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Noted Architect Tackles Center Street Plaza Plan

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday July 10, 2007

One of the nation’s rising stars of landscape architecture shared the stirrings of a vision for what could become a Berkeley civic showcase—the Center Street Plaza. 

Walter Hood, a professor and former chair of UC Berkeley’s Landscape Architecture Department as well as the head of his own design firm, presented ideas and listened to comments during a Monday afternoon meeting with a variety of civic activists and officials in the Gaia Building’s art center. 

“It interests me to create a great public space in downtown Berkeley,” Hood said. 

An architect whose works have been hailed by colleagues and by the New York Times, Hood has been retained at a fee of $150,000 by a group including Oakland resident Richard Register’s Ecocity Builders and Berkeley resident Elyce Judith to prepare what Berkeley’s planning director has called an “advocacy plan.” 

There’s no guarantee the city will adopt Hood’s plan, but city officials who turned out for Monday’s gathering seemed impressed that an architect of his stature would be offering a design at no cost to the city. 

With grants from the Mazer Foundation and several local donors, Hood will design an alternative vision for what has emerged as a central feature of two downtown planning efforts. 

Both the city UC Hotel Task Force and the current effort by the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC) have floated the notion of transforming the block of Center Street between Oxford Street and Shattuck Avenue into a visionary public space. 

Richard Register and Kirstin Miller of Ecocity Builders, advocates of the proposal to restore a stretch of Strawberry Creek as a centerpiece of a pedestrian plaza, introduced Hood at a gathering attended by Berkeley elected and appointed civic leadership. 

“I got involved with the Urban Creek Council very early on,” said Hood, an affable speaker hailed as a genius by DAPAC Chair Will Travis. 

A long-time East Bay resident, Hood said that one of the area’s most compelling features is the presence of the skyline of the hills, a constant feature that literally grounds the observer in relation to the landscape. 

“Out here, we are in this environment where the hills are visible,” he said, and the challenge of the design is to integrate the experience of the hills, the creek, the buildings, while tying in the transit features of the bus and BART plaza that anchor the block across Shattuck Avenue. 

“I am less into aesthetics than anything else,” he said. “If I can come back at the end of the day and see people doing something I didn’t expect, I know I’ve been successful.” 

While one of his most famous designs, in collaboration with Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuton, has been the landscape and gardens of San Francisco’s De Young Museum, it was his creation at Splash Pad Park in Oakland which has won kudos both from passersby and New York Times writer Patricia Leigh Brown. 

Hood said he hopes to create a space where public events can be held, while allowing each visitor—whether intentional or simply passing through—to find a space of his or her own. 

“It’s really encouraging to hear you,” said Juliet Lamont, a DAPAC member and environmentalist. “I’ve been following the evolution of your work over the years.” 

Lamont urged Hood to consider a theme which has emerged as the central element of the new downtown plan taking shape with DAPAC’s assistance—sustainability. 

Planning Commissioner David Stoloff, citing different handling of water in European cities he had visited, asked Hood if the architect would consider two alternatives, one a daylighted creek and the other a “water feature.” Hood said he would. 

As two examples, he cited the Aqua Palace in Rome, a monument to the source of the city’s water in Tivoli, and San Antonio, where the Rio Grande had been fully restored as a center of commerce. 

“It really resonates with me to create a great public space,” said DAPAC member and architect Jim Novosel. “I would love to hear Al Gore downtown rather than at Provo [Martin Luther King Civic Center] Park or Sproul Hall.” 

“I am just absolutely thrilled that you are bringing your genius to this problem,” said DAPAC Chair Travis, who asked Hood how he saw his relationship with DAPAC—which is charged with wrapping up its planning efforts by the end of November. 

Hood said that while he would be glad to work with DAPAC—just as he has already been meeting with city planning staff and hopes to meet soon with university planners and the designers of the art museum planned for the northwest corner of Oxford and Center streets. Hood said he would also be working autonomously as well. 

While some said they wanted a full restoration of the creek, created as a didactic tool, Hood said he hoped everyone would be open to the everyday implications of the design. “Sometimes it’s just nice to be in a place and have some sunshine,” he said. “Sometimes it’s just nice to go to your business and open up the doors and it’s clean outside.” 

Members of the public have the opportunity to meet with Hood during a morning symposium Friday at Berkeley City College, starting at 9 a.m.  

Also on hand will be the present and past mayors and the city manager of San Luis Obispo, another university town which has made a restored creek an anchoring feature of its revitalized city center. 

The day’s events also include a private catered lunch for members of the City Council and city commissions, followed by a tour of the project area and campus and a meeting with members of the downtown business community. 

The day will end with a 5 p.m. gathering atop the Gaia Building. 

Monday’s event drew a good turnout, including Mayor Tom Bates, City Councilmembers Dona Spring, Gordon Wozniak and Laurie Capitelli, as well as at least three members of the Planning Commission and four DAPAC members. 


Photograph by Richard Brenneman 

Walter Hood fielded questions from city officials and interested citizens after he described the beginnings of his vision for a new Center Street Plaza. He has been commissioned to prepare plans for a public space that could include a stretch of restored Strawberry Creek between Oxford Street and Shattuck Avenue if the block is closed to traffic as advocates hope.