Last Saturday I attended the “Visioning” meeting of the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC). It is hard to find much to recommend about the usual “going through the motions of community input” workshop. But the upbeat attitude of the sub-group in which I participated made it enjoyable. Rather than the usual listing of problems, we started by listing the strong points of downtown Berkeley. So I came away with my own list of downtown’s assets and a renewed sense of regret at the threat posed to our city center by the mayor’s deal with the university.
Consider some of the current downtown Berkeley plusses:
Music: The Jazzschool, Jupiter, Anna’s Jazz Island, Becketts, The Down-Low Lounge, with Freight and Salvage coming ... soon?
Berkeley Central Library, not only a world class library but the site of many special events produced by the Arts and Music Department.
Three movie theaters with 22 screens.
Legitimate theater: The Aurora and Berkeley Rep have three stages; The Marsh uses the theater in the Gaia Building occasionally (but that’s another story).
Great variety of restaurants in ethnicity, price and ambiance.
Convenient to BART and AC Transit.
Plenty of parking.
People on the street late into the evening.
So when people say that downtown is dead perhaps they should look again.
They should look again at the mythical lack of parking. When they say there is no parking they must mean there is no parking at meters in front of their destination because there are any number of parking garages within a few steps to two blocks of all of the places listed above. If it were true that we lacked parking, it is still of no moment because in a couple of years, after the Berkeley Megabowl is completed, the traffic snarl at Ashby and San Pablo will stop people from neighboring communities and across the Bay from coming downtown except by BART.
It is true that downtown is dead as far as retail. Retail interests have visions of downtown being lined with small shops like College or Solano avenues, but developers have bought up all the available real estate and sent rents into the stratosphere, which has brought on a wholesale exodus of the small owner-run shops. Should we just sit by and watch as the Invasion of the Land Snatchers makes its final grasp? What if we had actually been invited to the DAPAC public meeting to be heard rather than as a cover for their schemes to obliterate all vestiges of downtown as we know it.
If I had a voice I would describe a downtown that is a cultural mecca with multi-purpose performance and exhibition spaces in our lovely, old, well-proportioned buildings. I can see Shattuck Avenue with sidewalk cafes full of residents of all ages who live in affordable, height-limited apartments. (Now only students can afford the high rents. For some reason there are few older people who want to sleep in bunk beds with five roommates). Then, as more and more people want to live downtown, a new vitality would make Shattuck Avenue a place everyone could enjoy. The air would be clear as people ride their bikes, walk or take the non-polluting buses that run every few minutes.
Why isn’t that within our reach? Greed in Berkeley? Not Berkeley, the home of Mario Savio and the Free Speech Movement, not Berkeley that for some reason remains a symbol of a progressive city. We need to face the fact that Berkeley is the Neo-Con of cities and is in serious danger of being exposed for the fraud it is.
We were probably done for when, in the dark of night, the city climbed in bed with the giant corporation that looms over us.
But if enough people take a hard look at the current power structure and make some significant changes in November, there is an outside chance that we may keep our human proportions.
Bonnie Hughes is the director of the Berkeley Arts Festival.