Page One

Greenery, Density Color Downtown Panel Talk

By Richard Brenneman
Friday May 04, 2007

Do people who rent or buy residences in so-called transit-oriented development really use mass transit?  

Should a stretch of Shattuck Avenue become Berkeley’s newest spot of greenery? 

And what can downtown Berkeley do to attract a more diverse crop of residents, given that new apartments are quickly grabbed up by university students? 

Those questions dominated the discussion at Wednesday night’s meeting of the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC), precluding a planned discussion of the sustainabilty element that is to be the cornerstone of the new plan the committee is slated to hand the Planning Commission in November. 

Veteran environmental activist Sylvia McLaughlin opened the meeting’s public comment section with a plea to daylight Strawberry Creek along the stretch of Center Street between Oxford Street and Shattuck Avenue. 

“For me, this is a matter of natural values that can enhance the urban concrete and asphalt surroundings of the built environment,” she said. 

Daylighting of the water course through the one block stretch—and its conversion into a pedestrian-only plaza—was recommended by the Planning Commission’s Hotel Task Force, which met in response to UC Berkeley’s announcement of plans to promote development of a high-rise hotel and conference center at the northeast corner of the intersection of Shattuck and Center. 

McLaughlin, whose late husband was dean of UC Berkeley’s colleges of mining and engineering, also took the opportunity to take a swipe at plans to build a high-tech gym next to Memorial Stadium. 

“A beautiful grove of oak trees can enhance the UC Berkeley campus far more than an energy-consuming underground athletic facility that could be built elsewhere, especially when so many of the campus green spaces are being replaced by buildings,” she said. 

Gus Yates, a hydrologist and member of Citizens for a Strawberry Creek Plaza, joined in McLaughlin’s plea, adding that critics of the project who claimed that daylighting wasn’t a form of restoration were incorrect. 

Planning Commission Chair James Samuels, who has frequently argued that restoration and daylighting are misnomers, challenged Yates. The hydrologist replied that water courses of even the Mississippi and Colorado Rivers had varied extensively over the course of centuries, rendering the definition of a precise historic location irrelevant. What counted, he said, were the features of the waterway, including habitat and life forms. 

“I don’t think you’ve helped us,” Samuels said. “You’re using the words in a very esoteric way.” 

“I look at it as a scientist,” Yates said. 

“What bothers some of us is that you have to dig up Oxford Street” to rechannel the creek from its current underground location to the new course, Samuels said. The creek currently flows in an underground concrete channel from the UCB campus across Oxford to Kittredge Street one block south of Center and then west. 

John Holtzclaw, chair of the Sierra Club’s national transportation committee, triggered a lengthy discussion with a presentation of his research on the relationship between population density and car use—with the lowest miles driven and fewest cars owned by residents of the densest urban neighborhoods and the most driving and the most cars owned in the least dense suburbs and rural locations. 

His research was based on comparisons of four areas—New York, San Francisco Bay, Chicago and Los Angeles—and his presentation included specific figures comparing car use, miles driven and densities from the least dense San Ramon through Rockridge—which met his definition of a transit village—through North Beach as the densest regional example, filled with amenities, and as the most dense, Manhattan, New York. 

With his data showing public transit service the most frequent and most used in the highest densities, Holtzclaw’s research has buttressed the Sierra Club’s call for more dense development in urban area as the most environmentally beneficial form of adding new housing. 

But Gene Poschman, a planning commissioner and recipient of frequent barbed comments from DAPAC chair Will Travis, said that new developments in downtown Berkeley had already reached density levels suggested by Holtzclaw’s research. 

The average density for new developments downtown was 203.7 units per acre, he sai d. Looking at the Holtzclaw’s figures, Poschman said there was “really no impetus to go higher than we have now.” 

He also said the research presented was methodologically inadequate. “This is all contested terrain,” he said. 

“I see it cited all the time,” Holtzclaw said. 

Jesse Arreguin said that many of the amenities Holtzclaw proposed that density would bring didn’t exist in the already dense downtown, such as grocery stores and other retailers serving downtown residents. 

Arreguin blamed the absence partly on high rents charged commercial tenants. 

Mim Hawley said the downtown lacked real diversity in its residents, who are mainly students. Real diversity, she said, would bring the services. But with student, “we get coffee shops and taverns, but we don’t get grocery stores.” 

“We do have high density in Berkeley, but we don’t have all those things smart growth is supposed to bring,” said Juliet Lamont. She said she also wondered whether the low car use in urban centers was because people gave up their cars or because cities attract people who don’t drive. 

Wendy Alfsen said one reason for the city center’s lack of diversity was the result of prior decisions that that drove a lot of senior citizens out of the downtown, followed by the loss of food markets. 

Given the current lack of diversity, Alfsen said she was reluctant to endorse policies designed to bring in high-end residents. “We have to put in things that make sure diversity continues to expand. Families and low-income residents will need incentives.”  

Architect Jim Novosel described the downtown as a monoculture, composed of students who join together to rent small units. “It’s a skewed culture that doesn’t relate to North Beach,” he said. “It doesn’t have the diversity ... it doesn’t have all these wonderful things. What we’re getting is a bunch of dormitories.” 

Billy Keys said committee members should worry less about debates about current problems and focus more on creating a plan designed to make the city better for their children and grandchildren. 

WInston Burton said more green space should be a central concern of the plan, and without it, “we will not have a good quality of life.” 

Matt Taecker, the planner hired to work on the new plan, soon offered a proposal to add more greenery, which simultaneously reducing runoff contamination after the first rains and giving a new look to the downtown’s main thoroughfare. 

“Let’s green the downtown,” he said.  

Noting that 85 percent of runoff contaminants come after the first seasonal rains, he proposed adding green features along selected roadways and building frontages that would serve as natural filters for runoff. 

The need for green space and a means to filter runoff could also be derived from transforming the central portion of a two-block section of Shattuck south of Durant Avenue into a green space, in part by introducing parallel parking in the area. 

The street is 140 feet wide from storefront to storefront, and by reconfiguring the streetscape and replacing diagonal with parallel parking, the resulting area would yield a 62 feet of width that could be converted to public green space. 

While Taecker’s plan showed the greenery in the center, Alfsen suggested dividing it along the sidewalks instead, a notion that struck favor with many others on the committee.