An architect’s rendering of the new Eshleman Hall, along Bancroft Way

The future of Telegraph Avenue was the focus of a special work session of Berkeley’s City Council on Tuesday evening. Where most discussions of Telegraph concentrate on the many problems of the area — declining retail sales, vacant lots, troubling street behavior — Tuesday was filled with positive images and ideas for the avenue.

At the center of the discussions was one concrete project — the University of California Berkeley’s Lower Sproul Plaza redevelopment — and one ambitious series of new ideas, created by Berkeley Design Advocates following their design charrette last April

Construction starts in February for the Lower Sproul Project, the centerpiece of which is a new Eshleman Hall along Bancroft Way. The project replaces the seismically unsafe Eshleman with a building 50% larger and with far better facilities for student organizations as well as study. It also improves the accessibility of Lower Sproul Plaza, and expands the student union. The new design provides both a more welcoming front for the university along Bancroft, and also integrates the campus much more effectively with the city.

During the council discussion, there was both enthusiasm for the new work and also concern for its impact on Telegraph. During the anticipated two years of construction, there should be a boost for Telegraph: retail and food units in the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union will be closed, so according to the university’s Emily Marthinsen, students are expected to shop and eat in greater numbers on Telegraph. Once the new building and the additions to the King Union are finished in fall 2015, however, council members wondered whether the new facilities would prove a greater lure.

Marthinsen said the new facilities would have “about the same amount of retail space” as the current King Union, so the university did not expect a significant impact on Telegraph.

“I’m very excited that Lower Sproul is going forward,” said Councilman Jesse Arreguín. “But the centralization of food and retail on campus has had an effect on Telegraph. One issue we have to think about going forward is how we can use the Lower Sproul Project to improve Telegraph.”

Councilman Kriss Worthington, whose district includes Telegraph Avenue, asked Marthinsen whether the university would compensate businesses along Bancroft whose business would suffer during the construction period. Marthinsen said the university was working to minimize any effects from the construction.

Berkeley Design Advocates, a volunteer organization of local architects, urban planners and transit specialists, presented seven principles for improving Telegraph, some of which could be implemented in the short term. In their introduction to their ideas, BDA’s Matt Taecker noted that Telegraph is “fraught with issues,” including retail sales that have “declined precipitously” over the years.

But Taecker and Alex Bergtraun were enthusiastic in presenting their seven ideas:

  • Enhance Telegraph’s sense of place
  • Calm traffic and increase pedestrian space
  • Strengthen Telegraph as a destination
  • Make Telegraph a center for the arts
  • Encourage more intensity and activity
  • Address social needs
  • People Peoples’ Park

To enhance the sense of place, BDA have proposed what Taecker called a “canopy of lights” for the four blocks of Telegraph nearest the campus. These would be a series of archways using LED lights, and would be funded through a Chancellor’s Grant from the university. The scheme, dubbed Telegraph Connects, would also include ubiquitous wireless network public access points to the area.

On traffic, BDA recommends making Telegraph, Bancroft and Durant two way streets, which a number of councilmembers and Mayor Tom Bates seemed enthusiastic about.

They also presented a sketch proposal for the vexed corner of Telegraph and Dwight, which is a pedestrian blackspot as cars speed around the right turn from Dwight onto Telegraph. The BDA sketch (left) proposes a larger plaza which could provide an entertainment anchor on the south end of Telegraph. Entertainment is a large part of the BDA vision for Telegraph. Just as Oakland has successfully developed Art Murmur, BDA suggests Telegraph become the center for a new Music Murmur.

To increase intensity and activity, BDA encourages housing above the retail level on Telegraph, as well as live-work lofts, galleries, offices and temporary space for the university.

Bergtraun and Taecker were cautious in addressing social needs and Peoples’ Park (one member of the audience started heckling as soon as the park was mentioned), but their proposal suggested a drop-in center for transient youth, schemes to house Telegraph’s chronically homeless, and finding ways to encourage greater use for a broader cross-section of the community in Peoples’ Park.

Although the proposals were wide-ranging, Bergtraun said “these are concepts to start a conversation.”

“I’m more interested in the short-term, non-controversial things than in the short-term controversial things,” said Worthington, “because I think the non-controversial things are more likely to happen.”

Worthington said the lighting improvements, a transit plaza at Dwight, the Music Murmur idea, and the drop-in center for youth were, for him, non-controversial.

“While I’m focused on the short term, I think we also need to have a longer term plan and we need to figure out how we get agreement on that,” he said.

“I’m one of those people who think we have a great opportunity, but we also have a great challenge here,” said Mayor Bates. “We need to have some exciting, major changes. Without that makeover, Telegraph is going to continue to slide.”

Bates said that AC Transit has money available from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission for improvements on Telegraph. He also said Telegraph should have been designated a transit-oriented development area (TDA), but “we sort of dropped the ball on the issue.”

He also said in the short term it would be good to see more street closures with events on Telegraph during weekends. “Maybe we can try some closures and if they’re successful we can figure out how to extend them.”

“I want to work with the city manager to put together some roundtables to have some real discussions,” Bates said. “I don’t want to take on Peoples’ Park initially. Obviously that issue is not going away, but it’s a question of resources. I’d like to focus on the things that we can do.”

Before closing the meeting, Bates spotted Ken Sarachan, who owns the long-vacant lot on the northeast corner of Telegraph and Haste, as well as the vacant Cody’s building on the southwest corner, and asked him if he wished to comment. The city is currently suing Sarachan over the vacant lot, and Sarachen has issued a countersuit. In a few brief remarks, Sarachen complained about what he claimed was obstruction from the city in executing his plans.

The contention between Sarachan and the city suggests navigating a brighter future for Telegraph will not be easy. But the optimistic visions and discussion on Tuesday gives some impetus for forward thinking about a way ahead for Telegraph.

Can Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue get its mojo back [04.18.12]
Imagining a future for Telegraph Avenue without blinders [04.11.12]
Telegraph fire site owner plans for temporary resurrection [02.06.12]
Urban think tank: Student visions for blighted Telegraph lot [10.03.11]
City hands ultimatum to Sarachan on vacant Telegraph lot [09.07.11]
What about that vacant lot on Haste and Telegraph? [08.11.11]
Berkeley students want better stores, fewer street people [05.31.11]

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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...