulted in a few distinctly untalented souls trying to make music on the street, but they’re joined by many real musicians and other entertainers. We encountered, among others, a terrific nine-member mariachi, a group that was doing excellent taiko-style drumming with home-made instruments, a classical cellist and a small R&B band set up in a dead end where dancing was permitted.  

The Santa Cruz city attorney made the same foolish mistake that the Berkeley city attorney once made, advising their council that the U.S. Constitution permitted regulation of what panhandlers said, so the city could ban asking for spare change. Homeless advocate Robert Nichol is $2,500 richer for that mistake, after he settled his lawsuit against the city of Santa Cruz for that price and the council’s agreement to change the law to comply with the Constitution.  

The street was crowded with people of all ages, clearly in a holiday mood. Many of them seemed to be weekend tourists, judging by what was printed on their T-shirts. All of the stores were open—many of them tschotchke shops, but quite attractive for the casual shopper. Some necessities of life were on sale: upscale organic groceries, books, clothing, fancy cookware … though at prices higher than mall or Internet competition. There’s a big multi-plex theater at one end of the mall, and two blocks down the historic Del Mar Theater has been restored for art films. 

UC Santa Cruz has managed to squeeze a big ugly building or two onto the street, with dead-at-night offices on the first floor and students upstairs. The students seem to be enjoying getting away from their idyllic ranch campus, but they are an uneasy mix with the senior housing that is on the upper floors of other buildings. Our hosts told us that downtown noise complaints are an on-going problem: what’s just good fun for some is a nuisance for others. 

All in all, there’s a faint Disneyesque aura over the whole scene. As in Disneyland, most of the buildings are new but not contemporary in style, though they’re not exactly historic either. A lot of America these days seems to be morphing into Disneyland, but then of course a lot of Americans love Disneyland. 

Matt Taecker, a UC Planning School graduate and professional planner, has been hired by the city of Berkeley’s planning department to run the Downtown Area Plan process. He’s a former Peter Calthorpe Associates principal who seems from the website of his current firm, Catalyst of San Francisco, to be a disciple of the New Urbanist school of city planning. The New Urbanists gave Florida the tightly controlled Disney housing development town of Celebration, regarded as lovely by many and deeply scary by others. New Urbanism has proposed many good ideas, but has also been criticized for promoting a kind of faux skin-deep charm that misses the excitingly gritty atmosphere of real historic cities like San Francisco. We’ll have to wait and see whether the new downtown that he and the University of California are going to create in Berkeley will be more like San Francisco or more like Santa Cruz. It should be interesting.