The Public Eye: Telegraph Avenue’s Hope: Buzz, Not Busway

By Michael Katz
Tuesday June 06, 2006

The good news is that Telegraph Avenue and the Southside commercial district are doing just fine. 

The bad news is that they’re doing fine in Philadelphia. 

Shockwaves are still reverberating from the announced shutdown of Cody’s on Telegraph. Unless some angel and community goodwill conspire to save the bookstore, Berkeley will lose a cherished, bedrock institution. (Any angels reading this are invited to materialize at the community meeting on June 8, 7 p.m., at Trinity Church on Bancroft Way at Dana Street.) 

Cody’s current owner attributes the store’s negative balance sheet to obvious causes: Internet booksellers and the Telegraph Ave. commercial area’s decline. But neighboring merchants blame that very decline partly on parking difficulties. 

Remarkably, some city officials think Telegraph’s “cure” is to make automobile access and parking even more difficult, by cooperating with AC Transit’s wasteful proposal to implement “Bus Rapid Transit” (BRT) on Telegraph, just a few blocks beside BART. 

A bad version of this proposal would create bus-only lanes on Telegraph, and on Bancroft Way, Durant Avenue, or both. This would remove at least one vehicle lane, and some parking, from each street. A worse version would also block Bancroft Way to through-traffic at Telegraph. Because people would find it harder to drive to stores and restaurants, these options ought to kill off a few more Southside businesses. 

The really bad version would entirely ban cars on Telegraph, from Haste Street north—creating a “pedestrian-transit mall,” and extending historic campus creep. As we’ll see below, from other cities’ experiences, this would likely turn Telegraph into a ghost town. 

Leave things to Berkeley’s mayor, and he may yet kill off Moe’s, Shakespeare & Co., Amoeba, and Rasputin. Our youth might soon have to buy their bongs in San Leandro (whose officials were rebellious enough to flatly reject AC Transit’s proposed bus-only lanes). That’s a long trip that might not even be safe. 

You say you want a retailution? If Berkeley’s top officials and their advisors were really on the Bus (to quote a 1960s shorthand for enlightenment), they’d carefully study the success of Philadelphia’s South Street. This 1-1/2-mile commercial, restaurant, and entertainment strip feels more like Telegraph Ave. than Telegraph itself, with elements of San Francisco’s bustling Valencia, Mission, and Fillmore Streets thrown in. 

Funky music shops, jazz clubs, counterculture cafes, and tattoo parlors blazed a trail there in the ‘60s for chain outlets later on. But although the boho vibe is gradually migrating elsewhere, everyone seems to be basically thriving. Thrift stores, traditional Jewish delis, and ‘50s-flavored basic appliance dealers have all hung in. A large Tower Records store—and a separate Tower Classical annex—are both still doing fine. Two voodoo-supply stores serve their particular community. The South St. business district promotes itself visibly and capably. 

Now this is in a metropolitan area that lacks many of our assets: It’s more starkly segregated. And lacking hot new industries, Philly has fought stagnation for decades. The city has been sustained by a cluster of universities, but intriguingly, South Street is across town from “University City” (or “U.C.”). Meanwhile, Berkeley’s core retail districts can’t find that old black magic to retain the captive market of 43,000+ people who study or work at our own U.C. 

South St. also steadily attracts visitors from Philadelphia’s suburbs, and even from the New Jersey suburbs. Plus lots of tourists. It’s a regional destination, as Telegraph once was. 

I don’t claim to know all the secrets of South Street’s ongoing vigor. But its rebirth was launched by the same 1960s spirit of rebellion that shaped today’s Telegraph Ave. Neighbors of South Street fought and killed that era’s version of AC Transit’s gleaming busway promises—a freeway extension, ironically, that Philadelphia planners had proposed as a replacement for South St. 

I can tell you that on South Street, you’ll find: Cars, cars, cars on the street. Parking, parking, parking at the curb. People, people, people on the sidewalks. Very few vacancies. 

What you won’t find is bus-only lanes. Starting around 1976, Philadelphia did try a bus/pedestrian “transitway” on venerable Chestnut Street a half-mile north. This killed off a premium retail corridor. The city later returned Chestnut to mixed use—a debacle that you can read about on discussion boards like 

Chicago came close to similarly killing its main drag, State Street, with a bus/pedestrian mall. Many other North American cities, including Toronto and Vancouver, tried this folly on principal retail streets in the 1970s—only to reverse course when it nearly destroyed commerce. People simply wouldn’t shop where they couldn’t park. Thriving boulevards became sterile, desolate, and forbidding places. 

But some Berkeley officials, planners, and transportation enthusiasts seem to have just thawed out from 30 years’ cryonic suspension. They think this tried-and-failed notion is some shagadelic, hot new thing. 

In reality, I count only a handful of people who are convinced that little Berkeley needs bus-only lanes on Telegraph, or on Shattuck downtown, or anywhere else. Bus Rapid Transit is great technology, but it should be implemented on corridors that BART doesn’t serve—where it could really take lots of cars off the road, by giving motorists a needed alternative. AC Transit proposed a redundant Telegraph/downtown route for its own purposes, not ours. 

Unfortunately, in a long-running Berkeley farce, the few with the most outlandish and unfounded notions have been given the inside track. How many gaping storefronts will it take to recognize the error of empanelling marginal folks—who are proud of making every day “Buy Nothing Day”—to guide policy for commercial districts? 

Meanwhile, several thousand city residents have signed petitions, at places like Moe’s and Caffe Strada, opposing lane removal for the hell of it. Smart university city. Pretty smart City Council. Let’s assume they can count. 



Michael Katz advises against eating cheesesteak, but endorses all things Ben Franklin.