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Panel: What Makes a Great Downtown? By RICHARD BRENNEMAN

Friday January 20, 2006

What makes a great downtown? 

‘Look to Portland, Oregon,’ seemed to be the consensus of the experts who outlined their visions Wednesday night to members of the Berkeley Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC). 

The panel gathered in Warren Hall on the UC Berkeley campus to hear four thinkers share their vision. 

One panelist was missing: Austene Hall, of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, who was asked to speak about the history of buildings in the city center. 

“I asked not to be on the panel because I feel, as a preservationist, that I need to speak specifically to Berkeley,” Hall said. 

She said she had asked Matt Taecker, the city planner hired with UC Berkeley money to coordinate the planning process, if she could make a separate presentation, one that would include a representative of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and a preservation architect. 

The four panel members outlined their own criteria for what makes for a workable downtown, starting with Donlyn Lyndon, professor emeritus of architecture and urban design at UC Berkeley and the editor of PLACES, an environmental design journal. 

The key characteristic of a great downtown, Lyndon said, is “that everybody wants to be there at some point. It’s great if the physical configuration makes it memorable.” 

Stressing a point made by all of the panelists, Lyndon said housing was a critical element of a healthy city center, living in “buildings overtly housing other people.” 

“It should be full of choice and opportunity,” he added. 

Panelist Dena Belzer, a Berkeley resident who is a principal of Strategic Economics, a firm specializing in regional economics, and also serves on the board of the Center for Transit-Oriented Development, talked about the evolving new role of city centers. 

While downtowns once served at hubs for department stores, financial institutions, media companies and other institutions, Belzer said, decentralization of information brought about by the Internet, changing demographics, the decline of urban department stores and other shifts were altering the nation of the urban core. 

Nonetheless, she said, downtown Berkeley currently accommodates 7,179 jobs with 5,178 housing units either built, under construction or planned. 

What downtown Berkeley lacks, she said, is synergism and visual cohesion. 

Paul Okamoto of Okamoto Saijo Architecture, asked, “Is there a ‘there’ there?” An advocate of daylighting urban creeks, he said he hopes plans for downtown Berkeley would include restoration of buried waterways. 

Alan Jacobs, UCB professor emeritus of city and regional planning, also served as San Francisco’s Planning Director. 

“A dense urban center creates a critical mass of people, ideas, products and activities that promote growth and trade,” he said. “Any good city has a good transportation system. Really good downtowns are congested. Stop worrying about it—pray for it.” 

Other key characteristics of healthy downtowns include low levels of service at certain periods, “and there is always a shortage of parking in any good downtown,” he said. “Cities that spend the most on traffic and parking are not nearly as good as those that don’t.” 

Jacobs faulted the city for allowing Barnes & Noble to build a one-story bookstore on Shattuck Avenue, when a taller building with housing—and possibly UCB offices—above would have been more appropriate. 

“It’s the habitation of downtown that counts,” he said. 

One member of the audience asked the panelists how they would deal with the homeless who frequent the streets of downtown Berkeley. 

“Downtown needs to be a place where everybody wants to be and if not enough people are using it, it seems to be dominated by one group,” said Lyndon. 

Okamoto suggested adding more truly affordable housing. 

Asked how downtown Berkeley could become “truly inspirational,” Jacobs said “more people and more density,” along with “more clarity and more mystery.” 

“What we don’t have is a really well-formed public space,” said Lyndon, pointing to his pet peeve as an example: Oxford Street. 

“It only serves as a division,” he said. “It doesn’t have a visual character that connects with what’s on either side of it.” 

“The whole creek scene,” said Okamoto. “Provide an open public space and integrate it with the natural environment.” 

“The scale is really great,” said Belzer, “but you drive through downtown Berkeley pretty quickly, so the scale is distorted.” Instead, Belzer suggested slowing traffic and creating more public spaces along the streetscape. 

When Travis told the panelists that UC Berkeley planned to add more than a million square feet of space in downtown Berkeley—the impetus that led to the lawsuit that resulted in creation of DAPAC—Jacobs was surprised. 

“A million square feet in downtown Berkeley? For offices? Who said it?” 

“It’s an opportunity but it creates a great challenge,” said Belzer. “It’s important to look where it could go, where it could fit. That’s a lot to think about, how it could possibly be made to work. A million square feet is a lot of space, but I wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand.” 

Patti Dacey, one of two new DAPAC members, said, “I am puzzled how homogenous this group is. We have only gotten one fairly narrow view of what our marching orders should be. It seems to be density, plus a little bit of nature . . . I feel a little bit like one very narrow vision has been picked for us to be lectured on.” 

Dacey, recently ousted from her seat on the Landmarks Preservation Commission, said she was particularly concerned about the lack of consideration given to landmark buildings.  

“It is true we all know each other and we have a lot that we agree on,” said Lyndon, who also agreed that the city has “wonderful historic buildings downtown.” 

But, he said, “All of those buildings that are historic were once new, outrageous, outside the norm. They rattled people’s cages. It’s important to create additional historic heritage.” 

Jesse Arreguin, a city housing commissioner and Rent Board member who also sits on DAPAC, said he was concerned that the panelists “weren’t specific about the types of housing,” noting that the downtown lacked units for truly low-income people. 

Among those in audience was Mayor Tom Bates, who got the last word. 

UC’s plans posed a major problem, he said. 

“I would love to see what we can preserve and build on. How does it fit with the old? What can we build together? And how can we take Oxford Street and make it blending and not a barrier?” 

The mayor said he hoped the state would turn the old State Health Department building—a huge piece of property—over to the university, and noted that the school already has considerable property along Oxford it could develop.  


Other business 

Before he turned the meeting over to the speakers, DAPAC Chair Will Travis acknowledged criticism about his decision to admit UC Berkeley officials to serve on the panel in an ex officio capacity. 

City Councilmember Kriss Worthington had raised concerns about Travis’s appointments to a city commission whose other members had been selected by the City Council and the Planning Commission. 

“There has been some question if the committee has the capacity to invite people to participate in an ex officio capacity,” Travis said, adding that the matter would be presented to the City Council. 

“This is a city commission. That is why it got into trouble,” said former Planning Commission chair Zelda Bronstein during the opening public comment period. “It is your mission to guide city staff, and so far I don’t see any guidance.” 

Travis responded by telling Bronstein that “the worst way of commenting is in this fashion.” 

“What do you mean?” asked DAPAC member Lisa Stephens. 

Travis said that because “numerous studies” have shown that only 20 percent of verbal comments are remembered, remarks were better off submitted in writing.g