Editorial: Dreaming About Bringing the Country to the City

By Becky O'Malley
Tuesday March 25, 2008

The black phoebe is back in Santa Cruz. A handsome bird, black on top and white below, check. Found near water, often around houses, southern exposures, check. Sits on top of posts (the umbrella pole), check. Builds nest on vertical surface with shelter above (under the eaves of the studio), check.  

More accurately, phoebes, since it takes two to build the nest and raise the babies, which is why they’re both flying up to the roof with stuff in their mouths today.  

They’ve come back annually for a couple of years at least. Besides being handsome, phoebes eat flies, so they’re doubly welcome. 

If we weren’t here they would probably find another place to settle down, but this human habitat is ideal for phoebes as well as for people. My late mother-in-law, whose studio in the country we’ve inherited, was an artist, so she couldn’t resist improving on nature. Besides building herself a studio from a kit for a prefabricated tin barn, she built a (small) chapel from concrete blocks, complete with a labyrinth (poured concrete), picturesque garden walls and more. The centerpiece is a hand-built Italianate fountain, fed by a well which is in turn fed by the many little creeks that run through the Santa Cruz Mountains, with a cast concrete nymph in the center dribbling water into a pool. It’s perfect for the phoebes, and very pleasant for the people too.  

Watching the phoebes settle comfortably into our built environment in Santa Cruz on Easter, I thought about the show-and-tell session Walter Hood and his sponsors put on last week. Many Berkeleyans are eager to bring a bit of nature back to downtown, and the focus of their Rousseauian fantasies is the many little creeks that used to wander through the Berkeley Hills, just as they still do in the Santa Cruz Mountains. A few are still open, and a few more have been opened up through the efforts of dedicated volunteers in the last few years. 

Creek fanciers seized on the opportunity presented by the University of California’s plans to re-purpose downtown Berkeley to promote the further exploitation of the presence of Strawberry Creek underground somewhere near Center Street. It’s already exposed to good advantage a bit uphill on the UC campus, and also anchors a park much further downhill near Sacramento and Addison. 

Hood, a UC planning faculty member with a string of innovative projects to his credit, was hired by generous creek fans with private means to come up with buildable concepts for the stretch of Center Street that links the campus with Shattuck Street and BART. The fruit of his endeavors so far was showcased at the public event, which brought together nearly anyone and everyone who has displayed an interest in what’s happening to the city’s much maligned downtown. The jury’s still out on whether his ideas will work, but it was a nice party. 

My own plan-reading abilities are considerably below average, so I couldn’t make head nor tail of the 15 or 20 tiny matchstick models he showed us, or even of the pictures posted on the wall or the PowerPoint picture show which preceded the viewing of the models. As I circulated in the crowd, I discovered that I was not the only person with this problem. I did buttonhole a few attendees that I knew to be good writers to say a few words in print about what they got out of the event for the benefit of our readers—those who came through are on these pages today, with perhaps more to come. 

Hood’s talk, however, was lively, the best way for a word person like me to get some idea of what might be offered. What I came away with was a sense of the challenges the site presents, with two potentially looming institutional buildings planned for the north side of the street and a successful but fragile commercial strip on the south side, already occupied, mostly by restaurants. The elements he’s playing with are the usual: water (from the relocated creek, or from EBMUD), paving (permeable, of course, but how much and where), and vegetation (native or domesticated, formal or informal).  

It would have to be a thruway of some kind, but for whom or what? Just pedestrians? Bicycles? Emergency vehicles? Delivery trucks? Path options: straight lines, curves, or zigzags, with arguments for each.  

There seem to be three favored alternatives at this point. The only planting feature I could bring into focus was a grove of Meyer lemon trees in one of them. This looked like an hommage to Berkeley’s current foodie culture, which was represented at the showing by free snacks catered by none other than Alice Waters. Hood mentioned that Waters hopes to run a restaurant in the museum UC plans to build on the site, or perhaps he said that others hope she will.  

I did overhear one of Berkeley’s preeminent native plant and creek advocates remonstrating with him about the lemons: neither native nor natural, and in a monocultural grouping subject to disease. But Alice’s tangerines were divine. There would never be enough sun for tangerines, however.  

Would any of these plans bring phoebes to nest in downtown Berkeley? It doesn’t seem likely.  

The site of the showing was the inner sanctum of the Gaia building, which was originally flogged by some of the same people who sponsored Hood’s design. They promoted the future Gaia with pictures of hanging gardens and promises of a cultural oasis.  

Today’s Gaia reality is much different. The interior “cultural area” where the Hood event was held is a sullen windowless cave with cheap industrial fittings. The building itself is a characterless slab with a few tasteless tschotchkes on its main door, incongruously topped by what looks a lot like a Southern California motel or perhaps a minor Las Vegas casino. 

This is an all too common pattern. An original concept presentation is loaded with attractive amenities, but they fall by the wayside as the realities of budget and time take their toll.  

It’s not at all clear who’s going to pay for any Center Street plaza.  

One very real fear is that the lackeys of the building industry who have been promoting towers all over downtown are using it as part of a bait-and-switch game: you can’t have your amenities unless you take some towers to pay for them with tax revenues. (Never mind the reams of data proving that any kind of increased residential development costs cities more to provide services for new residents than it generates in taxes.) 

Mention was made of some kind of clean water bonds which might pay for opening the creek, but we’d better see the spreadsheets before getting too excited. Still, it doesn’t cost much to dream.  

Phoebes like to be near water, near buildings, to nest on vertical surfaces built by people. All of Walter Hood’s dream landscapes offered these features. It might just work out. Providing flies could be a problem.