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Common Ground | The controversy over the North Shattuck Plaza shows how, in Berkeley, designing public space is a public process. By Lauri Puchall

Imagine sipping a cappuccino at lunch and watching a stream of locals and visitors pass by under a canopy of leaves. In the plaza, a man pulls up a chair to share pizza with friends. As the workday winds down, the Farmers’ Market, in full throttle, draws throngs of pedestrians to its open-air stalls. Children perched atop a large rock picnic on fresh strawberries or scramble up and down while their parents shop.

The imagined scene is based on suggestions property owners made during initial meetings designed to explore the form a public plaza in North Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto could take. A nonprofit organization, North Shattuck Plaza Inc., (NSPI) was formed last year with the express purpose of funding the vision and getting it built. An early plaza proposal by their landscape architect converted parking spaces in front of Black Oak Books, Saul’s Deli and Bing Wong Laundromat at Shattuck between Rose and Vine into a public promenade with an additional 55 trees and 15,000 square feet of green urban public space.

“We want a lively place that will work every day of the week from nine in the morning until ten at night and the Farmers’ Market will be part of it,” says David Stoloff, chair of NSPI. According to Stoloff, a retired member of the Berkeley Planning Commission, the plaza would become a hub for the neighborhood, like the plaza at Peet’s Coffee in West Berkeley on Fourth Street, but with its own unique character.

If North Shattuck Plaza becomes a reality, the already delectable neighborhood could become wildly more popular. But not everyone thinks that is a good thing. Vocal critics raise concerns about insufficient parking, increased traffic and excessive panhandling. The overriding apprehension is that simple pleasures—like browsing at the neighborhood bookstore, and selecting the perfect pastry—may disappear if the current commercial mix is disrupted.

After a meeting in February during which residents complained about being shut out of the design process, progress on any one scheme came to a halt, forcing the nonprofit NSPI to take a step back. Project supporters have since reorganized around building consensus on what type of public space and amenities would be appropriate for the area. An ad hoc committee consisting of representatives from neighborhood groups, including Live Oak/Cordonices Creek Neighborhood Association (LOCCNA), merchants and plaza advocates, will meet for the next few months to hash out the issues.

Areas of concern include parking, merchant needs, managing public behavior, and, more importantly, who gets to decide what happens in the public realm.

Members of the community, including 30-year resident Art Goldberg, enjoy the neighborhood pretty much as it is, although he agrees it could be improved or “spruced up a bit” without sacrificing parking, making drastic changes or spending a bundle of money.

“The project is poorly designed. It is not what the neighborhood or merchants want, and it will put a lot of people out of business,” argues Goldberg, who was nominated to the new plaza committee. He fears a project on the scale of what NSPI advocated is a prelude to high-rise development.

Other stakeholders, however, are quick to point out that real estate development is in no way tied to the plaza project. “This project has come from the bottom up,” says Cathy Goldsmith, a worker/owner at the Cheesboard Collective and BID board member for the past three years. “It didn’t come from a developer. It came from the community.” She says the Cheesboard supports the plaza if the community supports the plaza.

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The area’s identity, once focused on food and literature, is evolving as new businesses such as Epicurious Garden and Elephant Pharmacy move in and fixtures such as Black Oak Books—for reasons unrelated to the proposed plaza—threaten to move out.

North Berkeley, known the world over as the home of Chez Panisse and birthplace of California cuisine, remains the epicenter of epicurean arts. But it is also turning into the hip, healthy corner of Berkeley. One may pick up a jute yoga mat at Elephant Pharmacy, roll it out at Yogakula, the studio across the street, and then recharge at Café Gratitude, where each item on the menu—such as “I Am Healthy,” a kale and celery elixir—is also an affirmation. Each stop on the path to health or hedonism is within easy walking distance of the next.

Yet the vibrant neighborhood is also home to therapists, hair stylists, real estate agents and the like­—as well as residents. Many want simply to keep it a viable place to live and work.

Forty properties and 150 businesses make up the North Shattuck Business Improvement District, or BID, created in 2001 at the behest of the local business community. Its scope encompasses properties along Shattuck Avenue from Delaware, running up Vine past Walnut Square to the original Peet’s Coffee and Tea, and culminating at Rose Street.

The BID (also known as the North Shattuck Association), headed by Executive Director Heather Hensley, outlined a program for the plaza that reflects the neighborhood’s culinary and emerging health-conscious image.

Movable tables and chairs, like those in New York City’s Bryant Park, more than twice as many trees (mainly drought-tolerant natives) and features such as climbing rocks or public sculpture could make the plaza a place where people want to spend time—and money. The plaza could contain a kiosk operated by a local food purveyor and public restrooms (requested by the Ecology Center that runs the Farmers’ Market). Permeable paving to prevent additional water runoff could replace asphalt.

Hensley says her group paid for early engineering and design work to develop ideas from a 2000 plan from Design, Community & Environment, a Berkeley firm.

“What we should have done was go to the larger community before we started the work,” Hensley says. “But we wanted something for people to respond to. It’s a Catch-22.”


Early iteration: One plan on the table for North Shattuck Plaza could be scrapped for other ideas. Click on this image for a larger version. Image courtesy Meyer + Silberberg Land Architects. Click image for a larger version.

It is this seemingly rapid progression of the project without including diverse and dissenting voices at the table that made plaza detractors uneasy.

“Neighbors felt railroaded,” says Margit Roos-Collins, who lives two and a half blocks away. Roos-Collins says that by the time news of the proposed plaza project became public in 2006, supporters were claiming they had approval from the Berkeley City Council. But as it turned out, approval was for the plan that encompassed the entire business district from Delaware to Rose, outlined six years earlier by Design, Community & Environment. And that plan included a concept for the plaza that was smaller and left more parking near shops, she says.

Roos-Collins is concerned that the cost of a pricey project will show up in increased rents, something that Black Oak Books could not survive. She voices a popular opinion: Whatever changes are good for Black Oak, that could help keep the local landmark in the neighborhood, are those she wants. Roos-Collins advocates focusing on what residents do want for the neighborhood, preserving what works and fixing what doesn’t.

It is universally agreed that the blank wall of Long’s Drugs is an eyesore, she says, and that people want to see more trees. “What works is the parking. Parking has kept businesses alive,” she insists.

Goldsmith, from the Cheeseboard, agrees that it’s hard to bring people to the neighborhood if they are worried about where to park, but she emphasizes the benefits of “beautification” including the addition of trees and greenery.

The pro-plaza contingent points to the nervy practice of Cheeseboard patrons savoring pizza slices on the grassy median wedged between four lanes of traffic as evidence that the neighborhood needs adequate public space.

In response to early criticism, BID members have consistently maintained they are committed to a “parking-neutral” approach, meaning that for every parking space displaced, another must be added. A minority believe that from transit and design perspectives, this middle-of-the-road position generates unnecessary constraints.

“The North Shattuck Association has worked tirelessly to make the project ‘parking-neutral’ to address concerns raised by some locals that the loss of parking would have a detrimental impact on the immediate area and businesses. I did not require that this wonderful improvement project be parking-neutral,” explains Peter Hillier, assistant city manager for transportation.

Creating a wide promenade off the shops calls for sacrificing the existing diagonal parking spots in front of businesses including Masse’s Pastries and Saul’s Deli. Early schemes replace those spots with a new parking lot on the block-long fork of “old” Shattuck now closed to cars during the Thursday Farmers’ Market. The new parking lot would close at least the two-lanes to through traffic permanently.

Thus far, parking-neutral and parking-increase schemes either thread a narrow promenade between two parking lots or cut the promenade short, terminating in a double parking lot. Cars would hem in the plaza.

According to local historians Richard Schwartz and Jerry Sulliger, current road configurations and the wedge-shaped parcel where LoCoco’s Restaurant is today were created in the early 1950s to redirect traffic along a major thoroughfare after the dissolution of the Key Route system. It is an example of how Berkeley altered the infrastructure of the city to accommodate the automobile.

In contrast, the driving force pushing the creation of North Shattuck Plaza is the accommodation of pedestrians.

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But it is not only the possibility of decreasing the overall number of available spaces that raises hackles. It’s also about proximity to businesses, especially for elderly or disabled patrons.

Landscape Architect David Meyer, whose firm Meyer + Silberberg is working for NSPI, is not new to contentiousness surrounding parking. A decade ago his previous firm designed a multifaceted urban park in Toronto on the site of an old parking lot over a subway station. The controversial project proved to be a commercial success, attracting shoppers and tourists to the area and boosting business at local boutiques.

In Toronto, says Meyer, they removed 75 parking spaces and did not replace a single one. “The overall neighborhood was wise enough to know that, outside the concern for parking of businesses, the park would benefit the entire neighborhood,” says Meyer.

Meyer concedes that his plan for North Shattuck Plaza is compromised because of parking. Adding a new parking lot breaks the connection to the north, he says, and eliminates space for a children’s play area.

“It is unfortunate that parking has become a battleground,” Meyer says.

According to Stoloff, of the 100 people who attended the first public meeting, 15 to 20 had concerns that eliminating the angle parking would adversely affect the character of the area.

Unlike Toronto’s Village of Yorkville Park, North Shattuck is not atop a subway stop. Most people who visit the area of the proposed North Shattuck Plaza arrive by car.

According to those involved in the project, the only plan for enhancing public transit is the creation of new bus stop bulbouts along Shattuck. There has been some talk of creating a shuttle from BART to Solano and North Shattuck, but no definite plans are underway.

The BID’s executive director, Hensley, has been engaging the businesses one by one to try to address their concerns surrounding parking and cars.

The Bing Wong Laundromat, explains Hensley, has a legitimate concern about patrons parking near enough to drop off and pick up their laundry. No one wants to schlep loads of dirty laundry several blocks. Hensley suggested that select parking spots with short-term meters be used for drop-offs. She encouraged the owners to consider what it would be like for the business to open onto a bustling public plaza, and expand their services to include vending machines or other concessions. The business rejected her suggestions.

Hensley says her job is about economic development and ways for businesses to “adapt to rather than fight change.” The neighborhood must reach a consensus regarding the plan within the next year and a half, according to Hensley. Then NSPI can start raising the appropriate funds. Once some funding is secure, the BID plans to apply for matching grants specifically geared toward pedestrian improvements.

Meyer gives a rough estimate for the plaza project budget as $3.5 million, subject to change. Because the plaza will be privately created and funded, several organizations must cobble together funding from multiple sources to pay for it all.

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The BID’s total operating budget—which includes marketing of events like the annual Spice of Life festival and the upcoming Art Walk on May 19, and maintenance for the neighborhood, such as daily street-sweeping—is just $160,000 annually.

If and when the plaza is built, the city of Berkeley will own and manage it as public space, receiving help from the BID while it is still active.

Berkeley has a history of civic involvement in creating public places. The former Hillside Club was instrumental in creating Bernard Maybeck’s Rose Walk (1913) off Euclid near the Berkeley Rose Garden. Halcyon Commons is a more recent example of neighbors creating a park in public space in a South Berkeley residential neighborhood.

North Shattuck Plaza “is not unique in that business improvement districts typically advocate for needed improvements,” says Michael Caplan, acting manager of the City of Berkeley’s Office of Economic Development. However, he believes North Shattuck Plaza takes streetscape improvements to another level.

The project is unusual in another respect. Meyer points out that North Shattuck Plaza would be the area’s only significant public gathering space. “When you see people on the meridian eating pizza, sucking in gas fumes, surely there is an opportunity to give them a more humane place to gather,” he says.

Meyer is disappointed that a community that prides itself on progressive planning and environmentalism would allow fears over parking to scuttle efforts toward a new green plaza in a thriving neighborhood that could provide a model for the city.

Tom Ford, a BID board member and lead urban designer at Design, Community & Environment, says the plan got a little ahead of itself, but is not dead. “I think something is going to happen. The neighborhood didn’t say, ‘Go away.’” He believes solutions will come from a broader cross-section of people and a more inclusive discussion.
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Alternative plans for the plaza can be seen at
http://home.comcast.net/~loccna/ns/index.html

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Lauri Puchall writes about architecture and the environment. In addition to her regular column in The Monthly, she writes for ArchitectureWeek.

 
An unrequited vision? This architect’s rendition of the proposed North Shattuck Plaza from the corner of Vine and Shattuck might be stalled, overhauled or simply shut down as a public process among neighbors and business owners continues to unfold. Image courtesy Meyer + Silberberg Land Architects.