Public Comment

Funding Downtown Public Improvements

Tuesday November 06, 2007

Over the past 24-plus years, I have directly participated, either as a volunteer or a paid landscape architecture/urban design consultant, in approximately 15 separate projects that have been actually constructed in Berkeley’s downtown. 

In no particular order, those projects include the landscape and urban design components of the Blockbuster/Barnes & Noble Building, several phases of alterations to the BART Plaza, Central Library Expansion and Plaza, Library Gardens, Center Street Sidewalk Widening & Wayfinding, several phases of alterations to Addison Street to create the Addison Street Arts District, Berkeley Poetry Walk, selection and installation of public art, Measure S Downtown Public Improvements, and Berkeley Repertory Theater expansion and courtyard. 

These high visibility urban design projects, both public and private, collectively reflect the contributions of many individuals. For the 15 projects, total construction costs of the urban design features alone were approximately $6,500,000 over 24-plus years. This is the cost of the exterior work (sidewalks, streets, trees, lights, courtyards, etc.) not the buildings or other project costs. Each of these projects has had a positive effect, sometimes rippling into nearby areas.  

But, in fact, the overall impact of these projects on downtown has been relatively minor and the $6.5 million spent to date has barely made a dent in the general character of downtown. Even when coupled with numerous other completed projects with urban design components—Berkeley High School, Vista College, new housing developments, Civic Park and City Hall renovations, historic building renovations, movie theaters, new arts venues, new restaurants, office, retail stores—the actual condition of our downtown today remains very poor, to put it kindly.  

Sure, $6.5 million seems like a lot of money, but it pales in comparison with the amount that will be required to carry out the urban design transformation of downtown envisioned in the emerging downtown plan. And that vision is a fair representation of our community’s desires as expressed over many years, and during the DAPAC process. It is clear that much larger sums are needed, and that the improvements will have to be funded by a combination of public and private sources. 

More of the relatively small incremental improvements of the past two and a half decades are important, but they alone will not be enough to make our downtown into a safe, lively, attractive, and richly realized place. We are at a point when a larger, more concentrated effort is needed to redefine the center of our city, without apology. It is time to embrace a broader vision that encourages mutually complementary private and public developments that will help fund the essential public improvements necessary for a new downtown pedestrian structural system. 

Matt Taecker has courageously stuck his neck out with the proposed land use plan he brought before the DAPAC. While the plan he put forward may not be adopted, in my opinion he has properly framed the new way to think comprehensively about the future of our downtown. There is general agreement on the need for high levels of private as well as public investment, realistic and explicit incentives for development, and thoughtful distribution of both density and open space through the core area. Taken together, the emerging vision sets a bold new course. 

It is essential that the adopted plan be realistically implementable, with a clear funding strategy. If not, it will simply be a wish-list with unfulfilled and partially completed public improvements, storefront vacancies, and gritty confusion interspersed with a few jewels struggling to succeed. 


John N. Roberts is founder and principal of John Northmore Roberts & Associates, a landscape architecture and land planning firm in Berkeley.