Election Section

Planners Give Thumbs Down to Closed Center Street

By Richard Brenneman
Wednesday February 11, 2009 - 07:10:00 PM

Planning commissioners sailed through two sections of the downtown plan last week, in the process diluting a call for a Center Street pedestrian plaza.  

The notion of creating a pedestrian plaza on Center Street had proved controversial since it first emerged as a public issue five years ago during discussions by a city task force of options for the so-called UC Hotel project.  

UC Berkeley wants a hotel and conference center downtown to accommodate guests at meetings and public events, and had picked a site at the northeast corner of Shattuck Avenue and Center Street.  

Planning commissioners picked a citizen task force to come up with proposals, and the first recommendation in the group’s final 13-page report was “Create a public pedestrian-oriented open space or Plaza on Center Street between Shattuck Avenue and Oxford Street.”  

The proposal called for closing the street to through traffic.  

When the City Council named the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC) to create a new downtown plan to accommodate UC Berkeley’s desire to build 850,000 square feet of new off-campus construction in the city center, the committee came up with essentially the same recommendation.  

The key difference between the two was DAPAC’s decision to allow some access for deliveries and after-hours traffic. The two groups also differed on what to do with Strawberry Creek, with the task force calling for a full open channel with landscaping and DAPAC settling for a vaguely defined “water feature.”  

Through both public processes, the Downtown Berkeley Association fought closure of the street, maintaining that the plan would adversely affect restaurants and merchants along the street’s southern side.  

When DBA President Mark McLeod and Deborah Badhia, the organization’s executive director, brought their arguments to planning commissioners, they found a noticeably friendlier audience.  

Planning commissioners have been steadily chipping away at the DAPAC plan, diluting many of the plan’s “greenest” elements on the grounds they would make it too hard for developers to build new housing.  

Driving the plan is a combination of Berkeley political realities, “smart growth” policies of developers and the dictates of the Association of the Bay Area Governments (ABAG), which tells local governments how many new housing units they must allow in their jurisdictions.  

Berkeley Planning and Development Director Dan Marks told DAPAC that the city wants to concentrate growth downtown because of political resistance to larger buildings in other neighborhoods.  


DBA worries  

“We remain opposed to the closure of Center Street,” Badhia said, urging the commission to add language saying the action “should be considered rather than mandated.”  

She said the DAPAC plan for the plaza amounted to “a harsh experiment” because it proposed reconsidering the traffic closure only “if the businesses failed.”  

“We’re generally happy with the way it’s going,” she said of the planning commission’s rewrites, but she urged commissioners to include discussions with downtown businesses before making final decisions about the shape of the city center.  

“Whatever is planned for Center Street should be considered in the context of the entire plan,” she said, including impacts on traffic on surrounding streets.  

She said a privately funded design project for Center Street, which has brought in UC Berkeley landscape architectural instructor Walter Hood, was aimed at meeting the needs of “a private client with an agenda,” Ecocity Builders.  

McLeod said DBA members were especially concerned about plans for the area near downtown’s BART Plaza, and with winning improved streetlights through the city center. Existing lighting, he said, “doesn’t make a lot of people feel comfortable walking around the area at night.”  

Commission chair James Samuels said Hood’s planning was almost complete, and he had asked his sponsors to make a presentation to the commission at an upcoming meeting.  

But whatever plan Hood completes “is being developed by a non-profit and it is in no way associated with the city,” said Matt Taecker, the planner hired with city and university funds to steer the planning process.  

His designs are available online at www.ecocitybuilders.org/center.html  

Badhia said DBA also opposed DAPAC’s call to build affordable housing at the city’s Berkeley Way parking lot if it would result in the loss of public parking spaces at the site, adding that adding all the plan’s elements together would result in a loss of downtown parking spaces. “It makes for a big squeeze,” she said.  


Two actions  

When it came time for commissioners to tell Marks and Taecker what they wanted, it was commissioner and architect James Novosel who made the first suggestion: drop the word closure, but create a space that would allow concerts, festivals and other public events, while allowing “limited auto access” for businesses.  

Then Harry Pollack suggested dropping the “limited” as the price for his support.  

“Take the word out,” said Novosel. “It doesn’t matter to me.”  

“I can live with that,” said Pollack.  

“So there’s no discussion of closing Center Street any more?” asked Victoria Eisen, one of the commission’s two newest members. While she supporting bringing merchants in on the discussion, Eisen said, “to do away with the idea of closing the street altogether feels like a lost opportunity.”  

As for the Walter Hood project, “It’s not going to happen,” said Novosel.  

“I just don’t understand how we can create a Center Street plaza that allows for auto access,” Eisen said.  

“Take the word out,” said commissioner David Stoloff. “It implies something we’re not doing here.”  

But a majority of his colleagues liked the word, so Stoloff said, “I take it all back. I’m going to go with the flow.”  

And with that, the name was back, but the idea of a plaza closed to traffic was gone.  

Commissioners whipped through two plan chapters, “Access” plus “Streets and Open Space,” as Marks stood before them, fielding questions and making clear that it was past time for detailed comments and grammatical fixes.  


Marina ferry option  

In their press to finish with the plan in a few weeks in order to give the City Council time to make its own fixes and then pass a final version in May, commissioners also rejected a plea to meet with Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA) officials later this month.  

WETA is pushing the city to name a preferred site of a new transbay ferry terminal at the Berkeley Marina.  

If a local site isn’t finalized by the end of the year, Marks said, the project automatically moves to Richmond. The two Marina sites the board picked would have major impacts on the waterfront, Marks noted in a letter to WETA officials, written after discussions with city commissioners.