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Tuesday December 06, 2005

“Let’s all visit Berkeley for the first time,” Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC) Chair Will Travis declared Saturday before a group set off on a downtown walking tour.  

Committee members, joined by city and UC Berkeley staff and members of t he public, took a two-and-a-half-hour tour of the district that will be the subject of a new central city plan. 

The plan is mandated by the settlement agreement of the city’s suit against UC Berkeley over the university’s Long Range Development Plan (LRDP) for 2020. 

Before setting out, tour participants gathered in the Aurora Theater for introductory remarks from Travis and Matt Taecker, the planner hired specifically for the plan. 

Taecker asked committee members to think about “what makes a great and exceptional downtown,” including public spaces, the impact of buildings on their surroundings, the streets themselves, sidewalks, passages and plaza spaces. 

UC Capital Projects senior planner Kevin Hufferd said that Shattuck Avenue is “ripe for change” because of the number of single-story buildings that will become desirable to developers in an economic upswing. 

According to the LRDP, the university plans include adding approximately one million square feet of floor space downtown, both in acquisition of existing buildings and in new development. Just how to accommodate that massive expansion is part of all DAPAC discussions. 


Oxford and Center streets  

Members spent part of Saturday focused on two key points where town and gown meet—Oxford/Fulton Str eet and Center Street. 

The university and downtown meet along Oxford/Fulton, which Taecker described as “a kind of seam.” 

Dorothy Walker, former assistant vice chancellor for property development at the university and one of City Councilmember Betty Old’s appointees to DAPAC, argued for undergrounding the street along the university frontage, “although I’m not sure we can afford it,” she said. 

The one-block stretch of Center Street between Oxford Street and Shattuck Avenue was the focus of considerable attention because the university owns most of the block on the north side of the street, where it plans to build a museum complex and is working with a private developer to create a hotel and conference center. 

Several speakers asked the committee to co nsider proposals to close the street to through traffic and “daylight” Strawberry Creek—which now flows in a concrete culvert beneath the pavement—to create a public plaza. 

“It’s the best opportunity the city has to develop pedestrian space,” said Rob Wr enn, a committee member and transportation commissioner. Wrenn also reminded committee members that development of the transportation hub on Shattuck Avenue south of Center Street is a major priority—particularly in light of pending AC Transit plans to ad d Bus Rapid Transit service.  


Downtown’s center? 

After the walks, Taecker asked participants to define the downtown’s center. Several participants identified the “BART drum,” the circular elevator structure at the southwest corner of the Shattuck/Center intersection. 

Travis offered alternatives, pointing out that “it depends on who you are, what you’re doing and what time of day it is.” 

Realtor and developer John Gordon proposed Shattuck Avenue from University Avenue to the Berkeley Public Library. Fo r people who want to lease business space, “everyone wants to be along Shattuck,” he said. 

For Sally Sachs, the center was the Berkeley Public Library itself. 

“Today it was the Farmers’ Market,” said one member, whose sentiment was acknowledged by other s who were hungry from just having completed a long walk. 

“There is no central focus now,” said John McBride, who posited that, with proper handling, the two-block triangle created by the split of the north- and south-bound lanes of Shattuck could fit th e bill. 


Residential areas 

Taecker also asked about the future of residential areas within the downtown plan boundaries. 

Steve Wollmer of pointed to Berkeley Way west and north of downtown, where the creation of larger developments in a single-family residential area had led to the creation of Berkeley’s Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance. 

“And how can anyone say Allston Way is not a residential area?” he asked. The Gaia Building, downtown’s largest new building in years, is an apartm ent building with leased commercial space in the ground and mezzanine floors. 

Wollmer also characterized housing development in the planning areas as consisting of three types: high-rises, ticky-tacky and Craftsman-1900s scale. 

Jesse Arreguin, a city ho using commission and Rent Board member who also sits on DAPAC, said one challenge will be the creation of new housing development along Milvia Street while still preserving the residential character of the neighborhood. 

Dorothy Walker asked if preserving small-scale residences would continue to be appropriate in a downtown that is developing greater density. 

“I disagree,” said McBride. “We must be very careful about tearing down existing buildings.” 

Wrenn cautioned that the older downtown buildings off ered lower rents than the newer high-density projects. “The newer ones are much more expensive,” he said, nothing that over time, Berkeley rents have risen by three-and-a-half times the Consumer Price Index. 

Former City Council member Mim Hawley said tha t perhaps the time had come for reconsidering limiting new construction height to three- and four-story buildings and look at taller buildings. 


Landmarks, parking, etc. 

After the walking tour, several participants expressed a new appreciation for Berkeley’s landmarked buildings—which were featured in a map distributed to all participants. Members of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association were present in force to argue for preservation of the numerous city landmarks in the downtown area. 

While several participants said they felt downtown lacked sufficient parking, Wrenn noted that parking spaces are abundant, particularly in structures, and that the only real parking crush comes between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. on weekdays, when the available parking often drops to about 200 slots. 

“The Transportation Commission is trying to reduce demand by encouraging commuters to get out of their cars,” he said. 

Several members said they thought many of Berkeley’s sidewalks were often too crowded and too narrow. 

“Our streets are filthy,” said Planning Commissioner and DAPAC member Susan Wengraf. “I am appalled at the amount of litter. It make walking not all that pleasant.” 

“It’s disgraceful the way people are trashing the streets,” added Amy Cottle. 

Because t ime was limited, members didn’t get to see all of the planning area, and several suggested additional walking tours, one during a typical weekday and another a night, and Taecker agreed. Another tour will also be conducted for people with mobility difficulties, he said. 


Photograph by Richard Brenneman 

Members of the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee stopped for a discussion during their two-and-a-half hour walking tour to survey the area for which they’ll help devise a new plan in light of UC Berkeley’s expansion plans.›