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Telegraph Avenue Merchants Say BRT Threatens Business

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Wednesday November 25, 2009 - 08:41:00 AM
Doris Moskowitz of Moe’s Books says Bus Rapid Transit would have a harmful affect on the venerable Telegraph Avenue store.
Riya Bhattacharjee
Doris Moskowitz of Moe’s Books says Bus Rapid Transit would have a harmful affect on the venerable Telegraph Avenue store.

Not everyone is happy with Berkeley’s latest plan, which seeks to make buses whiz through the city’s transit corridors. 

Like the majority of businesses on Telegraph Avenue, Moe’s Books is against the city’s Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA) for Bus Rapid Transit, a bus route city officials say is designed to have many of the advantages of a rail line without the disruption that comes with laying tracks. 

The plan would keep Telegraph Avenue one-way northbound for cars but create a dedicated southbound lane between Durant Avenue and Dwight Way for buses, delivery and emergency vehicles and bikes. 

Already struggling in today’s challenging economy, Moe’s, which has been around for half a century and employs 27 people, feels that two-way traffic on Telegraph would give rise to gridlock and prevent customers from coming to the store. 

Standing in front of the store her father founded 50 years ago, Doris Moskowitz watched customers load and unload stacks of books from their cars. 

“At least they didn’t take this away,” she said, pointing to the load–unload zone. “I was afraid we were going to lose it.” 

Although earlier plans sought to remove the existing loading zones, angry letters from Moskowitz and other Telegraph merchants forced the city to scrap the idea. The revised LPA allows cars to use the southbound lane and maintains the loading zones on that side of the street. 

“But the bigger problem is access,” said Moskovitz. “I perceive two-way traffic will not work on Telegraph—cars, buses .... No one will be able to get through.” 

In a letter to the Berkeley City Council, Moskovitz made her point. 

“We at Moe’s Books trade, recycle and reuse goods,” she said. “That thousands of books come into Moe’s everyday may come as a surprise to you ... Any interruption to access to our front door is our primary concern. We perceive the Locally Preferred Alternative as a serious threat to our ability to do what we do.” 

A number of Telegraph Avenue street vendors showed up at the city’s first LPA public workshop on Nov. 19 at the Transportation Commission meeting. 

“In the name of progress, they submerged entire villages in China to build a dam,” said Janet Klein, who has sold handicrafts on Telegraph for 30 years. “In the name of progress I feel I am being submerged under water.” 

Klein, who also coordinates the Telegraph Avenue Holiday Street Fair with Yolanda Castillo, said that Telegraph vendors have submitted a petition with thousands of signatures opposing the two-way proposal, which she said would make it difficult for vendors to load and unload their goods. 

“It’s a question of making conditions so difficult for us that we will have to leave,” Klein told the Planet in a telephone interview. “Making faster buses or longer buses or dedicated buslines is not going to get people out of cars. Sometimes in the name of progress we don’t progress.” 

Klein said the Locally Preferred Alternative would affect roughly 125 street vendors on Telegraph. 

“The city is telling us that in 10 years, more people will be using buses, but how do we know that?” Moskowitz asked. “In essence we want to get people out of cars but don’t want our business ruined. And if no one can get here that’s what will end up happening. If Berkeley wants to retain its characteristics, it needs to help us, not hurt us. Access is one issue. We need help with the street, the parking and the scruffiness. We don’t want Telegraph to become the stepchild of the neighborhood. We want it to be the heart of the city.” 

The city is currently preparing the final environmental study for the Locally Preferred Alternative, which includes two other options—“no build” and Rapid Bus Plus, which is still being developed by AC Transit. 

“The LPA is the city’s opportunity to develop a ‘best-build option,’ with the ‘no-build alternative at the other end of the spectrum, and the Rapid Bus Plus alternative in the middle,” said Bonnie Nelson of Nelson & Nygaard, the San Francisco-based consultants hired by the city’s transportation department. 

Moskowitz wants the traffic lanes on Telegraph to stay exactly the same. 

“I don’t know a single person in the neighborhood who wants designated lanes, bus malls or being told they can’t park somewhere,” she said. “The City of Berkeley has this idea that they can impose anything they want. We are not pro-car, but to do it this way will lead to a completely empty neighborhood.” 

Nelson said the Berkeley City Council would decide after the final environmental study whether it wants to endorse BRT. 

The concept of BRT has been around for a long time in Berkeley. Oakland and San Leandro are developing their own locally preferred alternatives as part of the 17-mile corridor that includes Berkeley and is the busiest in the AC Transit system, with more than 21,000 boardings daily on the 1 and 1R bus routes. 

“With or without the BRT we will continue to experience more growth and congestion,” said Nelson. “BRT has been conceived as a proactive way to address growth.” 

Some Berkeley residents and transportation commissioners said they gladly welcome the idea of a faster, better and more accessible transportation system given how unreliable AC Transit can be at times, especially late at night. 

Designed to operate like a small light-rail station, BRT was first established in Curitiba, Brazil. Today, it is used in big cities like Ottawa as well as small university towns like Eugene, Ore. 

BRT riders can buy tickets from machines, and the bus stops have larger shelters, more seating, maps and NextBus signs to show estimated arrival times. 

“For transit riders, BRT promises to be both faster and more reliable,” Nelson said. “In transit operations, every second counts.” 

Nelson said that BRT would increase frequency from 8–9 buses an hour to buses every five minutes, or 12 buses an hour. 

However, all these statistics have failed to impress Telegraph merchants so far.  

The owners of Amoeba Records, Rasputin’s and Buffalo Exchange have all expressed concern about the Locally Preferred Alternative. 

“I don’t know how they can put two-way traffic with a dedicated bus lane and a load-unload zone in the same place,” said Mark Weinstein, who owns Amoeba Records. “Telegraph’s health and welfare has not been taken into account at all—we are working our way backwards with all these concessions. It’s absolutely necessary for our customers to be able to pull over to unload books and records. It’s such a part of the fabric.” 

Weinstein said that he found the notion of a dedicated bus lane north of Ashby very troubling. 

“In order for some riders to save one to three minutes between Ashby and the campus, they will totally disrupt everything on Telegraph,” he said. “A very small number of people use those express buses. Taking away two lanes of Telegraph will cause a lot of problems.” 

Moskovitz said that at recent neighborhood meetings called by Telegraph Business Improvement District President Roland Peterson, merchants were very upset with the plan. 

“They were very angry about it,” she said. “They felt their needs were not being met.” 

Peterson said that after several “raucuous, hostile meetings,” the merchants decided that “changing any part between Dwight and Durant would not be workable.” 

“We have reservations about bus-only lanes in commercial districts,” he said. “We are also concerned about the loss of customer parking.” 

However, Billy Riggs, a planner for UC Berkeley, said the university supports BRT. 

One of Moe’s longtime customers, Ellen Archilla, said that if parking became more difficult, she would probably stop coming to Telegraph. 

“If Moe’s closes ... this is it,” Archilla said. “Berkeley used to be the city with the highest per capita bookstores in the country. We have already lost seven book stores. They try to compare Berkeley to Europe, but you have to remember that Berkeley isn’t planned like Europe.”