Commentary: A Vision For Berkeley’s Downtown By STEVE GELLER

Friday December 23, 2005

Berkeley has a reputation for wild-eyed radicalism, but when it comes to our downtown, we’re wildly conservative. We don’t like tall buildings. We want to preserve old buildings. We want to pave over downtown for places to park our cars. 

Monday night, I sat in on a discussion of the Downtown Area Plan at City Hall. Councilmember Dona Spring asked those present to give their concerns and visions, their images and concepts. Here’s what I got out of it. 

Downtown should be a place people want to come to, a place where they feel comfortable. Downtown should be a “commons” where we share good things and meet one-another. 

If people feel comfortable, they will spend money and downtown will prosper. 

Portland, Ore., Boulder, Co. and San Luis Obispo, Calif. all have pleasant and prosperous downtowns, because they have enlightened policies. None of those policies are particularly radical; they are not un-tried; they really do work. One can read about the enlightened policies on the cities’ websites. 

If we had wider sidewalks we could have more sidewalk cafes. We’ve got a good start on Center Street; maybe Center should be closed between Shattuck and Oxford. Hey, we could daylight Strawberry Creek, next to the Hotel Conference Center. A blue line already marks the spot. 

There are mixed opinions about tall buildings. Personally, I don’t think we need to limit the number of floors, but even a “green building” doesn’t make life better if it takes away sunshine; we don’t want downtown to be a dark canyon. 

We really ought to have public toilets. We could give a tax break to cover the cleaning costs. This might give work to some of the homeless folks. 

We could have fewer cars and plenty of parking. We could issue bus passes to all-day parkers, and free their spaces for shoppers and visitors. This was the recommendation of the Traffic Demand Management (TDM) study. We definitely do NOT need another such study. 

The parking we do have is mis-managed. People don’t know where it is, so they drive in circles, spewing pollution. Nights and weekends, there’s plenty of downtown parking, but people don’t know where that is. I’m told some commercial lots close evenings for lack of business. 

On-street parking is cheaper than garages; this encourages meter-feeding. Meters should be made more expensive, and the revenue spent on downtown improvements. Parking anywhere should never be free. 

A lot of working people really don’t need to park at all. Downtown businesses should issue transit passes to their employees. UC should not build those 1000 more parking spaces. It’s bad enough that UC wants to take over northeast downtown. 

I live up on College Ave. Coming and going from the meeting, I rode the AC Transit #51. Both times, the bus was full of UC students. The UC Berkeley Class Pass works great. 

Both times, the bus was surrounded by herds of honking cars, radiating road-rage and generating greenhouse gas. Walking to the bus stop, I passed the YMCA, which was filled with people pumping on exercise machines, having got to their gym by driving a car. 

My vision of downtown has people sharing shops, galleries, music venues and restaurants, seeing the sky, enjoying sunshine or the stars and getting about mostly by walking, biking or riding BART and the buses. I do this now. I like coming downtown. 


Steve Geller is a Berkeley resident.