Landscaping and cleaning efforts downtown have been appreciated by merchants, but they say there’s more work to be done. Photo: Nancy Rubin

The Downtown Berkeley Association launched its fast-track clean-up program in January, the idea being that a “big splash” would jolt seemingly entrenched notions about the downtown area. According to a survey just released by the DBA, it looks as though the hopes have been partially realized (readers can view all 10 slides of the survey).

“We did nine months’ work in three months,” said John Caner, Executive Director of the DBA. “We drove everyone crazy, but I think it paid off. It resulted in a big shift.”

The DBA sent online surveys in January and July to its email list of 1,100 downtown merchants and property owners. Only 83 responded to the January survey and 74 to the July survey, so the results can’t be considered a thorough poll of attitudes. But they do show a distinct optimism among respondents.

Over two-thirds of respondents thought landscaping and beautification in downtown was “much better” or “better” since January. Improved cleanliness also generated a strong response: 60% thought downtown was “much better” or “better”. A slight majority — 53% — thought downtown’s overall image was “much better” or “better”, and 58% thought the overall appearance was “much better” or “better”.

The clean-up of downtown is part 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.

At the same time, the seven-years-in-the-making Downtown Area Plan which was adopted by the city in April, promises taller buildings and more open spaces in the city’s center.

But the good scores for improvement in the merchants’ survey are in the context of continuing issues over the perception of downtown. Only 5% of respondents think the overall appearance of downtown is “very good”; 40% think the overall image is merely “fair”.

Three areas in the survey stand out as issues where respondents felt there was “no change:” homeless/transients, parking and transit, and economic vitality. Nearly half of respondents saw homeless/transients as a “poor” or “very poor” characteristic of downtown.

“From a strategy point of view, we’re really focused on environmental enhancements in the first year,” Caner said. “Once you get the environmental issues addressed, we’re confident the economic vitality follows. We’re seeing some positive results. The perceptions have changed, but we have more to do.”

Caner cites the opening and huge success of neo-Mexican restaurant Comal on Shattuck between University and Addison as indicative of real change downtown.

“It shows you can build a new business and you can see real business on a block that was previously very distressed,” he says.

Dealing with the homeless and transients was seen as the clear top priority for the DBA by survey respondents. But from the comments submitted with the survey, there is disagreement about what should be done. The DBA and some respondents support Measure S, which would make sitting on sidewalks downtown illegal. But other respondents criticize “lack of regard for democracy” and “criminalization of the poor”.

“We still have street behavior problems that we’re not able to resolve to the degree that we wish, and I think the civil sidewalks would be a significant step in resolving that situation,” Caner said.

Lawsuit challenges Berkeley’s new downtown area plan [06.06.12]
Comal: New restaurant takes a bet on downtown Berkeley [04.30.12]
Newly cleaned up downtown hopes to attract more retail [04.04.12]
After seven years Berkeley gets a new downtown plan
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]

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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...