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Missing the Oxford Parking Lot

By Al Winslow, Special to the Planet
Tuesday May 22, 2007

The Oxford Street parking lot was closed and bulldozed Monday morning, April 2. That night, nearby businesses had little business. The lot is the site of plans to build a residential housing project (called Oxford Plaza) and environmental center named in honor of the late activist David Brower. 

“Everybody has no parking,” said Mike Yu, owner of the 25-year-old Great China restaurant at 2115 Kittredge St. Yu was re-arranging cars in the parking lot which he operates behind his restaurant, trying to fit customer cars in without blocking cars in spaces he had already rented out to other merchants. 

“It’s bad,” said Dale Sophiea at the California Theater next door. “We’ll have to work around it. Definitely, we should hit the city up for some kind of parking accommodation.” 

Shihadeh Kitami, owner of Razan’s Organic Cafe, next door to the dug-up, machine-filled lot, said his sales have fallen 25 percent and, on the other side, standing in a half-filled club on a weekend night, Anna de Leon of Anna’s Jazz Island at 2120 Allston Way, said, “There was a huge difference the day it happened.” 

Business since has gone from bad to slow to OK to bad again. “It feels like one good day and 10 bad days,” Kitami said. 

In a 2005 negative declaration—a sort of unilateral method for the City Council to bypass a fuller environmental impact report—a paragraph was devoted to parking: “There is enough parking available in the downtown to accommodate unmet parking demand from the project.” 

Councilwoman Betty Olds abstained in an 8-0 vote. “She believes there are serious environmental consequences to the project,” said her aide, Susan Wengraf. 

In fact, there’s plenty of nearby parking. People just don’t want to use it. On a recent weekend night, only three of the five floors at the 612-space Allston Way parking garage, which is two blocks away, had any cars on them. The attendant said this wasn’t unusual. 

A person answering the phone at the office of Parking Concepts Inc., which runs the garage, said, “We haven’t been full in quite a while.” When it does fill up, an attendant double-parks the extra cars behind ones already there. 

Robert, a regular customer at Razan’s, said he used to pay $1 to park at the Oxford Street lot for an hour. Now he looks for on-street parking. “I don’t want to pay $5 bucks to park,” he said. 

Customers outside Great China said they were waiting for one of Yu’s other parking operations to open up—the spaces he rents in the evening from the Touchless Car Wash parking lot across the street. 

There’s a sense that upper Kittredge Street, where it runs to its end at Oxford Street, isn’t wholly a part of downtown Berkeley but more like a crossroads hamlet. All the businesses are off-normative. 

Great China is filled with large groups of extended Chinese families. Razan’s is the first and allegedly only all-organic restaurant in Berkeley. Also, it welcomes small children, even 2-year-olds, who sometimes conduct experiments involving organic rice and the laws of gravity. 

The California Theater, built in 1913 as a vaudeville house, is the first to run controversial and off-beat films such as Farenheit 9/11, An Inconvenient Truth, The U.S. vs. John Lennon and The Passion of the Christ. Employees’ dress tends toward a kind of black, anarchist style. Maria, a homeless woman who sometimes sleeps in doorways on the street, sweeps the street clean in front of the businesses everyday. 

The parking lot was eccentric too. 

Demolished with it was an existential footpath, used by scores of people a day. It opened out in front of Razan’s, where I sometimes work. Over time, people peeled back the parking lot fence and tramped down the shrubbery.  

One night, a guy came out of the dim lot with pliers and yanked out a protruding metal rod that was the last obstruction. 

This kind of activity was first noticed by landscape architects. The walkways they drew on paper and cemented into the ground often weren’t used. People favored shortcuts, cutting pathways in the grass down to bare dirt.  

The architects called these “desire paths.” People’s Park is full of them. 

Berkeley High School students once attempted to make a “desire path” across two lanes of moving traffic. 

Billy Keys, a Berkeley graduate and now school safety officer, recalls: “It was four or five years ago, during renovation. The kids would walk across to the park in the middle of the block, dodging traffic. 

“One morning we came out and the kids had painted a yellow crosswalk here,” he said, indicating two dark, faded stripes running across the middle of Allston Way. 

“Cars saw it and stopped.” This backed up traffic at the intersections and “after a couple of days, the city came and painted them over.”