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Community Renewal:
The Rebirth of Downtown Berkeley

By Irene Hegarty, Office of Community Relations

Renewing the Foundations of Excellence

A walk through downtown Berkeley offers an amazing tour of construction sites and new buildings.

First there are the public projects. At Martin Luther King Jr. and Addison Way, the new public safety building is near completion. A block away, city hall is being seismically retrofit, while across the street, Berkeley High School begins its next major building project. Around the corner, the main library is undergoing seismic repair and expansion. On Addison, the Berkeley Repertory Theatre is building a second stage, the cornerstone of a planned downtown Arts District.

Commercial projects are also in varying stages of development. At the corner of Addison and Shattuck, the renovated Francis Shattuck Building is almost complete, and a new French/Mediterranean bistro will move in downstairs. At Shattuck and Center, the newly constructed Kaplan building has emerged from its scaffolding. On Center Street, Centro Caffe has opened, further enhancing the street's ambience of sidewalk cafes and shops. Construction staging on Allston Way blocks through traffic as two new projects add housing and cultural uses to the downtown. And even more projects are in the planning and design stages.

And to add to the noise and confusion, EBMUD is replacing storm drains on Oxford Street and University Avenue. With all the construction, some ask what is going on with downtown Berkeley?

"Like the campus, the city of Berkeley is in a period of renewal and growth as it repairs and updates public buildings, revitalizes the downtown business area, and develops an arts district," said Caleb Dardick, interim director of the Downtown Berkeley Association. Through local bond funds, Berkeley has improved and seismically strengthened its public schools, libraries, fire stations, and city hall. Private fund-raising campaigns are under way to complete the Berkeley Rep expansion and furnish the main library's interior.

Other cultural and entertainment venues are moving into the downtown. The Aurora Theater, now housed at the City Club on Durant Avenue, will move down the street from Berkeley Rep. Freight and Salvage Coffee House, a long-time institution in West Berkeley, will also move to the arts district. The Magnes Museum plans to expand and move to Allston Way. With new restaurants and retail, and 25 movie screens, it's no wonder that the downtown is alive with activity these days.

Success was slow in coming, however. For many years, it seemed that as one business opened on Shattuck Avenue, another would close. Some buildings were boarded up for years, needing expensive seismic repairs. Berkeley wanted to encourage new development but preserve the historic character of the area. Limited parking was, and is, an issue. Other communities like Emeryville and Walnut Creek were more accommodating to growth and new development.

Eventually, through the combined efforts of the city, private developers, and the Downtown Berkeley Association - organized by business owners to revitalize the commercial district - businesses began to move back, said Dardick.

UC Berkeley has played a part. The campus has always provided a customer base of lunchtime shoppers and diners to downtown Berkeley. The potential market of 30,000 nearby students, plus faculty and staff, is a key factor in attracting business and cultural investment to the area. Graduate student housing, built in 1995 at Shattuck and Channing, has spurred new retail, restaurants and nighttime entertainment. A joint project between the campus and the city improved the pedestrian connection along Center Street between the downtown transit center and the campus.

Currently, campus planners are studying the feasibility of moving the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archives, also seismically vulnerable in their original facility, to Oxford and Center Street. City officials have expressed enthusiastic support for this proposal, which would be another jewel in the crown of the arts district, bringing the university's cultural resources into the downtown.

While nearly every city project has had some controversy - over land use, historic preservation, density, parking, or traffic - many are excited about what is emerging from behind the construction fences: a revitalized and unique downtown Berkeley.

Renewing the Foundations of Excellence home

Source: Berkeleyan Special Issue, Fall 2000