Berkeley’s Downtown Streetscape and Open Space Improvement Plan (SOSIP) subcommittee, which is charged with advising the City Council on changes to Berkeley’s downtown, got off to an initially bumpy start Monday, then settled into a series of relatively quick decisions about preferred directions. There was little discussion of how all this would be paid for, however.
The plan, which began to take form at the meeting and is scheduled for review and adoption by the City Council several months from now, would most likely:
• reroute some Downtown traffic particularly on the blocks around Shattuck Square;
• close at least three Downtown blocks near Shattuck and Center to through motor vehicles;
• install some statement environmental features such as watercourses and bioswales;
• widen sidewalks;
• add some outdoor public spaces from plazas to playing courts;
• increase street tree planting while removing many existing trees;
• add bicycle lanes;
• eliminate many of the diagonal parking bays on Shattuck Avenue and replace them with smaller amounts of curbside parking.
Active recreation spaces, the importance of good entries and approaches to Downtown, rainwater management, and better information and pricing for drivers about off-street parking were additional themes that gained traction during Committee discussion.
All this is part of a new planning process to define and recommend changes to the streetscape—including traffic circulation—in Downtown Berkeley.
Initiating” SOSIP” proved to be initially slippery and complex at the inaugural, Monday, March 8, 2010, meeting of a new City of Berkeley subcommittee charged with developing the recommendations.
Four hours of staff presentation, subcommittee introduction and organization, public comment and, finally, subcommittee discussion produced some early confusion, then some tentative conclusions and themes, for the City’s Downtown Streetscape and Open Space Improvement Plan (SOSIP).
City staff planner Matt Taecker told the subcommittee at the outset that the City “wants to have the downtown a much more pedestrian oriented place.” He also said “we need to make sure it does function in terms of traffic, that (improvements) can be built, can be maintained.” “That’s the imperative tonight.”
He did not give a dollar figure budget for Downtown improvements, but said that the first task of the subcommittee would be to identify specific preferences for cost estimating, with the costs returned to the subcommittee later in its deliberative process.
“The final plan is trying to be the real deal”, Taecker said, noting that street improvements might be funded by developer fees, grants, or “maybe a parcel tax citywide” for parks and open space improvements, including those Downtown.
(After the meeting, one member worried about the actual availability of funding for any projects, as well as the possibility that a long “wish list” of SOSIP improvements would be used by Downtown development proponents to justify numerous tall buildings that could theoretically produce fees to pay for street changes.)
“What we’re trying to do (tonight) is focus on themes. What are the big moves? Try to avoid obsessing about the details,” Taecker told the Subcommittee.
This was a somewhat odd characterization since the process had been heavily front-loaded with detailed strategies and concepts—perhaps more so than any previous planning process I’ve seen in Berkeley.
Maps, diagrams, and plans hung about the room—and were also presented at a public open house in February, before the Subcommittee first met—including detailed staff-developed iterations of options for each subarea, down to the measurements of sidewalk widths, locations of street trees, and number of community garden plots possible on certain blocks.
The subcommittee, established by the City Council in January, is a hybrid body, so new that its actual membership isn’t yet listed on the City’s website as of this writing.
Members who introduced themselves at the meeting including Planning Commissioners (Patti Dacey, Jim Novosel, Teresa Clarke), Public Works Commissioners (Margo Schueler, Keith Alward), Transportation Commissioners (Meghan Long, Ann Smulka), Parks and Recreation Commissioners (Carole Schemmerling, Kate Harrison), and two ex-officio University representatives, emeritus Dean of Environmental Design Harrison Fraker, and Assistant Vice Chancellor for Physical and Environmental Planning Emily Marthinsen. All except Fraker attended the Monday meeting.
Members mentioned occupations including attorney, architect, former general contractor, civil engineer, non-profit housing development manager, and government consultant.
SUBAREA OPTIONS PRESENTED
City staff support for the subcommittee was largely a one-man show—planner Taecker, lately of the Downtown Area Plan (DAP) process—with some other staff sitting in the audience to answer periodic questions. A balky projector and laptop ultimately didn’t perform, leaving Taecker to verbally extemporize against a blue screen backdrop for much of the evening, while Subcommittee members referred to their printed handouts of his slides.
He outlined for the Committee four “subareas” of discussion and a range of alternative strategies for each. “The hard work tonight is to take a look at four subareas and give guidance in terms of cost estimating.”
The subareas pre-defined by Taecker as meriting some form of major change included Hearst Avenue from Oxford to Milvia; Shattuck, both south of Durant, and north of Center; and Center Street along its entire length from Oxford to Martin Luther King, Jr. Way.
A fifth area, “mid Shattuck” between Center and Durant, would be deferred, Taecker said, pending City Council direction on Bus Rapid Transit options for Downtown.
Presentation and Subcommittee discussion was largely limited to the four subareas, despite a number of audience and subcommittee suggestions of other issues that might be addressed which did not fit within specific subarea boundaries.
Taecker said according to the City Council mandate the Subcommittee is to meet regularly but not more than eight times, and will be disbanded at the end of September. The second Monday evening of the month appears to be the preferred meeting time.
HEARST AVENUE OPTIONS
Once the subcommittee members had introduced themselves, given some general perspectives, listened to Taecker’s presentation, and heard from the public, the discussion of subareas began with Hearst Avenue, and initially moved quite slowly.
The Subcommittee devoted much of its deliberation time to questions, details, some confusion, and discussion about altering Hearst Avenue between Shattuck and Oxford. Some members were visibly frustrated at this stage, especially when they discovered inaccuracies—such as dimensions that didn’t add up—on the plans they were examining.
However, the Subcommittee eventually settled on a preferred option of leaving bicycle lanes adjacent to the traffic lanes on Hearst, rather than completely separated from the street, and narrowing the paving and increasing plantings on the south side of the street. All the Hearst options presupposed reducing traffic lanes to one in each direction between Oxford and Shattuck.
The next items of discussion moved more rapidly.
CENTER STREET OPTIONS
For the Center Street component, most of the members spoke in favor of some sort of water-feature option—generally conceptualized as along the lines of the Walter Hood design sponsored by Ecocity Builders—between Oxford and Shattuck, and continuing the theme west, although not as a continuous creek.
“The Walter Hood design is not what I would want for the whole system (down all of Center Street), but it’s doable…we need to get started on something that can get funding” said Schemmerling, a long time creek advocate. Dacey said she was “very excited about the Center Street plaza” with the Hood elements, a sentiment echoed by other subcommittee members.
Novosel expressed some caution, advocating for a gathering space on Center Street above Shattuck instead of large water feature, saying, “I don’t want to see the Strawberry Creek idea work to the detriment of that.”
Most subcommittee members, however, said a water feature on Center Street east of Shattuck was their preferred approach, with increased outdoor public gathering space concentrated on the Shattuck Square block to the immediate north as well as further west, at Civic Center Park.
SHATTUCK SQUARE OPTIONS
Along Shattuck north of Center Street, the preference was for an option that would shift all north / south motor vehicle traffic onto the west side of the Shattuck Square island on the two blocks between Center and University Avenue, while converting the two blocks east of the island into a plaza / pedestrian area.
Taecker also outlined a proposal presented by community member Jurgen Aust for flipping this approach, with two blocks of plaza on the west side of Shattuck Square and consolidated traffic on the street east of the Square. The idea did not seem to have any strong advocates on the subcommittee and ended up left off the recommendation list.
Members additionally asked for cost estimates of a variation that would move the main BART entrance to the east side of Shattuck, in the new plaza. Some members argued that would eat up much of the possible budget, and said that simply adding a new BART entrance on the east side of the street would suffice; others strongly wished to get rid of the existing BART “drum” and straighten the north / south traffic lanes through its current site.
SHATTUCK “PARK BLOCKS” OPTIONS
Moving on to the final subarea—which he called the “park blocks” of Shattuck between Durant and Dwight—Taecker described the possibility of creating central linear park space 75-80 feet wide, by eliminating the diagonal parking bays on either side of the street, instituting parallel curbside parking, adding bicycle lanes, and retaining two lanes of traffic in each direction.
The primary alternative along these blocks would be to concentrate the traffic lanes in the middle of the street and widen the sidewalks on either side of the street to as much as 22 feet, with space for additional street trees, outdoor dining, and seating.
The subcommittee members split on which approach they preferred with arguments for and against both concepts. They finally asked that the cost estimating include both approaches—“linear park” and “wide sidewalks”—and the possibility of some blocks done one way, and some the other.
Subcommittee members also talked about expanding the park block concept far south of Durant—all the way to Adeline, and down Adeline to Ashby—and creating a large linear park along Shattuck connected to Downtown at its north end, and also serving adjacent neighborhoods to the south.
In other comments that seemed to enjoy general support, individual Subcommittee members favored removing surface parking for City officials behind City Hall and returning that land to Civic Center Park, fixing the waterless historic fountain in the park, and expanding the definition of “active” open space Downtown to include new outdoor recreational facilities such as playing courts. Long, for instance, said she was “in favor of an active program. People go where they can use stuff”.
A new dog park somewhere Downtown, outdoor basketball courts, and handball courts were all mentioned. A Taecker trial balloon of community garden plots in the middle of Shattuck didn’t seem to resonate with most of the subcommittee, but some members picked up on a suggestion (made by this writer) that a nearly acre-sized roof deck on a rebuilt Center Street Garage would be a good place for community gardens and possibly recreation courts.
There was strong and repeated interest amongst members for using public space improvements to clearly define and beautify entrances to the Downtown, especially for those coming up University Avenue, or north on Shattuck. “The entrances to the Downtown are critical”, Harrison said. “The entrances are so unappealing. Figure out how to make this an attractive place to arrive at, not just be at.”
Some sort of streetscape “gateway” at Dwight and Shattuck was mentioned, along with widening the sidewalks along University Avenue to provide a highly visible change for those entering Downtown from the west.
There was also strong interest, particularly among the Public Works Commissioners, for using parts of the streetscape to demonstrate ecological water retention techniques, including bioswales where rainwater runoff from the pavement could soak into the ground.
Others noted their interest in practical and affordably buildable improvements to the Downtown and expressed concerns about poor maintenance of the existing streetscape.
Clarke called for “big ideas”, saying a Center Street plaza “is a good place to start.” She also emphasized having, in addition to designs for specific blocks, general design guidelines applicable anywhere, “so no matter what happens, there’s a plan.” Taecker said design guidelines would be one of the outcomes of the process.
Several members also cautioned against removal of street parking without commensurate improvements in directional signage showing where to find parking, and a new parking pricing structure that would make nearby off-street parking in City garages and lots attractively inexpensive for those making short trips to the Downtown.
Scheuring said “there’s a lot of parking Downtown but people don’t know where it is and they don’t feel safe walking there at night”, to and from parking structures not adjacent to their destinations.
Marthinsen, the single official University representative present at the meeting, participated in several parts of the discussion but maintained a low institutional profile, noting simply that “the University is very supportive of what will make Downtown Berkeley a lively and enticing place”, and that walkability and pedestrian improvements should be a major focus of the plan. She expressed support for an emphasis on permeable paving and environmentally sound management of street runoff.
At one point, when a subcommittee member suggested the University could pay for additional improvements to the Downtown beyond street improvements adjacent to University owned development sites, she said “our position is that we do what other developers do, and not to come after us for more funding”.
Midway through the meeting the Committee undertook some rudimentary organization, unanimously selecting Planning Commissioner Jim Novosel as Chair, and Transportation Commissioner Kate Harrison as Vice-Chair.
Taecker handed Novesel “my mother’s meat tenderizer” as a symbolic gavel, but continued to orchestrate the meeting from the staff table, at several points corralling discussion to call for “straw polls” of members on various concepts.
Perhaps half the talking time of the evening was occupied with his presentations, questions, and answers for the subcommittee, despite the snafu with the graphic projections.
Novosel, a west of Downtown resident, made one of the stronger statements of the evening, critiquing the idea that the Downtown is little used. “There’s so much happening. Visiting this past Saturday, he remarked, “in a few blocks there must have been 500 people on the streets. It’s alive.”
The audience at the public meeting started out at about a dozen, including staff; as the evening progressed a few latecomers arrived, and some early attendees left. Only a handful remained at 10:00 pm when the meeting wrapped up.
City Councilmembers Jesse Arreguin and Kriss Worthington and an aide to Councilmember Laurie Capitelli put in non-speaking appearances, as did John Caner, the new director of the Downtown Berkeley Association, Richard Register, and longtime Planning Commissioner Gene Poschman.
Almost all of the subcommittee, staff, and most of the audience (including this writer) could be reasonably characterized as middle class, middle-aged to older, and Caucasian, a much more homogeneous group than the wide mix of ages, ethnicities, and races living in, using, and passing through, Downtown Berkeley daily.
Several audience members—some speaking for themselves, others representing groups or specific causes—offered remarks during the public comment period. John Steere from Berkeley Partners for Parks urged the subcommittee “to think of the Downtown open space as a system of open spaces, linked by complete streets.”
Bob Allen, who chairs the Design Review Committee of the City, said “we’ve got a real interest in what you’re doing” and noted that several condominium developments are going through the approval process along South Shattuck Avenue.
He urged “resurrecting comprehensive street tree planting throughout the City” and asked the subcommittee to “focus on the entrances to Downtown Berkeley. The entrances to Berkeley should set the tone for what goes on downtown.”
Michael Katz called for “planting lots of trees”—a recommendation from Taecker, as well, in his staff materials—and argued against removing either mixed use traffic lanes or decreasing street parking. He noted that there are legitimate needs for parking adjacent to businesses and other facilities Downtown. He described a friend who asked him “what’s wrong with your city? Your downtown is dying and you keep removing parking there.”
Jennifer Pearson reminded the subcommittee of the realities of living in an earthquake region, and noted that Downtown sits on a seasonal floodplain that drains across wide areas to what are now very narrowly defined creek channels.
Dave Campbell of the Bicycle Friendly Berkeley Coalition withheld comment on specific items—“we’re still reviewing the drawings”—but said “we’re encouraged by the potential for new bike lanes.” He said he wanted to see “world class streets” and identified only one such existing way in Berkeley, Fourth Street, with its slow traffic and ample plantings and sidewalk amenities.
In a later answer to a subcommittee question, Campbell noted that the European approach is often to create bicycle paths completely separate from motor vehicle traffic, but that presents problems where the paths rejoin streets. He favored bicycle lanes in the street, adjacent to traffic lanes, instead, as the subcommittee appeared to do as well.
Kirsten Miller of Ecocity Builders urged that group’s Walter Hood design for a Center Street water feature, noting the lengthy community activism that had produced that plan.
This writer spoke during public comment about the importance of active recreation facilities in the Downtown, especially if the resident population is increased. I noted that there are few existing public park spaces in neighborhoods around Downtown, and thousands of existing and future Downtown residents will need facilities like new dog parks and recreation courts, which would also serve as nodes of positive social activity along Downtown Streets.
NEXT STEPS AND FURTHER MATERIALS
The next meeting of the subcommittee is planned for the evening of Monday, April 5th.
Disclosure: The writer participated in the Public Comment section of this meeting (as noted in the article), and also submitted some written comments in advance, which can be found on the Subcommittee website. He works at the University of California, but was present at this meeting simply as a community member.