Public Comment

Commentary: Thoughts on the New Center Street Designs

Tuesday March 25, 2008


Editors, Daily Planet: 

The presentation of Walter Hood’s concepts for Center street was long awaited and as often happens it was not quite what we had hoped for. The presentation was an impressive display of models that were too abstract visually to understand without an accompanying text. The drawings were easier to “read” and showed cross-sections and a sense of scale and possible configurations. 

Hood’s verbal introduction to his exhibition did not promise a plan, but a range of possibilities which included the ideas of passageway, gathering place, adjacent buildings and their uses, along with some reference to the past and possible future presence of Strawberry Creek. The idea of opening the creek is not in any of the designs. Hood understands the myriad of opinions about the space, especially about the creek, as well as the political and financial constraints that are both real and perceived. These constraints should not be allowed to hinder the best design for the very center of our city. The continuation of Strawberry Creek from campus to the city’s center would not only energize the new gathering place but would in addition be a physical presence uniting the city and the university. 

Peter Selz 




Editors, Daily Planet: 

Thank you Daily Planet for giving my laugh of the week (and I needed it). The model of the proposed Berkeley Art Museum looked so much like the tupperware stacked in my closet. 

I am sure Mr. Ito’s finished building will be much more esthetic. 

But then, I am an optimist. 

Lenore Waters 




Editors, Daily Planet: 

After all, aren’t dreams what Berkeley is made of? Frederick Olmstead envisioned a parkway at the top of the campus, and we got a pretty nice road out of the deal. Julia Morgan and Bernard Maybeck dreamt us some magnificent buildings and with luck, we will have them to enjoy forever. Alice Waters gave us edible schoolyards, a better way to eat and a colorful commercial district to do it in. Sylvia McLaughlin and Tom Bates dreamed of an east shore park. Doug Fielding conjured up some soccer fields. Ed Roberts willed us a city that is just about accessible to everybody. And now Walter Hood has shown us how to turn a part of Center Street into a great public space.  

The Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC) had a peculiar sort of debate about what to do with Center Street between Shattuck and Oxford. Everyone seemed to like the idea of creating a pedestrian-focused public space. No one advocated leaving it alone. In true Berkeley tradition, however, we were able to make a split hair look like the Grand Canyon. By a vote of 11-10, the committee said it preferred a pedestrian-only mall and asked the city staff to develop some design options to explore its feasibility. No one suggested that closing the street was a done-deal, only that it was an idea worth pursuing if the designs worked out. But designs cost money which the city lacked, and it took a private grant to get the job done. Predictably, once the vision was put to paper, apparent differences seemed to melt away. One hybrid approach emphasizes gathering places, straight walkways, water features emerging in two places, and lots of trees. Most DAPACers I talked to seemed to like it. The biggest question is where to place the open creek-like features to optimize gathering space. That is the kind of constructive debate any community can handle. 

None of this dictates whether the street would be permanently closed to non-emergency, non-delivery vehicles, but Walter Hood’s vision does not close the door to either approach. Most instructive is Hood’s time lapse view of 24 hours on Center Street, showing that the handful of parking spaces on the street don’t turn over very often during the day. I am confident that commerce can thrive even if people need to walk a hundred feet or so from either entrance to the plaza in order to enter a store or café. Perhaps one day the merchants on the street will share that confidence. 

Civic Center Park offers a nice public space, but most people passing through downtown don’t see it. The dream is to create an appealing public place closer to the district’s front door—one that brings nature back into the city and invites people to do things together, such as listening to music, hearing a speech, or just enjoying the beauty of the water and the nearby hills. I am betting that Walter Hood has moved us closer to realizing that dream. 

Steven Weissman 





Editors, Daily Planet: 

When I went to the first meeting of the Alameda County Base Conversion Homeless Collaborative my wife was pregnant with our first child. I kissed her on the forehead as I was leaving and said, “Honey, I’ll be back in a couple of hours, this shouldn’t take long.” When I went to the last meeting of the Base Conversion Collaborative, where we finally received a settlement to help homeless providers, I had just finished dropping off our 10-year-old son. 

In November 2007, I completed a two-year (twice a month) commitment on the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC) to help develop a plan for new projects and construction in downtown Berkeley. I served on the subcommittee to come up with a plan for Center Street that would include a new hotel, the Berkeley Art Museum, and the possible day lighting of Strawberry Creek. I was a blank slate when the meetings started. Eventually I agreed with the other subcommittee members that the idea of daylighting the creek or some other water feature should be considered, but trained professionals needed to work out the details. After seeing the past two presentations by Walter Hood, hired by EcoCity Builders, I think that we’ve got the right person on the job. 

Think outside the box? His first presentation was out of this world—literally. He presented a series of blown-up photos from outer space first showing California, then the Bay Area, Berkeley, and finally focusing on the 2100 block of Center Street. He described the type of soil under the street, degree of pitch, water flow, ecosystems, native foliage, and how much you would actually have to detour the existing creek to run down Center Street. He showed examples of other successful plazas around the world that combined people, traffic, and buildings with a creek or water feature.  

In the second presentation I went to, March 19, Walter unveiled more than 25 different options for Center Street. Some options did not require moving the creek but rather involved creating a water feature such as terraced fountains that would run the length of the street. I also liked the fact that his concepts extended across Shattuck and included the BART plaza. I think he addressed merchants’ concerns and traffic options, while offering designs that were appealing and aesthetically pleasing. Comments from those in attendance included words like “inspiring,” “innovative,” “creative,” and “unique.” Except for a few people who thought the designs did not accommodate a large enough public meeting space or a Jimi Hendrix statue (which in my opinion both should be located someplace else), there’s something here for everyone. What’s not to like? 

One of my life-coping mechanisms, when I’m stressed out, experiencing back pain, exercising, or doing something else I don’t like is to think of something positive in the future. Since that last presentation my thoughts keep returning to Center Street. It’s destined to be the crown jewel in the new downtown plan. I’m optimistic that if Walter is allowed to proceed at the pace that this project is moving ahead, we will not need to wait for 10 years before something actually happens. I think my son, who is now 14, and I will both have something to look forward to much sooner rather than later.  

Winston Burton