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North Shattuck Plaza Planned for Gourmet Ghetto

By Suzanne La Barre
Friday April 28, 2006

A tree-lined plaza. Grassy area for feasting on a slice of Cheese Board pizza. Small kiosks housing newsstands, cafes and flower shops. 

These are a few of the possibilities in the works for a reconfigured streetscape at the northern tip of the gourmet ghetto, a stretch currently dominated by a complicated conflux of roadways. 

The project is still in its infancy, but some general ideas include broadening the eastern sidewalk along Shattuck Avenue from Vine Street to Rose Street and building a pedestrian plaza, closing a stretch of Shattuck Avenue where the Ecology Center holds a weekly farmers’ market, redirecting traffic onto Shattuck Place and redistributing parking. Trees, grass, benches, exhibit space and other pedestrian-friendly amenities at the plaza would feature prominently, project organizers say. 

If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. The same scheme won approval from the City Council in 2001, but proponents never found a funding mechanism and the project was subsequently tabled. Now, more than five years later, community members are brainstorming with some top city officials to develop North Shattuck Plaza on their own. 

At the helm of the mobilization team is Planning Commissioner David Stoloff, chair of North Shattuck Plaza, Inc., a nonprofit organization formed in February to develop and manage the project.  

The nonprofit’s board of directors includes Councilmember Laurie Capitelli of District 5, who is also a partner at Red Oak Realty, retired Councilmember Mim Hawley (also of District 5), former Board of Education Director Lloyd Lee, the executive director of the North Shattuck business association and others. 

Stoloff’s overarching motivation is to develop an awkward streetscape into usable, pedestrian-friendly public space. 

“I would love to have such a plaza to grace the community where I spend a lot of time,” he said. 

The surrounding area is made up of retail shops, restaurants, cafes and side streets with single-family homes, rooming houses and apartments. Stoloff, a Bates appointee to the Planning Commission, owns property in the adjacent neighborhood. 

North Shattuck Plaza Inc. will finance the plaza in collaboration with the business association, which tucked away $250,000 for the project. In 2000, reconfiguring the area was estimated at half a million dollars, Stoloff said, though he guesses costs have gone up. Project planners are looking into securing grants and private donations, hoping, as Stoloff says that “the project will sell itself.” The city of Berkeley is also providing staff time, per a unanimous decision by the Berkeley City Council in September.  

Berkeley-based landscape architecture firm Meyer and Silberberg is in the process of drafting a detailed plan and cost estimate of the project under the direction of a design committee comprised of residents, business owners and board members.  

A preliminary scheme should be available in June, Stoloff said. Depending on how much the plan deviates from what council originally approved—a negative declaration on an initial environmental study--project developers may need to conduct more studies and go through additional approval steps. 

The project’s four main goals are to provide community space, a place for the farmers’ market to expand, maintain the same number of parking spaces and uphold the flow of traffic, said Heather Hensley, executive director of the North Shattuck Association, the district’s business group. 

The latter has been cause for concern among some residents and business owners who fear the new configuration will exacerbate congestion.  

When the plaza idea was first floated, the fire department reportedly squawked over losing a thoroughfare to the hills and access to Shattuck Commons, the triangular commercial island where Shattuck Avenue splits off. But on Wednesday, Deputy Fire Chief David Orth said an alternative route would not cause an “appreciable delay.” Plaza planners have also proposed incorporating an emergency road into the project. 

Fred Shokouh, who owns Bel Forno at the fore of Shattuck Commons, worries that the closure will impact business. Patrons may have more difficultly parking and accessing the café, which has one entrance on Shattuck, he said.  

“A business like ours, people come because it is convenient to park,” he said. 

It could also cause backups at Long’s across the street at Rose and Shattuck, he said. A traffic study conducted along with the initial study in 2000 found that traffic on Shattuck Avenue between Rose and Shattuck Place is mild enough to “allow consideration of reducing or eliminating service to through-travel, without undue impacts on surrounding streets and intersections.” The study did not include a quantitative analysis. 

Peter Levitt, co-owner of Saul’s, which is located on Shattuck north of Vine, supports the project because in the long term, it would boost business, he said.  

“Generally, when you create an urban landscape that is people-friendly, the merchant community overall would benefit,” he said. 

Others are waiting until concrete details are released before coming down on one side or another. 

Todd Paradis of Safeway, which stands adjacent to the proposed reconfiguration, can’t form an opinion just yet, since he doesn’t know how the grocery store will be affected, he said.  

“They have a lot more work to do on showing us the configuration of the street,” he said. “[Until] they get down to the nitty gritty, I don’t think we’re anywhere.”