"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

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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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