Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Long past time for improvements in the North Shattuck Commercial District

Northside neighbors,
It is past time for the city of Berkeley to complete its long-delayed civic improvements in the North Shattuck commercial district. Approximately eight years ago, after intensive community involvement, a program of modest, incremental, civic improvements was created and approved by the community and the city council. That program became stalled when Planning Commission member David Stoloff initiated his 'grand' North Shattuck Plaza plan. Mr. Stoloff's scheme is dead, but the problems remain. Among those is the necessary redesign of the intersection at Shattuck Avenue and Vine Street.

The current design of that intersection is murderously and poorly conceived. The city has planned pedestrian bulb-outs there, which will make walking across that intersection much safer. In the last 20 plus years, that intersection has been the site of least two pedestrian deaths. My youngest son saw one of those accidents, where a young pregnant woman was torn in half. There have been many more less horrific accidents, and many more near misses.

While it's just a hop across the crosswalk for the young and agile, for those moving more slowly it is a journey too dangerous and too far, with too many distracted motorists gunning desperately for that 'last' parking space. Like many elderly in our neighborhood, my 82-year-old mother-in-law refuses to attempt to cross Shattuck Avenue at Vine Street if she can't begin her journey immediately upon the light turning green. She’s not alone. I see elderly pedestrians standing out in traffic regularly at that intersection.

Complicating the problems is that Safeway has announced it plans to double its size in North Berkeley. Less than a block away, this will dramatically and dangerously increase both pedestrian and automotive traffic at the intersection of Vine and Shattuck.

Again returning to the plan already designed and approved eight years ago, the barren, useless and underutilized concrete peninsula in front of Coldwell Banker's realty firm is too small to be effectively re-purposed and too large to be wasted as no more than a plinth for newspaper stands. That wasteland is a perfect place to transition from the current, sad strip-mall aesthetics to something more environmentally friendly, more pedestrian friendly and more attractive for all of the users of this community. Make it greener, make it safer, make it better looking and more useful!!!

Any revitalization of North Berkeley's critically important shopping district must also address the disgraceful condition of the sidewalk fronting the shops along the eastern side of Shattuck Avenue between Vine and Rose streets. So many contractors have hacked into it over the decades that it more resembles a washboard than a place to stroll.

Additionally, now that Saul's Deli and Masse's Pastries offer outside seating, the width of the sidewalk is too narrow for both tables and pedestrians. Like hundreds of shoppers each day, I use the tables and chairs in front of Saul's Deli and Masse's Pastries. Every single time I sit there I see folks get blocked up and stuck between the seated diners and the storefronts – legs tangled in dog-leashes, wheelchair users forced to beg for passage, babes and their mothers playing bumper-cars with their strollers. Every time I have a cup of coffee out in front of Masse's Pastry I see vehicles bump into my fellow diners. It's a serious injury-accident waiting to happen. A great example of how that sidewalk should work can be found in front of the French Hotel where the city created a slightly widened sidewalk that allows both uses while also making it safer to cross the street from the post office.

By failing to address the concerns of merchants in the area the Stoloff 'Grand Plaza Plan' united much of the residential community against that proposal, but not against any improvements. At every meeting I attended, both public and private, the vast majority of those in attendance were in favor of modest, incremental, ecologically sound improvements. Unfortunately there also were always a few loudmouths who screeched out their complaints (out of turn) and made ridiculous inflammatory personal attacks. As a result each public meeting had fewer and fewer folks in attendance. One of the few neighborhood community meetings that actually accomplished its goals, and didn't dissolve in rancor, was the North Berkeley Vision Committee chaired by Linda Bargmeyer.

There were two key points developed by that group, both of which were endorsed by two of the area's neighborhood associations. The first point is called 'Goodness of Living':
“We want North Berkeley to remain a strong and cohesive neighborhood community, not a domain of anonymity. We do not want it transformed into a high-density city, like San Francisco. We want to increase opportunities to interact with neighbors, friends, and business owners and their employees, which includes protecting neighborhood streets from the incursion of high-volume traffic; and, promoting the needs of children, teenagers and seniors.”

'Goodness' is defined as a strong sense of community; close proximity to nature; the availability of quiet and environmentally safe public transportation; close proximity to intellectual, cultural, and outdoor activities; opportunities to participate in the democratic process and influence living conditions; opportunities to know and interact with neighbors; opportunities to savor good food and drink; access to vibrant and diversified local shops; an ability to preserve our connection to the past; the opportunity to understand diverse people; and the ability to afford living here.
The second key factor was protecting our small independent businesses:
“Businesses are an integral part of our community. Some of the local businesses are particularly excellent and are models for the kind of customer/business relationship that we desire and would like to foster. These businesses have excellent products as well as excellent customer interaction. We know many of the owners and their employees. We care whether they survive.

“We would like to support small, independent businesses by improving what we have, not by … increasing the financial burden of current proprietors. We are concerned about raising rents. We are also concerned that the construction process itself can drive current proprietors out of business. Therefore, if there is to be change, it should be incremental rather than massively disruptive.”

If the community and the city can work within those constraints, not only will we preserve and improve our contributions to the local sales tax base, we’ll improve our neighborhood as well.

-- Fred Dodsworth

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