New landscaping is part of an ongoing major clean-up campaign in downtown Berkeley. Photo: Nancy Rubin

On Tuesday, downtown Berkeley was born anew. Billed as a fresh start, the heart of the city was relaunched to a capacity crowd in the ballroom of the Hotel Shattuck Plaza on Allston Way.

For the past three months, the Downtown Berkeley Association has been overseeing an ambitious clean-up operation in the center of the city and yesterday’s event was convened to present the results.

Anyone who has been downtown recently won’t fail to have noticed that the place is sparkling. Streets have been power-washed, often in the middle of the night, unsticking countless pieces of gum in the process, 8,500 lbs of trash have been removed, light poles, postal boxes and fire hydrants have been given a new lick of paint and fresh landscaping has appeared. Tree wells now overflow with blooms and 179 flower baskets hang from aloft.

The “Big Splash” campaign is phase one of a five-year plan to make downtown more inviting — to residents, visitors and prospective new businesses — made financially possible by the vote, in June 2011, by downtown property owners to make downtown a Property-Based Improvement District. PBID’s annual budget is $1,207,500, 850,000 of which is allocated to the clean-up and “hospitality” programs.

The presentation of the clean-up operation came on the same day that the Berkeley City Council adopted the seven-years-in-the-making Downtown Area Plan which promises taller buildings and more open spaces in the city center.

The DBA engaged Kentucky-based Block by Block to orchestrate the “Big Splash” program, and new staff have been brought on board to join the existing complement of downtown “ambassadors” who patrol the streets helping solve problems as they arise. Block by Block was selected from a shortlist of seven companies. They have worked in 40 cities across the nation, including in Oakland.

The initiative includes a marketing campaign created by Berkeley-based Radiant Brands centered on the slogan “It Starts Here”. Posters and banners emphasize the area’s existing assets including its many arts venues, the most recent arrival being The Magnes on Allston Way, future cultural destinations such as the BMA/PFA which is slated to relocate to Center and Oxford streets, Berkeley City College, and two new UC Berkeley research buildings.

Susan Medak, Managing Director of the Berkeley Rep Theatre and DBA Board President, said the initiative represented a new beginning for downtown and stressed that the priority now was to keep the momentum going. “Like a beautiful woman, this is a city with great bones. Our task over the next few years is to put great meat on those bones.”

Lance Gorée, DBA Operations Manager, presenting at the relaunch of downtown Berkeley event Tuesday. Photo: Nancy Rubin

John Caner, Executive Director of the DBA, also stressed the need to prevent things from slipping backwards. “We’ve cleaned up. Now comes the hard part: staying clean,” he said at the presentation.

The DBA’s strategy has been three years in the making and, along with the beautification process, includes a goal of reducing the ground floor vacancy rate downtown to less than 7%. The lack of retail in the center of town, as well as parking issues, are often cited as being significant turn-offs for local residents.

Caner acknowledges that attracting stores to downtown has proved hard in the past. “Retail is tricky,” he says. “People can choose to go to Walnut Creek or Emeryville. But we think if we get the fundamentals right we will get people willing to invest in the area.”

Caner cites the Shattuck-Addison intersection as an example of how businesses can revive an area. Italian restaurant PIQ is a popular haunt, Fantastic Comics and Phil’s Sliders are new arrivals, and upscale Mexican restaurant Comal is due to open there soon. “It’s true that it is mostly restaurant-[rather than retail-] driven,” Caner says, “but that area used to be dreadful.”

Caner points out that two new downtown projects — the Arpeggio building on Center Street and Acheson Commons on University — will likely bring more residents and possibly more businesses to the area.

The issue of panhandlers was not raised at the launch event. Responding to news of a survey conducted by the DBA in October 2011, several Berkeleyside commenters expressed their concern about the presence of homeless people downtown and cited instances of harassment. Caner says the job of the hospitality ambassadors is to monitor behavior on the street and remind people to abide by ordinances if necessary. The staff also work closely with social services, he says, for individual cases.

Informal discussions held this time last year about Berkeley adopting a sit-lie ordinance like the one which was implemented in San Francisco did not lead to any decisions, although it did trigger protests against the concept. At the time, the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce, which held the talks, said it was talking to city officials and service providers about getting more street people into programs to help them find permanent housing and mental and medical services.

After seven years Berkeley gets a new downtown plan [03.21.12]
Taller buildings, open spaces on cards for downtown Berkeley [03.09.12]
The big clean-up of downtown Berkeley begins [01.10.12]
How to improve downtown Berkeley: Have your say [10.19.11]
Downtown PBID passes overwhelmingly [06.29.11]
Anti-sit lie campaigners take protest to City Hall [04.27.11]

Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...