The city has begun the process of creating a new plan for Berkeley’s downtown. The current Berkeley Downtown Plan was adopted by the City Council in 1990. The work of putting that plan together began in 1984.
Proponents of doing a new plan for downtown have argued that a new plan is needed because the current plan is out-of-date. That raises an important question:
What has changed in the 20 years since the last Downtown Plan committee held its first community forum to get input for the current downtown plan? What new challenges do we face as a city?
Downtown has improved in a number of ways since the mid-1980s. An arts district has been developed successfully. Vacancy rates in downtown Berkeley are lower today; the retail sector is healthier. On the whole the downtown economy is in better shape.
Historic preservation was a key goal of the current downtown plan. Since the current plan was adopted, a number of historic buildings on Shattuck Avenue have been fixed up, which has certainly improved the visual quality of downtown. Historic preservation is, by definition, an ongoing process. The city will need to continue to preserve the historic structures that contribute to downtown’s character.
The Downtown Plan encouraged housing development and a substantial amount of housing has been built downtown in the last seven years. The city’s general plan encourages “transit-oriented” development and the new housing downtown within walking distance of BART and bus stops fits the bill.
But while new housing has been built, a relatively small percentage of it is affordable. One of the major changes that has taken place in Berkeley in the last 20 years is that rents and home prices have soared. Even when you adjust for inflation and rising incomes, the median and average market rent is much higher than it was in the mid-1980s. Rents for two-bedroom apartments are around $2,000 a month. Using federal affordability guidelines, it requires a household income of $80,000 to afford such an apartment.
People who grow up in Berkeley are finding it increasingly difficult to live in Berkeley when they move from their parents’ homes. People who work in Berkeley at jobs that pay less than $18 an hour or so will find it hard to find any housing at all that they can afford. The lower the income, the bigger the problem. As downtown is one of the best places to build new housing, the new downtown plan will need to put some emphasis, as the General Plan does, on providing affordable workforce housing for families and single workers, along with housing for seniors, the disabled and those who are currently homeless.
As more housing is built, it creates a need for services for new downtown residents. In planning for the future of retail downtown, the new downtown plan should consider how grocery stores and similar businesses that serve downtown residents and residents of nearby neighborhoods can be encouraged to locate downtown. Right now, the new Longs Drugs is the closest thing to a supermarket downtown. A number of food markets have closed since the current Downtown Plan was implemented and the remaining small markets on University and Shattuck avenues need to be supplemented to meet the needs of downtown residents.
In addition to housing, there is bound to be some commercial development as well. We should be concerned about the quality of new jobs that are created. Downtown employers should be encouraged to provide health benefits and pay decent wages to all employees including those in lower-level jobs. Hiring Berkeley residents, especially those who have been unemployed, should be encouraged. When the city supports a new development such as a new downtown hotel, it should ask the employer not to interfere with union efforts to organize their employees.
Two transportation objectives of the current downtown plan are: 1) to “encourage the use of transit as the primary mode of travel,” and 2) to “decrease single-occupant vehicle trips to and from the downtown to create a viable and livable environment.” These goals are more important than ever because another big change in Berkeley during the last 20 years has been the increase in traffic.
The environmental impact report for Berkeley’s General Plan projects that growth will result in even more traffic and more congestion at various intersections, an impact that is “significant” and “unmitigatable.”
While city resources went into creating an arts district and reviving retail, relatively little has been done to implement the Downtown Plan’s transportation policies. Some good things have happened, including creation of a bike station at downtown BART and addition of new bus shelters.
But AC Transit service has recently been cut. The Berkeley TriP store closed and many good downtown pro-transit policies have never been implemented. The downtown plan called for discounted transit passes for downtown employees. The city has implemented an Eco Pass that allows city employees to ride AC Transit buses for free along with a $20 Commuter Check subsidy for BART riders. These measures have been successful in increasing transit ridership and reducing drive-alone commute trips. But no similar measures have been implemented for other downtown area employees.
Santa Barbara and Ann Arbor, Michigan both have implemented successful programs that provide free bus passes to downtown workers.
Spreading Eco Pass or other forms of transit incentives could reduce both traffic, pollution and the demand for parking. Another vital step will be to work with AC Transit to implement Bus Rapid Transit, which promises to encourage greater use of transit with more frequent service and by reallocating traffic lanes currently used by cars to create dedicated lanes for buses so that they can stay on schedule and be more competitive with cars with respect to travel time.
The needs of pedestrians have not gotten much attention since the current plan was adopted. Accident statistics show that there are some intersections in and near downtown that need to be improved to enhance safety.
The current downtown plan calls for providing outdoor space for pedestrians. This continues to be an unmet need. The Hotel Task Force called for closing Center Street to motor vehicles (except for deliveries) to create a pedestrian plaza on a street that 10,000 pedestrians pass through each day.
The new downtown plan should embrace creation of a pedestrian plaza. Pedestrianized streets and even larger pedestrian zones have been very successful in many European cities and have helped attract people to downtown areas that might otherwise have declined as a result of population shifts to the suburbs. These pedestrian areas have been very good for local retail businesses. There are also successful examples in the United States including in Charlottesville, Virginia and Boulder Colorado, both of which host large universities.
The current downtown plan as calls for uncovering Strawberry Creek. The city should, as part of the new Downtown Plan, commit to following through with an analysis of feasibility, costs, potential funding sources, and design options. It’s possible to create a relatively peaceful oasis with natural features where people could gather away from the intense motor vehicle noise on Shattuck Avenue.
Think globally, act locally
Awareness of the Global Warming problem and of the negative consequences that can result from climate change has grown since the 1980s. There is also renewed concern about energy consumption and a recognition that sometime in the next 20 years (the useful life of a new downtown plan) we may reach a peak in oil production that could cause severe economic dislocation if steps haven’t been taken to switch to renewable energy.
Recognizing these problems, Berkeley has joined cities around the world in signing the Urban Environmental Accords, which were presented on United Nations World Environment Day, which took place in San Francisco this past June. The accords include 21 actions. Two of the more important actions are:
Action 1: Adopt and implement a policy to increase the use of renewable energy to meet ten percent of the city’s peak electric load within seven years.
Action 15: Implement a policy to reduce the percentage of commute trips by single occupancy vehicle by 10 percent in seven years.
The new Downtown Plan should contribute to carrying out the actions in the Urban Environmental Accords. The city should continue to oppose proposals that are clearly inconsistent with those accords, such as UC’s proposal to build 2060 new parking spaces, many of them in downtown, which, if implemented, will clearly lead to more trips by automobile, not fewer. Will UC be part of the global warming problem or part of the solution?
One way the city can act to reduce energy consumption and to increase use of renewable energy is by encouraging green building. In the 1980s, there was no U.S. Green Building Council and LEED standards for green building had not been developed. Now that some standards exist and others are under development, the city should think about requiring, as part of the new downtown plan, that new buildings achieve some level of green building certification.
Perhaps incentives can be created for buildings that achieve LEED platinum or LEED gold certification. Some recently constructed buildings have outmoded heating systems that do little to reduce demand for energy. And, it’s not clear that current zoning. We should require and encourage more from developers.
There are many good things in the current Downtown Plan, some of which simply need to be implemented after all these years. The current base height limits make sense, except perhaps for a downtown hotel. Additional height or reduced parking requirements can be considered as incentives for development that addresses real needs, such as providing affordable housing or meeting the highest green building standards.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a series of articles which will appear at irregular intervals documenting the progress of the Berkeley Downtown Area Plan task force. Task force participants are invited to submit similar pieces presenting their vision for the downtown area in this space, and everyone is invited to offer their evaluation of the group’s performance on the Daily Planet’s opinion pages.