"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."


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