Commissioners Praise Plan for Center Street Pedestrian Plaza

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday June 18, 2009 - 07:38:00 PM

As plazas go, Walter Hood’s design was a great one, Berkeley planning commissioners seemed to agree last week. 

One of the nation’s leading landscape architects, Hood had been commissioned by Ecocity Builders, with the help of some grant funds, to come up with a design for a pedestrian plaza for the one-block stretch of Center Street between Shattuck Avenue and Oxford Street. 

The notion of a Center Street plaza as a unifying public space for the heart of downtown Berkeley was first raised by the city’s UC Hotel Task Force in 2004. 

That panel was tasked by the city Planning Commission with preparing recommendations for the proposed hotel and meeting center UC Berkeley wants built at the northeast corner of the intersection of Shattuck and Center. 

While the task force voted to call for closure of the street, it recommended using the block only to relocate and “daylight” a section of Strawberry Creek, which now runs through a concrete culvert a block to the south. 

Among the members of that panel were Ecocity activists Richard Register and Kirstin Miller, who were strong advocates of daylighting the creek. 

Three years later, that same block became the focus of two different efforts. 

The Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee was charged by the City Council with coming up with recommendations for a new plan for the city center, and several of its members who had served previously on the hotel task force carried that group’s recommendations to the new panel. 

While DAPAC didn’t formally endorse daylighting the creek, members did call for street closure and creation of a “water feature” as part of the plaza. The Planning Commission later diluted DAPAC’s plaza vision by calling for a future planning process that would take into account the opinions of downtown merchants who had fought against closure. 

Just as DAPAC was beginning its own study of the issue, Ecocity hired Hood Design to develop an independent proposal for the block, and the final result was presented to the planning commissioners last week, the day after the City Council had adopted its own stance on the plaza, calling for limited vehicle access. 

Hood’s vision, which would cost an estimated $12 million, would divert a small portion of the Strawberry Creek flow through a pool and channel flowing downhill from the Oxford end of the plaza, which would then be channeled underground along Shattuck and back into the culverted creek. 

With trees and other plantings as well as a central gathering space, Hood said he had tried to design a revelatory experience that would extend the creek, the hillside environment and native trees into the heart of the city. 

“That becomes the genesis of our process,” which evolved into choosing among 28 different scenarios developed during the design process. 

Funded by local patrons and a grant form the Helen and William Mazer Foundation, Hood created a design that would allow vehicle access for deliveries and create dropoff lanes at the eastern and western ends of the block. Some of his drawings are available online at the Ecocity website, www.ecocitybuilders.org. 

The design would accommodate “upwards of a few thousand people” for public gatherings, as well as “allowing for a lot of different improvisational possibilities” for smaller gatherings. 

Patti Dacey, a planning commissioner who had also served on DAPAC, praised Hood’s design. 

“When we were on DAPAC, what we wanted was a bold vision—and this is what you’ve delivered. It’s truly exciting,” she said. 

“You’ve done a tremendous job,” said commissioner and architect James Samuels.  

“Today Center Street is basically a long bus stop,” said commissioner and planner Victoria Eisen. “What most impressed me is how you can simultaneously accommodate commercial and emergency access and a large public gathering space.” 

While hailing Hood’s design as “so dynamic, so visually persuasive,” Commission Chair David Stoloff said “the one question I have is the merchants along there.” 

While Hood said he had conducted two meetings with merchants, he acknowledged that “the hardest part of the public realm is that you have to be everything to everyone.” 

And with merchants worried and money in short supply, many questions remain to be answered before a unique vision for downtown Berkeley could ever be realized.