“Berkeley ponders Telegraph Ave. upgrade”? Well,maybe

By Becky O'Malley
Friday March 01, 2013 - 11:56:00 AM
Carol Denney

This just in: Absolutely Nothing Happened.

Nothing. Zilch. Nada .

Film at 11: presumably blank.

Yet another posse riding into town to save Telegraph turned out to be a few old guys riding sagging nags.

If you’re one of the old-timers who still reads the print Chronicle at home, you may have seen the big photo above the fold in Thursday’s paper, complete with big headline:

Seedy Street may blossom

Telegraph Avenue changes ahead

It was accompanied by breathless prose

Telegraph Avenue, in all its scruffy 1960s revolutionary glory, is headed for a 21st century overhaul. And - hang on to your Mao hat - that probably means more chain stores. Determined to clean up the iconic strip south of the UC campus, Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates is embarking on a makeover of Telegraph Avenue, looking at everything from traffic laws to the retail mix. The first step is a community gathering with neighbors, merchants, students, city staff and others to figure out what's wrong with Telegraph and how it can be saved. 


Okay, I admit it, I’m a sucker. This community gathering was even touted on the jump page as a “brainstorming” session. 

What’s that? Ask Aunty Wikipedia

“Brainstorming is a group or individual creativity technique by which efforts are made to find a conclusion for a specific problem by gathering a list of ideas spontaneously contributed by its member(s).” 

NOT! I know. I foolishly sacrificed a perfectly good Thursday night to what turned out to be an interminable parade of illegible Power Points delivered by the usual suspects, emceed by Berkeley’s Mayor-for-life Tom Bates, now in his eleventh year of presiding over not-much-happening. What didn’t happen last night was brainstorming. 

The event was scheduled from 6 to 7:30 in the auditorium of Willard Middle School, which is on Telegraph just south of the commercial strip. But when Bates took the mike about 6:15, he announced a whole string of speakers intended to provide background on what’s up these days with Telegraph, presumably aimed at attendees who hadn’t been there lately. 

Since I’d been suckered about a year ago into attending a similar gathering in a Telegraph-area church, that one billed as a “charette”, just about everything these folks had to say was not new to me, nor presumably to many of those present, quite of few of whom I recognized as the usual suspects, planning addicts who believe in the face of all evidence that well-paid staff planners might sometime take their opinions seriously. 

This category includes most of the city council members, only one of whom even showed up at this meeting. That one, Councilmember Kriss Worthington, is not so easily fooled. He pointed out that the council had passed—unanimously, three years in a row—a resolution calling for legal changes to allow building-based merchants to vend their wares from sidewalk tables, as their counterparts can in Santa Cruz and many other cities, and it still hadn’t been implemented by city staff. 

(Sidebar for political paranoids: Also present, though silent, was one Ces Rosales, who ran against Kriss in 2010, endorsed by Bates, and might be planning a 2014 run. Could this meeting be a play to set her up?) 

The mayor’s beloved alma mater held center stage, as usual. Once again, a U.C. planner showed architectural drawings too dim to be read from the audience which outlined what was going on with the big construction project on Bancroft which has seriously disrupted Telegraph activities. 

Noteworthy was her characterization, which I’d heard a year ago from someone, maybe her, of U.C.’s Lower Sproul Plaza as a disaster. Well, I tend to agree with her, since all I’ve seen it used for recently is group dance moves in which students seem to be channeling robots, but just for the record I’d like to recall that the old Chronicle’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning architectural critic Alan Temko characterized Lower Sproul as being a close second to Venice’s Piazza San Marco as a thriving public space. 

Then there was the ubiquitous Matt Taecker, the consultant who authored the city’s Downtown Plan, most recently seen as the paid advocate for the first developer who’s stepped up to exploit the concessions in said plan. He primarily re-iterated the charrette results, such as they were, with the main achievement in the elapsed year seemly seducing U.C. into funding the addition of a bunch of fairy lights along the Ave in the not too distant future. 

And also, the obligatory city employee from the Office of Economic Development, who presented another illegible Power Point graph revealing that [*SURPRISE*] sales on Telegraph are down. Yes, sure, and also, which he did mention but did not stress, bookstores and record stores all over the country have lost out to Amazon and the like, and also we have been experiencing a national recession, right? No amount of fairy lights on Telly will reverse these trends. 

He also kvetched about the number of vacancies in retail storefronts, and opined that maybe more clothing stores, perhaps some chains, might do the trick. Well, whatever happened to the Gap, which used to be there didn’t it? And when we had a high-tech start-up on the second floor of the building which now houses Rasputin’s, there was a Southern California clothing chain, Miller’s Outpost, on the first floor, which was a dismal flop even during the Clinton boom years. 

All in all, these tedious presentations lasted until at least 7:15, leaving only a quarter of an hour for any possible “brainstorming” which might have engaged the restless audience. It peaked at about 100, including many obvious professional staffers paid to be there, but by the time they got a chance to speak most of the liveliest civic activists I recognized had left, probably dangerously bored. 

Perhaps ten people lined up at the open mike for their three minutes of “spontaneous creative activity”, recorded for posterity by someone’s TV cameras. The crazy quotient didn’t rise above about 20%, which is pretty good for gatherings of this kind in Berkeley, but what most of the others had to say was unremarkable. 

A woebegone student who claimed to have sunk his student loans and tuition money into launching a food truck venture lamented that he’d been evicted from Bancroft and Telegraph by the U.C. construction there. A neighborhood mom wished for more retail that didn’t feature tattoos and chains. An artist street vendor wished that vendors and in-store retailers could just get along. 

The elephant in the room was the key intersection of Haste and Telegraph, where three out of the four corners are now unoccupied because of two fires and the failure of Cody’s Books. One of the fires, destroying the Berkeley Inn, happened 27 years ago, during the last 10 of which Tom Bates has been mayor, and nothing has been built in its place. 

Two of the three parcels are owned by Ken Sarachan (whose rehabbed Rasputin’s building on the next corner coincidentally added carvings of elephants.) Ken’s interaction with the city of Berkeley reminds me of Uncle Remus’s story about the Wonderful Tar Baby

Bre’r Fox made a baby out of tar to snare the unsuspecting Bre’r Rabbit. In the version of the story I know, it’s not revealed whether or not Bre’r Fox ever ate Bre’r Rabbit, but the refrain is “Bre’r Fox, he lay low” while he watched Bre’r Rabbit getting stuck. 

Ken lay low in the audience last night, chatting with key players but not saying anything, nor was he invited to do so as far as I could determine. Yet his plans for his two sites, along with some for the third corner where the Sequoia burned down, have recently gotten a good bit of publicity and might even be making their way through the approval process. Putting appropriate buildings there would do a great deal to make Telegraph more vital. Are his plans tar babies, or the real deal? 

Someone somewhere seems to have a new stake in what will happen on Telegraph. The Chronicle piece reeked of some semi-sophisticated public relations person feeding the Telly revival story to a gullible reporter. At least one parallel gushy promotional preview appeared on TV Channel 7’s online page and perhaps even on television, though that could have just been a “rip and read” phenomenon, television re-reporting what was in the morning papers. 

The most intelligent comments of the evening, crisply delivered within his allotted three minutes, came from frequent Planet contributor Steve Finacom, who walks the length of the Telegraph commercial strip at least twice every day on his way to work. He challenged the theory that there are excessive vacancies with actual observational data, supported by a two-page handout complete with spreadsheet, which documented a very respectable 89% occupancy rate. He’s promised to supply his analysis for Planet readers, including his spreadsheet and other cogent observations, so watch for them in this space. 

But don’t expect to hear about any “21st century overhaul” of Telegraph happening any time soon. . Significantly, the sfgate.com Chronicle headline writer substituted the judicious headline reproduced at the top of this piece, Berkeley ponders Telegraph Ave. upgrade, for the heavy-breathing one which appeared on the print front page. Something might materialize, but as I frequently advise about Berkeley’s grandiose planning extravaganzas, don’t hold your breath