Commentary: Two Halves Needed for a Whole Downtown By ALAN TOBEY

Friday January 20, 2006

Thanks to the city’s very helpful online NewsScan service, we recently saw two different visions of what makes for a successful downtown—and neither of them goes far enough. It’s instructive to figure out why. 

Tuesday’s edition contained two related articles—one in the San Francisco Business Times about Oakland, and one in the Contra Costa Times about Berkeley. Both proclaimed recent downtown developments to be major successes, but they couldn’t possibly have been describing more different outcomes. 

The Oakland article (“Oakland Mayor Finishes 10K Race in Time”) noted the success of mayor Jerry Brown in meeting his goal of creating housing for 10,000 new residents in the once-depressed downtown. The main factor seems to have been encouraging “regional and national developers” to build some “soaring condo towers” to replace “squat apartment complexes.” And the planning goal behind that was to encourage “a downtown brimful of workers . . . during the day and keep it from emptying out at night.” But housing is all that’s been built. 

The result, if you’ve been there lately, is still the dullest downtown in the whole Bay Area. Oakland has provided for 10,000 new residents who will have almost no reason ever to leave their cozy new digs, except to go to work or to seek urban excitement (and a decent supermarket) outside the downtown.  

The Oakland article noted that, in the last five years, Oakland issued permits for 3,648 units of infill multi-family housing while Berkeley approved permits for 977. It was this increase in denser development that allowed the “success” of Jerry Brown’s plan. 

The Berkeley article (“Berkeley’s Cultural Renaissance”) described how the downtown has been brought back from “its absolute worst” around 1990 by the success of the Berkeley Rep and the subsequent Arts District it inspired. Now there are “signs of vitality everywhere. Theatergoers line the streets, the clubs are hopping, and restaurants are filled with diners.” Future plans for new museums and galleries that may “stay open late six nights a week,” plus a relocated Pacific Film Archive, are noted as signs that more is to come. And being “close to BART” means that Berkeley’s downtown will have “regional appeal.” How different from downtown Oakland can you get? 

Let’s compare the two “successes.” Downtown Oakland will be the host of many denser and taller housing projects, but their residents have nothing to do at night in a cultural desert. Downtown Berkeley may be on the way to being a happenin’ place, but it seems to be basing success on renting its downtown by the night to visitors from elsewhere. Berkeley’s own cultural desert is apparent in the daytime sunshine, when downtown workers or a few optimistic local residents try to buy a loaf of bread, a pair of pants, or some other basic necessity. All the trendy night-time restaurants and jazz clubs in the world don’t make up for the lack of one good grocery store to make the downtown an actual livable place. Downtown Berkeley is in danger of becoming nothing but—forgive the nasty word—an entertainment mall, as dependent on non-local patronage as any Hilltop or Emeryville mall is. 

So we have opposite solutions: downtown Oakland as a place to live but with almost nowhere to go, and downtown Berkeley as a place to go but (unless you’re a student) almost nowhere to live. Yet both are failures at creating a truly livable downtown in the sense of an integrated community of residents and visitors who support—and are supported by—a full range of urban services and amenities. Together the two towns constitute a “dumbbell solution”—a mass of housing in downtown Oakland and a mass of entertainment in downtown Berkeley, joined by a thin BART track. Surely that’s not the best of outcomes. 

Oakland must bravely believe that “if we build it (dense housing), interesting amenities will come.” For their sake we can hope that this time is different—that there’s enough new housing to create a critical mass of support for the still-missing services. Berkeley apparently believes, since “soaring condo towers” or other more dense housing are apparently unthinkable, that transient success at night—supported by visitors much more than by downtown residents—is all we need. The slogan must be “if we don’t build it (dense housing) maybe nobody will notice (at least after 6 p.m.).” 

Berkeley’s newly-launched (re)planning effort for the downtown, fortunately, still gives us the opportunity to build the missing half of a complete downtown. Instead of merely boosting more of the same (focus on arts-goers and transient hotel guests), we have the chance—let’s call it our last good chance—to create a truly livable place at our urban core. And the key, clearly, will be the courage to build downtown more densely, with residential critical mass in mind, and to build for the daytime as well as for the night-time—with “our daily bread” the right measure of success.  

We have the choice: a downtown only optimized for the pleasure of others, or a vital mixed residential and commercial district that thrives by day as well as by night. If we build it WE will come—to live as well as to play. 


Alan Tobey is a retired technologist who has lived in Berkeley since 1970.