The DAPAC recently recommended limiting the options for a future design study of the Center Street corridor in Downtown Berkeley to that of closure to vehicular traffic (except for service and loading) and allowance for a maximum feasible creek. In making this recommendation, the DAPAC has rejected alternate street right of way considerations that would accommodate vehicular traffic and/or parking in some manner.
There are precedents throughout the country for “pedestrianization” of a street corridor, some with full closure and some with partial closure of the street to vehicular traffic.
A number of cities have made such a change with distinct success. Santa Monica’s conversion of 3rd Street to a 3-block long vehicle-free pedestrian precinct has established it as a renowned urban destination and it is a lively commercial success. It, apparently, took 3 tries, but they finally got it right. Boulder, Colorado is another impressive success story, and there are other similar examples that are excellent models for us to consider. It is likely that the DAPAC members had these successes in mind for closure of the key Center Street block in downtown Berkeley. It is a very compelling image and of real interest to many people in Berkeley, including me.
There are, on the other hand, at least as many dramatic examples of total street closures that have failed. Reasons for failure frequently cited include, among others, insufficient visitor traffic for viable commercial activity; poor visibility and ineffective promotion; poor maintenance; and perceived safety problems. A thriving industry has evolved over the past few years to re-open and re-energize streets once enthusiastically closed to vehicular traffic. These retrofits often maintain broad sidewalks and other amenities of a full pedestrian precinct at certain times, while allowing vehicles and limited parking as a slow street at other times. These failures and retrofits offer important lessons for cities contemplating new street closures.
I trust that DAPAC members weighed the lessons of failed street closures, as well as the successes, when coming to their recommendation. They are responsible for filtering rational choices for public benefit. However, the reporting of their action does not reveal how or why they believe closing downtown Berkeley’s most successful commercial street to vehicles will avoid the failures seen elsewhere, or what the measure of success would be. The certainty of their recommendation and rejection of the study of options calls for a clear explanation. This is not a matter to be left to intuition and faith alone. There is too much at stake for the community at large as well as for those directly and personally at risk.
If an honest assessment of real options has occurred, it must be shared with and evaluated by the community during the next design phases. If not, it must be done in order for the community to make an informed and rational choice. We, as a whole community, may ultimately wish to "give pedestrianization a chance", but we first need to understand the implications of our choices.
John N. Roberts is the owner of John northmore Roberts & Associates, Landscape Architecture and Land Planning.