Public Comment

Suggestions for the Downtown Berkeley Streetscape

By Steven Finacom
Thursday February 25, 2010 - 08:58:00 AM

The city’s Downtown Streetscape and Open Space Improvements Process (SOSIP) has the positive potential to provide real improvements in Downtown but also the capacity to green-veneer Downtown development with little actual improvements for the public. 

Here are several suggestions to make it more likely that the former, rather than the latter, is the result. 

Look to the lesser streets. The greatest opportunities for new usable open space in Downtown are not along Shattuck, Center, or University—all foci of planning to date—but wide, little-trafficked blocks to the side such as Berkeley Way between Shattuck and Oxford, and Durant between Shattuck and Milvia. Along blocks like those, where building entrances and driveways are few and far between and you’re as likely to find a cow as a moving car, large open-space areas could be created while still permitting narrow traffic lanes for emergency vehicles and building access.  

Berkeley Way is a particularly promising opportunity, since the university is planning an open-space forecourt for its HELIOS building, facing the Berkeley Way and Walnut intersection. This could also connect to proposed green space on the upper block of University Avenue, just to the south. 

Go south. The best place for a mid-Shattuck park strip is not south of Durant but south of Dwight down to Adeline and even Ashby. Here, in the ample median along blocks with few current commercial users, a substantial, multi-acre, linear park could be developed. It would be easily accessible to downtown residents and also serve new housing along those blocks. This is the single best—and most affordable—opportunity to develop meaningful open space in Central Berkeley. 

Remember active users. It’s fine to have benches, planters, posies and outdoor dining, but a lot of the people living, or anticipated to live, Downtown will need active outdoor space that isn’t anywhere there right now. Where are 5,000 new residents of Downtown going to run their dogs, shoot a few hoops, and find places for their children to play? Not in adjacent neighborhoods, which, by and large, are either entirely without public parks or already overloaded (like the Ohlone Dog Park) with users. 

Fortunately, the sorts of facilities most likely to be in demand take up relatively little land area: mini dog parks, half-court basketball plots, children’s play lots. Such active spaces should be programmed into Downtown streetscape improvements from the start.  

An added benefit is that they would provide lots of positive street activity unrelated to shopping. Want a Downtown that will be “vibrant” on weekends and at night? Basketball courts used by resident Cal students and dog parks drawing empty nesters and adult singles with pooches will help. 

Save the trees. Much “green” urban advocacy these days seems to start with the absurd premise that to Save the World we must first cut down all those pesky existing trees and replant. Razing and replacing Downtown street trees every 15 to 20 years, as the city has been wont to do, have the effect of providing perpetually small, spindly saplings rather than healthy, mature urban forest. Just when the trees get big enough, along comes another planning process proposing to hew them down. (To his credit, Matt Taecker, the city’s Downtown planner, has put more street tree planting, not just replacement, high on the current agenda.) 

Finish Civic Center Park. A lengthy community-based planning process years ago created a consensus plan for Berkeley’s historic civic square, but it was only partially implemented. Those changes that were completed—a tot lot, a handsome plaza at the west end that doubles as an informal skateboard ground, refurbishment of the lawn and plantings—have worked well. Let’s finish the job. 

One major missing element that won the support of all participants, was making the landmark fountain work again. Plans exist to put it in order and it would be the single best way to make an immediate open-space improvement Downtown. 

A second consensus view was removing the free parking lot reserved for high public officials—parking in a park, for goodness sake!—behind City Hall and returning that land to the usable park. The lot is unconscionable in a city that routinely hikes street parking rates and admonishes citizens to walk, bicycle, and use transit. If councilmembers must have parking, they can allocate themselves and senior staff reserved spaces on the little used upper levels of the Center Street garage, just around the corner from City Hall.  

Neither the university nor the school district is a substitute provider of public park space. Berkeley High and the UC campus are not permanent public “open spaces” for Downtown, and this process will be delusional from the beginning if it pretends they are. Campuses may be partially available for public use, but they have different missions from the city’s, are beyond the city’s control, and are not a reliable substitute for real, dedicated public parks and open space.  

Go up. All the current SOSIP ideas are horizontal. But high-rise buildings Downtown will make the streets marginally—and sometimes substantially—less desirable places to be. Visit the wind-whipped, shadowy BART plaza in the lee of Berkeley’s two existing skyscrapers for a cautionary example.  

So why not also plan for open spaces the public can use high above the streets? The large top of a rebuilt Center Street garage provides one such opportunity. Or how about encouraging an affordably priced public observation or roof deck atop a high-rise—a Downtown Campanile—complete with café? Otherwise most of us will be walking in chilly shadows, while only a lucky, well-to-do few, enjoy the heights and the views. 

Save the sun. Most days outdoors in Berkeley it’s cool in the shade and pleasant in the sun. Maintaining solar access for Downtown public spaces is paramount if the city wants them to be actually used. Ignore the generic planning advice that says shade is necessary; not in our Berkeley microclimate.  

Horse before cart. A lot of Berkeley’s self-identified progressives who promote Downtown development switch to a substantially conservative mind set when it comes to funding public improvements. Trickledown subsidies from over scaled private developments are not the only way to improve outdoor spaces the public already owns. And improving public space should not be used as a driver for massive new development entitlements for the private sector. 

Assess the true costs. In the 1990s Berkeley voters approved Measure S to pay for Downtown streetscape improvements. There are still many years of property taxes to pay to retire those bonds, yet the SOSIP recommendations may remove much of what was done. If that is the case, the City should also retire the existing bonds so voters are not paying for improvements that have been destroyed. 

Don’t let transit displace useable public space. For much of the 20th century Shattuck Avenue was given over largely to train and trolley lanes, with little green space or sidewalk. Berkeleyeans had to fight for the undergrounding of BART throughout the City to keep the transit vehicles from dominating civic spaces. Dedicated bus lanes in the center of Downtown should not be prioritized to the extent that they push out opportunities for green space.  

Make sure the details are done right. All the planning and investment in the world isn’t going to work if the execution is subpar. Sad to say, that has been the result of much Berkeley Downtown planning in the past. Even the designers of Berkeley’s Arts Walk, for instance, will tell you the construction of the streetscape along Addison wasn’t as good as it could be. And no one noticed until it was too late that the new street trees along University Avenue, planted as a result of the last Downtown streetscape process (Measure S) would be immediately whacked, scarred, and mangled by parking cars.  

Avoid too much stand-alone “Art”. I’m a proponent of public art, but single, widely scattered, statement, pieces shouldn’t be allowed to substitute for good streetscapes with lots of repeating, well-designed, elements from benches to light poles to signage. Downtown’s giant tuning fork is pretty striking, but I know no one who thinks the blob of ceramic a block away at Addison and Shattuck is a big success, at least at that spot. Investing in good, small, decorative art and design covering lots of ground is a better long term strategy. 

Finally, listen to the locals. Often, the discussion of Downtown planning seems to be largely conducted amongst people who proudly proclaim, “I hate Downtown!” or “I never go there.”  

In fact, a lot of people go Downtown frequently (myself included), and there are many long term restaurants, other businesses, offices, and residents there. Ask them what they’ve seen working best, and what they want and need. They’ve already voted with their feet and dollars for Downtown; give them a voice first, and others will come. 


Steve Finacom is a Berkeley resident.