Public Comment

Commentary:How to Create a Lively ‘Green’ Oasis in Downtown

By Kirstin Miller
Friday April 28, 2006

Increasingly, people living in cities are calling for the creation of natural, beautiful, functional, and healthy public spaces accessible to all citizens, regardless of age, ability or income. Cities are also taking greater steps to heal the natural environment within their borders. Revitalizing and restoring nature in the city not only helps the environment, but also connects people with place. 

Berkeley is currently discussing ideas for improving its downtown. Citizens for a Strawberry Creek Plaza is advocating for a “green” downtown centerpiece, featuring what we are calling “Strawberry Creek Plaza,” by closing Center Street between Shattuck and Oxford to motor vehicle traffic and by daylighting a portion of now-culverted Strawberry Creek on that block. A welcoming urban oasis would be created in the heart of downtown, attracting visitors for shopping, recreation, education and enjoyment of a well-designed, pedestrian-oriented open space. 

The recent development of the Arts District is an exciting step towards increased vitality in downtown. But Berkeley still lacks a feeling of a central gathering place. A Strawberry Creek Plaza could provide that missing piece. As one model of a successful strategy that celebrates nature in the city, San Luis Obispo’s Mission Plaza and San Luis Creek restoration has unequivocally contributed to bringing the downtown commercial vacancy rate from 60 percent to current full occupancy. Other cities successfully showcasing urban waterways include: Ashland, Oregon; Santa Rosa, Calif.; Denver, Col.; San Antonio, Tex., and Providence, Rhode Island. 

Citizen interest in downtown creek daylighting has been strong for many years. It was initially inspired by the city’s (and the nation’s) first urban creek daylighting project, launched at Strawberry Creek Park in 1982. In 1999, the City of Berkeley commissioned a “Strawberry Creek Downtown” data collection study that, after public review, concluded that daylighting on Center Street would be preferred over other alternatives studied. 

Then, in late 2003, the university announced plans to develop a hotel, conference center, and museum complex on Center Street, where their printing plant and the Bank of America and its parking lot are now located. This is the same block that the 1999 Strawberry Creek Downtown study indicated was the best location for creek daylighting to occur. 

In the first phase of development, the hotel and conference center portion of the plan will be constructed with private financing. The museum complex will follow in a second phase, supported by campus fundraising efforts. The project will supply the university’s need for conference and meeting space. It also will create new quarters for the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. (The art museum is now housed in a seismically problematic building on Bancroft Way.) Additionally, the project will provide a new and more publicly accessible facility for the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology collection, now tucked into cramped campus quarters in Kroeber Hall. 

The project site is not only the core of the downtown; it is also a transit hub served by the Downtown Berkeley BART station and several AC transit lines. Approximately 10,000 pedestrians traverse Center Street each day, walking from BART to campus. 

It’s a location that has great importance to the citizens of Berkeley and the greater Bay Area as a destination for the Arts and entertainment, as well as education and commerce. To provide community input and recommendations to the new proposals, in December 2003 the City Council approved a recommendation from Mayor Tom Bates that directed the City of Berkeley Planning Commission to form a task force to “examine the potential hotel and conference center in downtown Berkeley and to report back to the council no later than May, 2004, with preliminary recommendations.” 

Included on the task force were members of AC Transit, Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, Berkeley Chamber of Commerce, Berkeley Convention and Visitors Bureau, Bicycle Friendly Berkeley Coalition, city commissions on Civic Arts, Design Review, Planning, Public Works, and Transportation, Downtown Berkeley Association, East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, Ecocity Builders, Livable Berkeley, Sierra Club, Urban Creeks Council, local architects, and landscape architects. 

Task force meetings featured lively discussions with active participation by interested members of the public. The recommendations leaned heavily towards “green” building and design, closing Center Street to traffic, and the creation of a pedestrian environment with a daylighted Strawberry Creek included, if deemed feasible. 

After the Hotel Task Force made its report, a conflict arose over the university’s Long Range Development Plan (LRDP). A lawsuit was filed by the city in protest to the LRDP, and in the end, a settlement was reached, where, among several other agreements, the city and university made a decision to hammer out a new Downtown Area Plan that would help manage the needs of both UC and the city. 

The new downtown planning process is now in motion, and Citizens for a Strawberry Creek Plaza is hoping that a central focus on the core downtown area as a “green” centerpiece and anchor for the larger downtown area will emerge.  

In addition to the Strawberry Creek Plaza, a “green” downtown would have many or all of the following features: 

1. Demonstration of a healthy urban “ecological footprint.” 

2. Ecological design—design with nature. 

3. Re-establishment of an important urban waterway. 

4. Some natural urban habitat to bolster local biodiversity. 

5. Demonstration of the correlation between the creation of a great public place and increased economic vitality. 

6. Live rooftops and terracing. 

7. Increased transportation alternatives. 

8. Increased housing near jobs/reduction of auto dependence. 

9. Teaching about sustainability by example. 

10. Energy conservation, solar orientation of buildings. 

11. Additional “green building” methods and materials used. 

Such a “green” downtown, we believe, would bring a wealth of aesthetic, social, economic, and environmental benefits to Berkeley. It would also establish Berkeley as a leader in conservation and restoration of a healthy relationship between the natural and the urban. 

Restaurant patrons would be able to enjoy the creek as they lunch outside or stop for coffee and conversation. Cafes with outdoor seating could be added on the sunny north side of Center Street to supplement the restaurants that already exist on the south side. Pedestrian amenities such as benches, trees and plantings, and public art would be included. Space could possibly also be set aside for small-scale outdoor concerts. 

Students could easily walk to and from the university. Sightseers, school groups and visitors will appreciate a scenic environment near the two new museums on the north side of the plaza. Conference attendees would arrive via BART, making their way towards the hotel while admiring their new surroundings, briefly stopping at a kiosk with information about Berkeley’s downtown and nearby Arts District. 

Bus Rapid Transit buses traveling in their own dedicated lanes would arrive and depart frequently near the plaza, adding to the flow of visitors, residents, and commuters in the heart of downtown. Added housing at locations close to BART and to the new BRT bus routes would provide opportunities for more people to live close to their jobs in downtown and on the UC campus while all the Bay Area is just a transit ride away. The new housing would include affordable apartments and be designed to minimize energy consumption. 

Within this green urban oasis, human voices and sounds of running water and singing birds would come alive without the usual competition from cars and traffic. It would be a beautiful downtown center celebrating Berkeley’s natural and architectural past while demonstrating a commitment to a sustainable future. We hope you will join us in advocating for this promising green vision for downtown. Together, we can make it happen! 

For more information about Citizens for a Strawberry Creek Plaza, or to request a presentation, please visit 


Kirstin Miller is program manager for Citizens for a Strawberry Creek Plaza and is on the Steering Committee. Other Steering Committee members are Syliva McLaughlin, Robert Hass, Richard Register, Rob Wrenn, Elyce Judith, Juliet Lamont, Gus Yates and David Koehn.