“E” Meets “P”: The Question of Parking in Downtown Berkeley Comes to a Head

Merchants and arts organizations fear that parking problems may choke the city's reviving downtown area; enviros are unmoved

By Berkeley’s standards, the atmosphere in the city’s second-floor conference room last Thursday was subdued. Planning commissioners, city staffers, and representatives from community groups sat in comfy chairs around a long table, listening politely to each presenter in turn. There was none of the contentious debate or barbed snipes that have marked other city planning efforts. And yet the ideas that surfaced in this mild gathering may signal a major shift in the character of the city. What’s at stake is no less than the vision for downtown Berkeley.Readers may be excused for thinking there already is a vision. After all, major efforts to revamp retail have paid off in a base of successful shops; the city’s investment in an arts and theater district has encouraged a remarkable growth of cultural venues, performance space, and restaurants. Now, Mayor Shirley Dean and her business community allies say this growth needs to be supported and enhanced by steadily adding to arts attractions, increasing retail and–above all–providing adequate parking for customers, diners, and theatergoers.

Enter the planning commissioners at last week’s subcommittee meeting. They were gathered to discuss a particular development site–the city-owned parking lot on Oxford between Allston and Kittredge. What happens to the site is a key marker for the future: sure, it could be turned into an expanded parking garage, but many on the planning commission envision something much grander –a project that would make the city a model for environmentalists and urban planners everywhere. Why build more parking, they argue, if we can create a downtown that convinces people to take public transit? Why require developers to provide parking spots for new housing units, if we can effect social change by building car-free apartments? And above all, why settle for the status quo when we could plan for radical change?

The parking debate is coming to a head in Berkeley on several fronts. The city recently released its Traffic Demands Management study, a staff report that found that many parking spots in the downtown-university area are underutilized, and recommended that better management of parking through signs, plus boosting the use of public transit, could solve parking problems. While turmoil bubbled over the interpretation of this new set of data, last week the planning commission hosted a well-attended public hearing on the parking element proposed for the city’s revised General Plan, which business interests complain places a moratorium on new parking. And now come new suggestions for the Oxford site–the place where decisions about parking will probably first be tested.

Developers have long been eyeing the asphalt lot, prime real estate in the growing downtown market. It backs up to Cancun Taqueria and the so-called Gaia building, expected to open in mid-July. Across Allston will be Oak Court, a housing complex with parking for residents and a public sculpture garden; it’s also the new home of the Judah L. Magnes Jewish Museum. On the other side of Oxford lies the university, and a few blocks away is the BART station. Every developer in town had his eyes set on this prize, and one–the Gaia building’s Patrick Kennedy–even jumped the gun by throwing a reception for his proposal last fall, long before the city had specified its requirements for the site. Kennedy proposed tripling the capacity of the parking lot (bringing it from 130 spots to about 400), building 150 housing units (25 percent of which would be designated low-income), and offering some kind of cultural use on the ground floor–the Berkeley Art Center was one possibility.

But, as Councilmember Linda Maio says, “Just because someone has an idea doesn’t mean it’s their baby.” The council directed the planning commission to develop ideas, outlining two key goals for the building: a multi-purpose arts space and as much affordable housing as possible. Under the leadership of Planning Commission Chair Rob Wrenn, a proposal for simply replacing the existing 130 parking spots while building car-free housing above began to take shape.

Then a coalition of environmentalists proposed building fifty to seventy square feet of “affordable housing for nonprofits” at the site, which they wanted to call the David Brower Center, after the late environmentalist. When Peter Buckley and David Phillips of the Earth Island Insitute presented their idea at the planning commission subcommittee meeting, Buckley explained that before he died last year, Brower had supported the idea.

The goal is to provide a centralized spot for a wide range of environmentalists to network; the offices would house Earth Island Institute, Rainforest Action Network, the International Rivers Network, and a handful of other groups that could cover topics such as environmental justice, labor, and nature photography, says Phillips. These groups would also need some kind of theater or seminar space, which would nicely overlap with the City Council’s desire for cultural use in the building. “Dave Brower’s vision of environmentalism was very broad and inclusive–it’s environmentalism with a big ‘E,'” Phillips explains. “It’s meant to be so inclusive that when you walk into the place, you will feel like you’re part of the synergy.”

If the planning commissioners’ subcommittee has its way, there will be plenty in this building to feel synergistic about. Wrenn seems to be the commissioner who has most eagerly embraced the idea of the Brower Center, and he sees it as an opportunity to try out a host of other environment-friendly projects: car-sharing, utility bikes, and green building techniques such as using solar panels, energy-efficient heating and insulation, and recycled materials.

But there are plenty of other ideas for what else should be part of the development, and by the time the subcommittee meeting had finished, the proposal was bulging at the seams: don’t forget we want a grocery store on site, said one commissioner, while another reminded everyone that the Berkeley Arts Center still needs gallery space. When Pedal Express owner David Cohen presented his ideas for a new utility-bike dealership, commissioners wondered if he could be squeezed in, too. Maybe the adjacent California Theater–burdened with seismic weaknesses and in need of renovation–could be purchased and added to the package, suggested commissioner Susan Wengraf. Wrenn suggested closing off Allston Way to through traffic at the Oxford Street end and making a pedestrian square with the taqueria spilling out onto the sidewalk. Eventually, a rough idea of the building began to take shape: underground parking to replace the existing spots; one floor of retail and cultural uses at sidewalk level; one floor of nonprofit office space; and three floors of housing, amounting to about a hundred units that would include apartments for families.

The Brower Center itself couldn’t quite encompass all of these ideas, so the environmental coaltion would not be the lead developer. “We’re hoping to embed ourselves in a larger project,” Buckley told the commissioners. “We’ll pay our own way completely, and we’ll raise enough to operate the shared multi-purpose facilities.” A more experienced housing developer would take the lead; veterans Affordable Housing Associates and Resources for Community Development were both in attendance. Given the many hopes pinned to the location, does such a multifaceted project seem feasible? “In Berkeley, the council is very open to allowing everybody to have their word,” says AHA executive director Ali Kashani. “At the end of the day, what gets built is what’s more pragmatic and practical.”

The Brower Center idea went before the City Council this Tuesday. Maio, who sponsored the agenda item, pitched the idea as a “merging of the arts and environmental communities.” But while the idea of a shared multi-use cultural space will appeal to some arts organizations, the fact that the planning commission seems to be moving in the direction of planning no new parking for the site is a huge negative to many people. When the commission discussed its revisions to the general plan–including a stipulation that no new city-owned parking spots will be built until significant attempts have been made to reduce parking demand–even the arts and cultural organizations showed up to complain. The city’s recent study on parking didn’t take into account the many new performance venues opening up downtown. That’s 1,200 new theater seats, zero new parking spots. “We’d like to make it as easy for people to get to the arts district as possible,” says Freight and Salvage executive director Steve Baker, who is moving the music club downtown. “We draw from all over the Bay Area, so there are going to be some people in automobiles. The city has a lot of money invested–and we do too. I would hate to throw an arts district and have nobody show up.”

Business interests worry that without more parking, customers will choose to take their business elsewhere. “Access is the lifeblood of business,” says Chamber of Commerce chief executive officer Rachel Rupert. “We’re not saying we’re downright adamant that we have to have a large parking garage, but we’re saying you can’t take it out of the downtown plan. It’s going to get worse over the next five years, and we should leave the door open.”

Businesses have the support of Mayor Dean, who argues that downtown growth is dependent on parking. “One of the goals of downtown right now is to increase retail and to support home-grown retail–not chain stores,” she says. “But we’re not going to get retail, and especially not mom-and-pop retail, if we don’t have parking. To me it’s just common sense–we can’t go in one extreme one way or another. Yes, we need alternatives to parking, such as free shuttle service and an ‘ecopass’ [which would allow employees and residents free access to transit], but it has to be perfectly balanced. The planning commission seems to be out to lunch on this.”

Commission chair Wrenn disagrees, and he has councilmember Kriss Worthington on his side. “There are thousands of vacant parking spaces most of the day and all of the night right now,” says Worthington, pointing to the results of the city study. “The university has ten different parking lots, most of which are sitting there empty. Why can’t the city and the university get our acts together to have a shuttle from these thousands of vacant parking spaces to downtown BART, the arts district, and the movie theaters?” Transit advocates also support making current parking easier to find by providing automated signs that would show empty spots at lots throughout the city; like Dean, they also advocate a transit pass.

Wrenn wants planning decisions to move social change. “Building more parking has the effect of encouraging more people to drive,” he says. “The biggest negative environmental impact of the anticipated limited growth in downtown is expected to be traffic, and that’s without increased parking. So we have to tread very carefully in thinking about increased parking.” Plus, he adds, “Parking is very expensive. If you build, say, 250 parking spots, that’s something like eight million dollars. What if you spent eight million on transit? What would you get for your money?”

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