Public Comment

Commentary: Plaza Proponents Out of Touch With Community

By Art Goldberg
Friday December 01, 2006

The proponents of North Shattuck Plaza (NSP) seem to think there’s something wrong with the idea that “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” in relation to Shattuck Avenue between Vine and Rose streets (Daily Planet, Nov. 24). They view the area as “ugly and wasteful.”  

This only shows how out of touch they are with the community. For what the developer-dominated plaza board doesn’t realize is that the vast majority of North Berkeley residents like the area pretty much as it is. They think it may benefit from some minor sprucing up, but the overwhelming reaction from neighbors has been “we like it just the way it is,” and “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” 

What most concerns residents is the loss of the angled parking between Black Oak Books and Long’s Drugs and the effect this would have on the local, neighborhood-serving businesses located there. The owner of one of these stores told me recently that the projected nine month construction period to build the plaza “would put me out of business.”  

At an October community meeting, a Black Oak representative expressed “great concern” about the project. Neighbors worry that if the plaza is built, the local businesses would be driven out and replaced by high-end establishments, and North Shattuck will become another Fourth Street. 

A written question submitted at the NSP-sponsored meeting asked if the project would attract more cars, more people and therefore create more congestion. The answer on the NSP website was, “Perhaps, but most of the users will be the ones already there.” Is that doublespeak, Bushspeak or just an incomprehensible non sequiter? 

The NSP meeting was indicative of that group’s mentality. As we walked in there was a uniformed Berkeley police officer standing conspicuously in the back, and we were told only written questions, selected by the convenors, would be answered. Fortunately, Berkeley’s free speech tradition prevailed and questions shouted from the audience were often answered, but seldom satisfactorly.  

Most questions expressed serious concerns about parking and traffic problems, but there was no indication from the NSP people that they would be willing to make modifications to their plan to alleviate them. One written question asked how disabled people would deal with the lack of parking near the shops.  

That question was not answered at the meeting, but the NSP website response weeks later was that the owner of Saul’s Deli said most of his disabled customers are dropped off in front of the restaurant and the drivers then leave and park elsewhere. But it is one thing to drop a disabled person off on a limited access side road 12-14 feet from a store, and quite another to have to double park on busy Shattuck Avenue and drop them off 50-55 feet from their destination as the NSP plan would require. 

Plaza proponents assert that a 50-foot wide sidewalk is necessary to accommodate tables and benches, etc. for their proposed walkway. Yet Center Street between Shattuck Avenue and Oxford Street which accommodates several outdoor eating areas, as well as heavy foot traffic between BART and the UC campus, is only about 22 feet wide. 

The proponents say my deduction that the plaza is a stalking horse for high-rise development is untrue, because the walkway is to be built on public right-of-way, not private property. But some 16 years ago, councilmember/realtor Laurie Capitelli, a prime mover of the plaza project, annexed a stretch of city property into his condo development on Hearst Street between Milvia and Henry streets. At about the same time, the apartment building on the northeast corner of Shattuck and Rose Street also annexed a part of the public right-of-way. This could easily happen again with our pro-development City Council. 

Right now, the Jewish Community Center at Rose and Walnut streets is planning to partially demolish its landmarked building and rebuild with three or four stories of housing above it. And one city official has indicated that City Hall envisions highrises running from University Avenue to Rose Street all along Shattuck Avenue. 

Anyone who knows the area forsees serious traffic problems on Rose Street where the already difficult ingress and egress from the Long’s lot already produces backups and near accidents, which a second lot close by as envisioned by NSP, will only exacerbate. Yet the Plaza developers baldly assert that a 2000 traffic study done for a far different proposal in 2001 will suffice in 2007, with only minor updating by the pro-development city planning staff.  

And they further maintain that they need not go before the Planning Commission again despite the fact that their new plan is far more drastic than the 2001 version. Nor is there any indication that their new proposal conforms to the North Shattuck Area Plan, built with real community participation some 25 years ago.  

Another major problem with the NSP proposal is that it does not provide parking for the trucks that bring in produce for the Farmers’ Market, and it will remove 40 parking spaces while the market operates. The NSP website acknowledges that it has not solved these problems. Neighbors fear the trucks and displaced cars will clog nearby streets on market days.  

The proposed new, treeless, parking lot between the Bel Forno Café and Long’s will have about forty spaces aligned perpendicular to the sidewalk. There will be lanes from Shattuck Avenue running in both directions through this lot, as drivers pull in and back out. More accidents waiting to happen.  

Finally, the question of what will happen to the drive-up mailbox, now located on the access road and heavily used by seniors and disabled people has not been addressed. NSP says it is up to the Post Office, meaning it has no plan for it. 

It seems obvious that the Plaza proposal creates many more problems than it solves. It reflects the narrow interests of the small group of developers, merchants and realtors who drew it up and not the desires of people who live nearby.  

Fortunately, this is Berkeley and neighbors are talking about a real community meeting in January to come up with a neighborhood alternative to the seriously flawed plan put forth by North Shattuck Plaza, Inc. 


Art Goldberg is a 30-year resident of North Berkeley.