(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.