Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Plaza in the news

(Originally posted on March 17, 2007 on a different blog)


The Monthly (formerly the Berkeley Monthly) published its glowing review of the David Stoloff-driven North Shattuck Plaza, Inc. proposal this morning (Wednesday, March 28).
Here is the URL:

Unfortunately, again, there is a basic editorial skew in favor of the Stoloff-driven plaza plan inherent in the article. The statements of NSPI folk such as Mim Hawley, the statements of Peter Hilliyer (Asst City Mgr.-Traffic), and the statements any of a number of other synchronized voices, make it clear that we are struggling against a well-established, well-organized, focused and concerted effort to drive this particular vision of our neighborhood.

It is for exactly this reason that I am so concerned about the hostile atmosphere a small clique of so-called 'activists' have created at nearly every community meeting we've had. We've all experienced their destructive unpleasantness at public meetings, private meetings in our homes, and now at the introductory meeting of the stakeholders (merchants, landlords, and residents) held by mutual agreement last week. Those of us from LOCCNA were charged with listening and gathering information to take back to our community. Unfortunately two of the four LOCCNA representatives in attendance chose to use insults, legal threats and screaming accusations to stifle the process.

Such unmoderated anger is pathological, and it's not helping us create a united community with a common, articulated goal. While as a strategy, expressed anger can occasionally have some value, in my opinion it has been grossly overused in this process and now threatens to consume us with factional divisions.

Having personally lived through the progressive political cannibalism of the 60s, I am very much convinced that there is a better way to create a united community vision. We need to create community consensus based on inclusion, negotiation and engagement. We have to treat each other with respect. We will have to make compromises to come to a unified vision.

We can not allow the loudest, angriest, most hostile voices to dictate the terms of this process.

While a few naive and angry participants have claimed this unacceptable and boorish behavior is the source of our power and the very reason the 2006 plaza plan has been withdrawn, I disagree. The Stoloff-driven Plaza Plan is still here.
What's now missing are the moderate voices of our neighbors, the people who actually live in this neighborhood, as more and more folks decide with their feet to avoid this unnecessarily hostile process.

The Stoloff-driven plaza proposal is officially off the table, but it has not been replaced with a common vision organically generated from the community.
In fact, there clearly isn't even agreement as to how we will come to a common vision, despite the efforts of Alan Gould and others to build a community process here. The reason? A few self-appointed 'public guardians,' driven by their egos and their sense of entitlement, have hi-jacked the process. Too many of our community meetings have been disrupted by these people who are more comfortable bullying their personal opinions into the discussion rather than sharing, listening and responding.

If we can't come up with a civil way to proceed, it is very clear to me that the results will be determined by the 'last man standing'. In this particular case, the 'last man standing' is most likely to be holding David Stoloff's Plaza Plan in 'his' hand.

Speak out. Engage. Support our community. Don't let the bullys win.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

How Others See Us

(Originally posted on March 17, 2007 on a different blog)

Walking around North Berkeley it's plain to see how far this neighborhood has fallen. When I first moved here in 1975, and when I bought my home here in 1982, this part of Berkeley was an exciting regional shopping center. Folks came from San Francisco, Marin and Contra Costa to make their purchases and dine in our neighborhood.

We were known throughout the Bay Area for Chez Panisse, the Cheeseboard, Pig by the Tail Charcuterie, Saul's Delicatessen, Peet's Coffee, a fresh fish market, a fresh meat market, Black Oak Books, By Hand clothing, Zosaku fine crafts, Vivoli's Gelato, and other shops. The district was clean and folks cared even though you couldn't find a parking place for blocks.

Things started to go down not with the influx of the homeless, but when Denny Abrams --the public face of the Fourth Street Shopping District-- began poaching the most successful North Berkeley business for his project, which he continues to do to this day.

But, clearly, Denny is not alone to blame, we've become complacent.
We live in squalor and look right past it.

Recycling? Or garbage? Either case it's on the median in front of Black Oak Books.

Our landlords allow their storefronts to remain empty for years.

Once a thriving wineshop this storefront, and another around the corner on Vine, have been empty and neglected for years. Both are owned by Allen Connolly of Earthly Goods

Our merchants don't uniformly take pride in their sidewalks, their storefronts!

Long's loading dock or is it a garbage dump?

Imagine going to eat at Toyo's Japanese Restaurant and having to confront this!
Imagine going to Masse's Pastries to order your wedding cake, and having to smell this?

And we residents are as complicit through our indifference and disregard. We tolerate the decay.

Harsh words, I know, but this is what I saw walking around my neighborhood on Friday.

Anyone know why there's a garbage bag next to the trashcan on the corner of Vine and Shattuck on a Friday afternoon?

The ironic thing is that many of those businesses that were here in the early 1980s are still here today, or they have been replaced by very similar businesses.
Zozaku's gone but you can still find exquisite hand-made items at Terrestra.
Vivoli's gone but you can still by gelato in the Epicurious Garden.
The old wineshop is gone but Vintage Berkeley is bigger, better and prettier.
By Hand moved to Solano Avenue but we've four or five women's clothing shops in the neighborhood now.
The Cheeseboard is bigger and better than it was back then.
Black Oak Books is still open and hosting authors and selling books,
and Chez Panisse still serves world-class food to world's elite on a regular basis.

And the commercial rents are four or five times what they were in the early 1980s!!!
And homes in the neighborhood are literally selling for ten times what they sold for in the early 1980s!
Why do we tolerate this level of cleanliness? This might be acceptable in New York City, but this ain't New York City. This is one of the highest tax-paying neighborhoods in America!

Maybe what we need isn't a $3.5 million construction project/public plaza so much as a community clean up day!

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Space vs Use

(Originally posted on March 14, 2007 on a different blog)

What appears to be one of the most critical components of how public space is used is directly responsive to who has greatest access to the space created. In numerous examples around Berkeley, the public space is either used by one of three groups: merchants, neighbors, or the so-called 'homeless.'

The public spaces in Downtown Berkeley best exemplify all of these situations.

Near Berkeley High School, public space not controlled by merchants is divided between Berkeley's 'homeless' and Berkeley's high school age citizens. In all fairness, there are very few places in Berkeley, other than the abandoned public plazas, for that age group to congregate, and the 'homeless' tend to cluster in places close to would-be donors (both for safety and economic reasons).

This is easily seen all along Shattuck Avenue, but especially near the gelato shop Naia, near the Mel's Diner/Starbucks/UC Theater complex, near the Berkeley Main public library, and in portions of the Berkeley main BART plaza.

Adjoining the high schoolers in all these abandoned areas are those people we recognize as our derelict population, with persons clearly suffering from mental, physical, and substance-abuse problems in addition to their poverty.

The only large public areas in Downtown Berkeley not suffering from overuse and neglect are those areas most closely associated with on-going businesses capable of both utilizing the public space and maintaining those spaces.

Between Shattuck Avenue and Oxford Street, Center Street offers sidewalks wide enough to place a few tables next to the buildings and space for trees and other plantings against the street to create a barrier between the traffic and pedestrians and customers. The width of the Center Street sidewalk is approximately seven meters (22 feet).

Center Street, in that location, is unique and dissimilar to any area in North Berkeley in several important ways.
First, each day there are many thousands of commuters making the short walk from the Berkeley Main BART Station to the campus and back. Nowhere in North Berkeley is there the same flow of foot traffic.
Second, Center street is relatively isolated from most of the automotive traffic traversing Downtown and the street is narrow and easily crossed. Only Vine Street, between Shattuck Avenue and Walnut Street, replicates that level of moderated traffic and that ease of safe passage across the street.
Third, the adjoining Center Street businesses are predominantly food related, and are capable of using and maintaining the public space. This isn't the case anywhere in North Berkeley except along Shattuck Avenue between Cedar and Vine streets.

Still the businesses along Center Street face on-going problems with unacceptable, anti-social behavior from dysfunction persons in the downtown.

For an interesting comparison, just a few blocks from Center Street, an organically evolved, public space has been carved out by an unusual entrepreneur.

In this case, the city has reluctantly allowed a portable-trailer-based Brazilian Cafe to exist in an under-utilized parking lot. Frequently crowded from lunch through dinner, this micro business fills the street, the sidewalk, and the very air with its lively presence. Salsa and Samba music thunders over the street and the proprietor shouts out greetings to strangers and friends alike.

While MikeC and Olivier of Taste/Kitchen on Fire are similarly exuberant and vivacious, there's is a very different business model with little opportunity to expand into the public area.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Some new ideas, thoughts & pictures

(Originally posted on March 12, 2007 on a different blog)

Together, with honesty and openness, we can create something pleasant for our community. Together we can improve the safety of our district. Together we can improve the appearance and function of our neighborhood. Together we can create an environmental oasis in our part of Berkeley, where currently too many cars and trucks and ugly, impermeable asphalt hold sway.

A classic sidewalk cafe image from Paris in the 1920s.
Please note the traffic on the street at left, including public transportation.
Also see the closely clustered cafe tables, all within a short distance from the several cafes.

And then by way of comparison, here is what the corner heart of our little community looks like, seen from Shattuck at Vine.

I do believe we can do better.

Unfortunately up to this point the process of has been tainted by unrestrained arrogance and bald-faced dishonesty. While we have good reason not to trust at least one of the people behind this plaza, that's not a good reason for us to turn our backs on improved safety, improved accessibility and environmental enhancements, especially if those can come about without harming the merchants or costing the residents.

Look now at the sidewalk we're hoping to improve.

Here is what a sidewalk looks like when it's abandoned by it community, when the merchants and shoppers and neighbors don't own the heart of their neighborhood.

There are many designers, landscape architects and city planners in our neighborhood. We're not stuck with only one plan if we are engaged in the process. And the results are worth working for.