Standing at the corner of Vine on Saturday morning, I look south down a vibrant Shattuck Avenue thronging with pedestrians. They fill the sidewalks and spill out across busy traffic to claim and use the grass median strip (illegal though that is.) That so many people risk tickets and traffic to create a 21st Century town square illustrates once more the deep human need for shared public spaces. Then I turn around to look north towards Rose Street. I see a perplexing expanse of impermeable asphalt and concrete, starkly contrasting with the view to the south.
I came to North Shattuck in the summer of 1966 landing in a lovely old flat above what would, the following summer, become a coffee shop opened up by an immigrant named Alfred Peet. My roommates and I shopped in the neighborhood…groceries at the Coop and Lucky’s (which is now Long’s)…miscellany at Bill’s Drugs (which later moved to Lucky’s and is now Black Oak Books and a real estate office). We did our laundry where the beautifully restored Earthly Goods now stands. There was no Chez Panisse, no Walnut Square and no Cheeseboard. I don’t remember Saul’s although my budget precluded dining out much.
One thing I do remember was walking down to Vine and Shattuck to catch the F bus to San Francisco (and a date with my future wife) viewing all those cars and asphalt and, I might add, two gas stations. I often thought…too many cars…too much asphalt. Of course, dozens of years earlier I would have seen a coal yard for the steam train and three sets of tracks that served the neighborhood. The train system was eventually dismantled, and we were left with this curious island of space that has challenged planners ever since.
I began thinking about this because of the city’s Draft Pedestrian Master Plan, released to the public last month. (Though the public comment period has closed, I do encourage residents of Berkeley to review the draft online at www.altaplanning.com/berkeleypedestrianplan. There are discussions to come at both the commission and Council level.) An unexpected consequence of the Draft Plan’s recent release has been renewed discussion about the creation of pedestrian-friendly public space on North Shattuck between Vine and Rose. As I hear once again from people who hold a range of opinions about the concept, I think it would be useful to make a quick review of how we got here, much of which took place before my time on the Council.
In 1995 the Public Works Department received funds for public improvements along the North Shattuck corridor. A public participation process resulted in the neighborhood business group recommending that some of the funds be used for a circulation/design study focused on the section of Shattuck between Vine and Rose. An ad-hoc committee was formed of residents, businesses and representatives from six city commissions—Planning, Transportation, Public Works, Landmarks, Disability and Design Review—to develop a conceptual design. The committee met six times in 1998-1999 and held three public workshops including a walking tour of the neighborhood. It completed a Draft Conceptual Design Plan in July 2000. After a public hearing the Planning Commission modified the conceptual plan to enhance its pedestrian focus and traffic calming measures from Delaware Street to Rose, with a pedestrian plaza, the project’s focus, at the confluence of asphalt and sidewalk just south of Rose Street.
The City Council unanimously approved the plan on Jan. 16, 2001. Some of the plan’s minor recommendations were enacted as part of the roadway and sewer repair, including the mid-block crossing near the post office and some of the street trees. But ultimately, as many plans do, it collected dust on a shelf until momentum and capital could be put together to continue the project.
Flash forward to 2004…almost 40 years after my initial arrival at Walnut and Vine. One fine October day I’m walking along Shattuck, enjoying a car free avenue all the way from Rose to Delaware—a temporary commons if you will. It’s the Spice of Life Festival. As I stroll north toward Rose I think again…too much asphalt…cars taking up too much space…and way too little space for people.
After I was elected to the City Council in the fall of 2004, I learned about the conceptual plan that had been vetted through public process and adopted by the council. The North Shattuck Association, whose business and property owner members tax themselves to pay for pedestrian improvements and maintenance in the district, were eager to pursue the plan and contributed organizational time and seed money to flesh out a more specific design. A group of volunteers carried on the planning effort and organized to begin fundraising with the approval of the council. In 2005 and again in 2006 the council unanimously reaffirmed its earlier support for the concept of a public space in the area.
Certainly the process has run off track. Because so many years have passed since it began our memories of the history of the project have grown faint leading to concerns by some that matters such as parking, traffic circulation and business impacts have not been and are not being duly considered as the crucial issues they are. The inclusion of the plaza concept in the Draft Pedestrian Master Plan was a legitimately responsible decision by planners who must routinely include related and formally adopted area plans in planning documents of greater scope. My hope is that they amend the plan to reference not just the plaza, but the entire 2001 plan that describes pedestrian amenities and safety improvements along the length of Shattuck from Delaware and to Rose.
I do hope at some future time we can continue this discussion of pedestrian-oriented space without preconceived notions as to the design, with mutual respect and with a shared commitment to bring improvement to our neighborhood, as the community members did in the late ’90s. We have a template for the creation and positive impacts of public space every Thursday in our thriving farmers’ market, and annually with the Spice of Life Festival. And soon, Safeway hopes to bring more vitality to our pedestrian experience by reorienting its new market towards Shattuck Avenue. We can expand those moments to celebrate our community in a 21st century public commons, or we can continue to make believe that a grass covered median strip is a pedestrian mini park.
City Councilmember Laurie Capitelli represents Berkeley’s District 5.