The downtown Berkeley BART plaza is kind of a dead man’s zone. More than 18,000 people pass through it daily, yet only a handful stop to savor its attractions.

On most days, just a few people sit on the benches scattered throughout the plaza. Some of them are a little down and out and loiter for hours, talking and smoking cigarettes.

There is just one vendor – a flower stall – and no other reason to hang out in one of Berkeley’s most visible public spaces.

“It’s rather dated,” said John Caner, the director of the Berkeley Downtown Business Association. “The seating doesn’t work very well. It’s dispersed. We have these large planters creating barriers seeing into the plaza.”

But all that is about to change.

Last week, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority awarded a $1.8 million grant to the city to renovate the plaza. Combined with a $50,000 grant from BART and a $400,000 grant from the UC Berkeley Long Range Development Fund, Berkeley now has $2.25 million to spend on transforming the space.

“Since so many people use the bus or BART to come to Berkeley, this is really our front door, said Kara Vuicich, an associate planner in the transportation division of the Department of Public Works. “It’s really exciting to think we will have a space people will feel really good about being in and using.”

The current plaza is worn and feels outdated, according to Vuicich. The brick pavers are old-fashioned and are uneven, making it difficult for people with mobility problems to walk there. The aesthetics are not particularly pleasing, trash is often dumped into the planter boxes, and people urinate in the BART steps at night.

Imagine instead an inviting space where café tables line the sidewalk and portable chairs and tables in the plaza entice people to play chess or eat lunch. Trees and plants will make the space green and at night LED tea lights would form an informal canopy over the plaza, creating a party-like ambiance. Instead of just a pass through for those rushing to BART or to the bus, the plaza would become a place people want to linger.

“The goal is to create a space that is more welcoming to bigger and more diverse groups of people,” said Vuicich.

The city has been working on a plan for the BART plaza since 2004. Construction should begin in 2012 and take six to eight months. The construction will be phased so no businesses have to shut down.

Some of the design details:

The brick paving will be removed and replaced with permeable, low-impact concrete. A new green water filtration system will direct water to landscaped areas rather than the storm drains.

There will be more trees and plants, courtesy of an underground milk crate-shaped structure that permits looser soil and space for tree roots to grow.

The low brick walls in the plaza will be removed, improving sight lines. Seating will be reconfigured.

There will be a new “café zone” along Shattuck Avenue.

There will be better lighting throughout, including LED catenary lighting (like tea lights) across the plaza.

There will be a new, large bus shelter constructed for the bus stop along Shattuck Avenue to provide protection from sun, wind, and rain. It will include seating.

There will be a canopy over the BART stairs by Allston Way. The new structure will include a security gate at the top of the stairs that can be rolled down at night. Currently, the security gate is at the bottom of the BART stairs, and people frequently urinate there at night.

There will be more bike racks.

The funding does not include money to redo the Rotunda, but it does include funds to study design ideas. The city would like to swap out the dark glass panels of the rotunda for clear ones, bringing in light and making the place feel more transparent, said Vuicich.  The city would also like to add more seating on the exterior of the structure and an awning to shelter people from the elements. (Berkeley had hoped to move the rotunda across the street, closer to UC, but the cost was prohibitive, said Vuicich.)

“We want to create more of a sense of arrival for people when they get off BART,” said Caner. “It really is the nexus point for downtown. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you got off BART and there were people having cups of coffee and people playing chess?”

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...