Planners Sail Through Pair of Downtown Plan Chapters

By Richard Brenneman
Saturday July 19, 2008 - 03:56:00 PM

Berkeley planning commissioners zipped through a chapter and a half of the Downtown Area Plan on Thursday, including the potentially controversial section on historic buildings and design. 

Commissioners then made short work of the section on streetscapes and open space, spending the largest portion of their time on the future of the block of Center Street between Oxford Street and Shattuck Avenue. 

It’s in that space the Berkeley might—or might not—create a pedestrian plaza that might—or might not—include either a daylighted Strawberry Creek or something “to reference Strawberry Creek,” a term Commissioner Gene Poschman found a bit obscure. 

“I’m not sure what it means,” said Poschman. 

“It doesn’t mean a literal creek,” answered Matt Taecker, the city planner hired with the help of university funding to develop the plan. 

Why not just call it a “water feature?” Poschman suggested. 

Walter Hood, a nationally known landscape architect, is finishing a proposed design for the plaza under the auspices of EcoCity Builders, a Berkeley non-profit which raised grant money for his work. 

Commission Chair James Samuels, an architect himself, said he looked forward to Hood’s presentation to the commission in September, in part because “I frankly have a bit of difficulty reading his plans.” 

Samuels said he also wanted to make certain plaza designs wouldn’t block deliveries to the many restaurants located along the block or prevent vehicle access by the disabled and by residents who would be living in planned new housing. 

Blocking vehicle access, he said, means “you’re only asking for the property owners to yell and scream.” 

Jim Novosel, a fellow architect and commissioner, said that nothing in the chapters drafted by the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee would deny needed access. 

Traffic and parking concerns popped up repeatedly during the discussions, though the traffic issue in particular will be tackled in depth in the upcoming access chapter. 

Harry Pollack, an attorney and commissioner, said he had problems with a chapter “that assumes it’s okay to have fewer lanes of traffic and no additional parking, or even fewer parking spaces.” 

Novosel said he was concerned that UC Berkeley had abandoned its plans for underground parking at the planned Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive building at Center and Oxford streets. 

Parking spaces form something of a political divide, with public transit advocates calling for their elimination or reduction to force people out of cars and onto buses, BART or bikes. 

But the commissioners sailed through the chapter with no major changes, though more language was tweaked. 

One term popped up again after Commissioner Roia Ferrazares had shot it down in previous chapters: “Wayfinding” devices, which turns out to mean signs offering directions. 

Poschman had more linguistic critiques as well. Looking at the streetscape chapter he asked, “What the hell is ‘a consistent vocabulary of features?’” 

“It sounds like a Steinberg cartoon” said Novosel. 

“I have problems with the whole paragraph,” said Samuels. 

“What about going back to the original DAPAC language?” asked Taecker. 

Nobody disagreed. 

Five commissioners were also DAPAC members. 

Commissioners have loaded their schedule to finish the plan in time to get it to the City Council early next year. The city must adopt the plan by May or risk the loss of some of the university funds mandated in the settle of a city lawsuit challenging the schools downtown expansion plans. 

Next Wednesday the commission will decide on building dimensions to be included in the plan’s environmental impact report outlining the plan’s physical and cultural consequences.