Downtown Development and Berkeley History

City Hall_edited-2A lively panel discussion about how new  development may impact the Berkeley downtown’s culture and historical buildings attracted an audience of 90 on Tuesday, March 18, at the Berkeley History Center.

Panelists Becky O’Malley, Jim Novosel, Lisa Stephens, and Michael Caplan, shown below, voiced a wide range of opinions. Sherry Smith, on left below, past president of co-sponsoring League of Women Voters, and Steven Finacom, past president of  co-sponsoring Berkeley Historical Society, on far right below, moderated the session.

Downtown & development, Sherry, Steve, panelThe discussion roamed widely:

growing downtown residents: panelists and audience debated what kinds of people have moved there,  will move there in future and should move there–students in crowded apartments, low and moderate income families and individuals, well-to-do coders priced out of San Francisco or retired couples from large houses in the hills.

loss of shops for basic daily needs: Shops for groceries, shoes, clothes for children and adults have closed in downtown, replaced by many and constantly changing restaurants. Will the local family-owned Ace Hardware and Berkeley Vacuum Center leave Berkeley when the developments planned for the block containing them is built? Panelists and audience members were concerned that the very businesses that bring residents to downtown will disappear. Regional malls were mentioned as another major reason that such businesses have left downtown.

the public buildings in the center of downtown are at risk, with citizens and council fighting sale of the downtown Post Office, and Old City Hall  and the Veterans’ Memorial Building deteriorating and not safe against earthquakes. A Civic Center overlay plan proposed by Council Member Jesse Arreguin was mentioned as a step toward protecting these historic buildings.

loss of downtown parking makes it hard to come shop downtown, one audience member asserted.

transit planning for downtown was a missing element in the discussion, observed Miriam Hawley in the closing comment of the meeting.  Hawley served on the Berkeley City Council and the AC Transit Board.

downtown audience

Here are a few snapshots from the discussion.

The Downtown Plan envisioned a few spire-like tall buildings with lots of open space around them, according to Lisa Stephens, Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board Chair, who served on the Downtown Area Plan (DAP) Committee and has been a 30-year resident of downtown. But, she found that the current plans for the tall building on the block with the Shattuck Hotel look modern and intrude on the views of the old hotel  Ms. Stephens wants to preserve moderate heights and styles that are compatible with historical downtown buildings.

Density has benefits, according to Michael Caplan, Economic Development Manager for the City of Berkeley. Berkeley Repertory Theatre, once poised to move to Oakland, stayed and expanded thanks in part to efforts from City officials and staff. Other theater and performance groups have moved in, though several movie theaters are gone. The University Art Museum, now being built in downtown, will increase the attraction of the downtown arts district. Caplan worked on the Downtown Berkeley Arts District Plan and the Downtown Berkeley Business Improvement District. He has a Master’s degree from UC in Urban and Regional Planning with an emphasis on economic development.

Measure R was a joke, a fraud, according to Becky O’Malley, owner, and  editor of the now-on-line Berkeley Daily Planet. O’Malley also asserted that the green goals that were so prominent in the measure have been little mentioned or used since the Measure passed.  O’Malley served on Berkeley’s Landmarks Preservation Commission for seven years. Measure R was a broad description of the downtown area plan, which 64% of Berkeley voters approved in November 2010. Read it  by clicking here.

Changes to downtown in the past 10 to 20 years, including 1000 new housing units, have produced a lively interesting downtown, according to Jim Novosel, current chair of the Berkeley Planning Commission. Novosel, a local architect, is currently designing a proposed medium-rise residential building for Berkeley Way and Shattuck Avenue, which, he reports, will house adults, not students. Novosel himself lives just west of downtown in a renovated historic building.

Note: for reporter Judith Scherr’s view of the event see the Berkeley Voice story

Nancy Bickel


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