Eco-Plaza Needs a Green Light 

Berkeley's popular plan to turn a section of Center Street into a pedestrian walkway with a stream and wetlands has been slowed by the fight over downtown development.

Imagine emerging from the downtown Berkeley BART station onto a tree-shrouded plaza. Rather than the roar of cars, you hear the melody of falling water and voices in conversation. Cafe tables extend from street-side shops onto a pedestrian-only plaza, while groups of musicians play by a stream bordered with wetland plants.

Although it may sound like a far-fetched fantasy, the Center Street Project has received widespread support throughout the city, and has the backing of the often divided city council. However, due to fierce debate over Berkeley's downtown development plan, the future of the popular project is in doubt.

The city included the Center Street Project as part of the downtown plan before the council approved it last summer. But when opponents of the downtown plan gathered enough signatures to put the issue on the ballot, the generally uncontroversial Center Street Project was put into limbo as well. The project's prospects were further clouded last week when the council voted to rescind the downtown plan rather than engage in an election battle with opponents. Mayor Tom Bates hopes to put a new downtown proposal on the ballot in November, but it remains to be seen whether the Center Street Project will be included.

The uncertainty over the project represents just another tumultuous chapter in its long history. Indeed, while the majority of work on the project has happened within the past few years, the concept has been bandied about for decades. Since the long buried Strawberry Creek was first brought back to the surface in West Berkeley's Strawberry Creek Park in the 1980s, citizens have been pondering ways to incorporate the creek into the downtown. Accordingly, the concept has appeared as a key municipal planning recommendation six times since the early 1990s.

"There is a lot of hope for doing this because [the idea] just never goes away," said Kirstin Miller, executive director of Ecocity Builders, an Oakland-based nonprofit that addresses the relationship between humans and nature in the built environment. Ecocity Builders has been a driving force behind the Center Street Project since 2004. "It's the result of a lot of thinking and community action," Miller added.

In its current form, the project would run from the corner of Shattuck Avenue and Center Street to the UC Berkeley entrance on Oxford Street, creating a tangible link between the city and the university. Water would be diverted from Strawberry Creek to the surface of Center Street, reintroducing Berkeley's creek ecology into daily city life.

The project has two main goals: reinvigorate the commerce and culture of downtown Berkeley, and reflect the city's natural landscape in its infrastructure. With the 8,000 people who walk along Center Street between the BART station and the UC campus each day, the block has the highest foot traffic of any place in Berkeley. With the exception of delivery trucks and emergency vehicles, auto traffic would not be allowed, turning the street into a pedestrian-oriented plaza.

The project went from concept to design in 2007, when Ecocity Builders enlisted Oakland-based landscape architect, Walter Hood. For Hood, the process of designing the Center Street Project was "about creating an urban experience that says something about where the city is." Accordingly, Hood and his team worked for years configuring a design that was honest to Berkeley's natural history and watershed landscape. "In order to execute the concept," Hood added, "we had to ask ourselves 'How do we make Strawberry Creek revelatory to the downtown and let people know that they are in a riparian corridor?'" In a collaborative design process that included input from community members, city officials, and restoration ecologists, Hood came up with 32 different design possibilities, one of which was chosen.

The resulting plan has the potential to create a potent connection between Berkeley residents and the ecological history of the city. Rather than daylight the natural creek bed, which runs in a culvert underneath Allston Way, the project will grab just enough water from Strawberry Creek's main channel to provide a taste of the area's larger riparian system.

This new creek, artificial in a structural sense yet fundamentally tied to the natural dynamics of its source, would run via gravity and then surface on Center Street in two sections. The first, near campus, will showcase natural water treatment techniques in a pond bordered by wetland plants. Beyond the wetland feature, creek water will go back underground, resurfacing at the west end. This second section is designed as a creek bed culminating in a waterfall that drowns out the sound of road traffic and draws people further into the landscape. "It's about weaving natural systems back into Berkeley's urban fabric," Miller explained, "and making the city a more welcoming place."

Yet despite the project's strong community support, there are some detractors. Downtown merchants, for example, are divided on the impact such a development would have on their businesses. While many smaller business owners cite serious concerns, those from larger chains generally approve. "It's great," said Nam Nguyen, owner of Center Street's Quiznos store. "It would draw more foot traffic and probably increase business."

Although the Center Street Project is currently tied up with the downtown plan, there is a possibility it could move forward on other avenues. The project could be approved through Berkeley's Streets and Open Space Improvement Plan, which will come up for consideration later this year, or via sponsorship by a specific council member. However, neither possibility has yet been realized. Estimated to cost $15 million, the project also has funding issues. "As compelling as it is, and with as much citizen support and input as it has," said Matt Taecker, principal planner for the city, "[the project] hasn't quite got the momentum it needs to be put into action at present."

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