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New: Visiting A Troubled Berkeley Neighborhood: A Smart Growth Solution

By Steven Finacom
Thursday June 06, 2013 - 01:02:00 PM

(This is the second in a series of periodic articles about issues related to Telegraph Avenue.)

Recently I walked through what clearly struck me as a troubled Berkeley neighborhood shopping district. Although it is well positioned to take advantage of commerical opportunities—it's along a famous avenue, lying close to both Downtown and UC Berkeley, near BART, and on major transit lines—it exhibited many problems that call for concerted City action.

One of the first things you see along as you enter the neighborhood along the main avenue from the south is a large vacant lot—vacant since the building there burned down in a big, 1980s fire. There has been no apparent effort to rebuilt, even though the fire was a quarter century or more ago. Another prominent property nearby recently suffered a major fire. 

Nearby is a large storefront that once housed a nationally famous bookstore. It’s been vacant and unrented for years and years since the lamented loss of the bookstore. On the same block there’s a whole commercial building boarded up and vacant. Both would seem to be indicators of bad economic conditions on the avenue. 

As I walked past the various businesses I imagined some of them were clearly in trouble; I saw few shoppers inside, although others were crowded. Some of the businesses seem to hark back to the days of the 1960s/70s, rather than serving current demographics. How long can they survive and appeal to Berkeley's younger, more affluent, shoppers who weren't even born in the 1960s? And the avenue seems increasingly heavy with fast food take out joints, cafes and restaurants, rather than a more healthy mix of businesses selling a variety of different goods and services. 

Along the main stretch it’s hard to walk a block without encountering a panhandler. Young people in groups brazenly camp out for hours at a time on the street right beneath signs saying it violates a City ordinance to sit there. In front of one prominent café a dog lunged at me, barking. The young woman it belonging to pulled it back, but offered no apology and avoided eye contact as she slouched on the sidewalk. 

Along that block, and others, denizens of the district crowd the sidewalk so closely with overflowing carts and animals that it’s a challenge to get past. Many of the locals stare at or push past newcomers as if they are interlopers. A lot of the people were poorly dressed and wandering around with apparently nothing to do except hang out on the street in the middle of the day. One wondered if they had jobs? 

And although the avenue is very close to the UC campus and thousands of Cal students live nearby, you don't see many of them shopping there; instead, they're presumably driven away by the visible street conditions and going out of town or on-line to shop. 

On the side streets there’s a mix of 1950s and 1960s apartment buildings and older houses, many of the latter broken up into smaller rental units. Not a few buildings look rundown, a tell-tale sign of disinvestment by owners. 

All in all, this neighborhood struck me as a candidate for the sort of business revitalization that current City leadership calls for: 

A new emphasis on “branding” the neighborhood and bringing in new businesses; New, large, stores of the sort that people seem to want today, rather than the hodgepodge of small, sometimes difficult to rent, spaces that make up much of the existing commercial street frontage. Intense Smart Growth—a major commercial street bisects the district, with good bus service, and close to BART. Vigorous infill development encouraged and enabled by the City—blocks of old, one-story, commercial structures could be profitably cleared and replaced with new multi-story buildings providing housing and “eyes on the street” above large new retail establishments. Relaxed zoning to allow commercial property owners to bring in new types of tenants and take full advantage of the financial and development potential of their properties. A big crackdown by the police on people sitting on the street and other undesirables frequenting the neighborhood. Tearing down the old houses and building new apartments and condos on the side streets. 

If all this could take place then, well, the neighborhood could be fully revitalized, with five or six story new buildings, brand-new businesses lining the commercial blocks, and a improved sort of clientele and street life. Of course, the current residents, businesses, and shoppers of the Gourmet Ghetto would be totally up in arms if that happened. 

Oh, dear. You thought I was talking about Telegraph Avenue, didn’t you? 

I was actually describing north Shattuck Avenue. 

And everything I said was factual. North Shattuck has a big vacant lot from a 1980s fire—the old Virginia Cleaners site—where nothing has been built. The site of an old bookstore—Black Oak Books in this case, not Cody’s—has been unrented for years. Hordes of people sitting on the street median and sidewalk, many of them eating their Cheeseboard pizza. The neighborhood is saturated with take-out food places and restaurants—upscale, yes, but still quick food. 

Lots of dogs and overloaded carts (usually baby carriages) congest the sidewalk, making it difficult for pedestrians. The lunging dog incident actually did happen to me on my visit—but the indifferent young woman sitting on the sidewalk holding its leash was not a scruffy street kid, but well dressed and consulting her I-phone. 

The Gourmet Ghetto and Telegraph Avenue have, in fact, a lot in common when it comes to initial first impressions. But despite the superficial similarities, the response of City staff and local elected officials to these two districts is entirely different. No one in the City government is mobilizing police to make sweeps of North Shattuck or cite people sitting on the sidewalk. No one is proposing that one or two story commercial buildings—think the Cheese Board, Chez Panisse, Walnut Square, etc.—be torn down and replaced with mid-rise Smart Growth infill to bring more “vitality” and residents to the neighborhood. And no one, apparently, is cognitating in Economic Development or on the Council whether the Gourmet Ghetto commercial mix—which does indeed include funky old collectives and restaurants dating back to the 60s and 70s—needs to be revamped in favor of a new economic strategy for tomorrow's shoppers. I've heard no one fulminating from the dais at City Council meetings that there are vacant lots or boarded up storefronts in the North Shattuck Area that have been that way for years—even decades—and the City must DO SOMETHING IMMEDIATELY to bring about development on those sites, whatever the cost. And no one is calling for a new mix of Gourmet Ghetto businesses, bringing in larger stores as a City-encouraged commercial strategy, and prioritizing new businesses over old. 

Now of course there are differences between the two neighborhoods. But the differences are not so stark as to make both facetious and serious comparisons invalid. 

The fact is that shopping districts in upscale parts of Berkeley—North Shattuck / Gourmet Ghetto, the Elmwood, Solano Avenue, Fourth Street—get a pass when it comes to the economic strategies that City staff and Councilmembers routinely propose and promote for Telegraph, Downtown, San Pablo, and other less affluent districts. 

And this is the case even when there is clearly documented economic decline in the “good” neighborhoods—think of all the vacant storefronts and the shuttered Oaks Theatre on Solano in recent years. In the discussion over Solano I didn't once hear a City Councilmember or Commissioner or local development activist call for re-making that street with infill and more intense development as a solution to its obvious economic problems. 

The civic thrust, instead, is how can we get more businesses into those vacant storefronts while keeping the neighborhood as it is. It's not how should we entirely remake the neighborhood. It would be refreshing if a little bit of that ethos of "try to intelligenty try to fix what's there" rather than "replace everything" would seep over into municipal discussions of Telegraph. 

My point is not that those districts should get Smart Growthed or “redeveloped” by large scale development and dislocation, as is proposed for Downtown or Telegraph. It is the opposite point—that the “revitalization” strategies pointed like artillery at Telegraph and Downtown may not be the right, or necessary, solutions. 

There is also the issue of the terminology we use to describe the same issue in different locations. For example, City officials and some journalists are wont to refer to people who frequent Telegraph Avenue as "denizens"--defining them at a scary, perhaps even sub-human, level. But to be fair, shouldn't that term be used as well for people who go have breakfast at Bette's Oceanview Diner on Fourth Street day after day, or can be seen every morning hanging out for a couple of hours in front of the original Peet's Coffee at Walnut and Vine? 

And why is it that street kids sitting on Telegraph--who, in my daily experience, almost never actually block the pedestrian lanes--are any more annoying than the hordes of customers of places like Ici in the Elmwood or the Cheese Board on North Shattuck, who regularly block the sidewalk while lining up for, or consuming, their daily food fix? On my visit to North Shattuck I watched as a middle aged woman pushing an elderly man in a wheelchair. She almost gave up trying to navigate through a crowd of chattering, upscale, foodies. Her pleas to make a pathway for the wheelchair went almost unheard. 

All things to think about. 

(An explanatory note. When I shared an earlier draft of this article with some friends, one of the reactions was worry that members of the City Council wouldn't understand satire and would actually take seriously the idea of tearing down existing North Shattuck and replacing it with "Smart Growth" development. So, just to be clear, that is not my suggestion. It is my observation, however, that if local "Smart" Growthers want to avoid being hypocrites, they should be advocating similar solutions for similiarly situated parts of the City.)