Ambitious plans are in train to transform downtown Berkeley starting in 2012. Photo: Tracey Taylor

What were the most important Berkeley stories of 2011? Not always the most read: our readers — and those of us at Berkeleyside — can get excited about the merits of pizza in Berkeley or the rights and wrongs of poop scoops on trails in the hills, but those stories don’t necessarily have enduring significance. Here’s our judgement on the stories that you should have read, and that we’ll probably be following in different ways in 2012.

The continuing challenges of Telegraph Avenue, and the potential revival of downtown. Much of our coverage of Telegraph this year concentrated on the long-vacant lot on the northeast corner of Haste. In September, the City Council voted to file for non judicial foreclosure on the property. But the devastating November 18 fire on the northwest corner — The Sequoia Building — was a bitter blow to local retailers on the brink of the holiday shopping season. Resolution of the future of both corners — and the vacant Cody’s Building on the southwest corner — will help determine the course of Telegraph for years to come. Downtown, in contrast, there has been some long-awaited good news. Downtown became a property-based improvement district (PBID), enabling it to raise funds for transformation. The Downtown Berkeley Association plans to embark on a first phase of improvements in 2012.

Encouraging trends in crime? The Cal campus suffered its first shooting for over 20 years and burglaries and assaults continue to mar weekly crime reports in Berkeley. But with only a handful of days left in the year, there has been only a single homicide in the city, compared to five in 2010. While a full statistical analysis for 2011 will only come in the new year, the Berkeley Police Department released figures in August which showed the trend of violent and property crimes was down in the city.

Safety at Berkeley High. The convulsive issue in the first half of the year was guns and safety at Berkeley High. Between January and March this year, there were six gun incidents involving Berkeley High School and B-Tech. An ad hoc safety committee worked on proposals, Berkeley Police produced its own recommendations, and the school district and Berkeley High administrators spent the spring and summer devising plans. It seems to have worked: in the 2011-12 school year so far, no gun incidents have been reported and Principal Pasquale Scuderi and his staff have been able to concentrate on education rather than safety emergencies.

Long-term issues in the city budget. At the beginning of the year, the City Council held a special work session on the unfunded liability for employee pension benefits. Although SEIU members agreed a new contract with a two-tier pension scheme in June, the key negotiations over a new police contract — the biggest element of the pension overhang — will continue in 2012. And pensions are only one element of sorting out the city budget: long-term plans for parks and rec, for streets, for storm drains, for public works, and so much else, all need to be weighed.

Occupy in Berkeley. When a few protesters moved the Occupy Berkeley site from a corner outside Bank of America to Civic Center Park in October, few could have anticipated how it would grow. A handful of tents grew to a couple of dozen, and eventually almost 90 tents. The Occupy encampment was swollen by people from Oakland and San Francisco as those sites were shut down. Occupy Berkeley also struggled with a highly diverse population that brought violence and drug abuse into the midst of people committed to the Occupy cause. As crime and health problems grew, city officials devised a uniquely Berkeley approach to clearing the park, distributing notices of enforcement of park laws starting on December 21 and remaining polite but firm. By the next day, the encampment was cleared out without major incident. The earlier Occupy Cal protest was not resolved as smoothly. Police were videoed beating protesters at the encampment in Sproul Plaza.

Is there an alternative to more drugstores? The last year has been a difficult one for many retailers in Berkeley (and across the country). Andronico’s, founded in Berkeley in 1929, went into bankruptcy, as did local Italian food specialist AG Ferrari. Both were bought out of bankruptcy by private equity investors, Renwood Opportunities Fund, but Ferrari closed the Solano Avenue store and Andronico’s closed both the University Avenue and Telegraph Avenue stores. What will fill the empty retail spaces? The most likely candidates are drugstores, as CVS and Walgreen’s seem to have an insatiable appetite for large, empty retail sites. Earlier this year Mayor Tom Bates asked city staff to look into the feasibility of prohibiting new pharmacies from opening within 1,000 feet of existing facilities.

What did we miss? Berkeleyside also wrote about the growth of cannabis businesses in the city, renovation plans for branch libraries, labor and immigration issues at Pacific Steel and many other Berkeley stories this year. We’ll be tracking these and more to ensure our readers keep up with what matters in Berkeley in 2012. Are there stories you feel we should have covered more closely but didn’t? Let us know in the comments below.

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Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...