Tackling Telegraph Avenue: Is this time different?

An architect's rendering of the new Eshelman Hall, along Bancroft Way
An architect’s rendering of the new Eshleman Hall, along Bancroft Way. Some hope that the new gateway to the campus will increase pedestrian flow along Telegraph. Source: UC Berkeley

Nearly 200 Berkeleyans came to Willard Middle School on Thursday night to hear and offer ideas about improving Telegraph Avenue, which has suffered in recent years from declining retail sales, empty lots and plenty of handwringing.

“I have great enthusiasm and great optimism that we’re going to make things happen,” said Mayor Tom Bates after the meeting. “I’m not going to hold back, it’s too important an issue. I’m going to really immerse myself in the issue. I’m not going to let this drop. I have this term of office, and I intend to fully maximize what I can do.”

Bates said there are a number of factors that mean current efforts could really mean a new start for Telegraph, particularly the three concrete projects planned for the unused corners of Telegraph and Haste, and the university’s redevelopment of the student center on Bancroft Way, which could encourage much greater activity and flow of pedestrians. 

But Councilman Kriss Worthington, whose district encompasses Telegraph, said at the meeting that there have been too many false starts.

“I’ve seen most of you at one, two, three or 30 meetings over the last 10 years,” Worthington told the crowd. “We can’t pin all of our hopes on waiting all the years it takes to get new projects through the planning process. People are suffering today. We need a clear sign, we need a clear commitment from the city.”

Bates said the evening meeting was an important first step to hear ideas. He plans to establish a number of taskforces on specific issues, which will bring detailed proposals to the City Council for action.

“Some things can happen right away,” Bates said. “But the changes a lot of people would like to see transpire are going to take time.”

Telegraph_2012q1_Total Sales Tax Chart
Retail sales on Telegraph have been steadily declining for 20 years. The orange line is adjusted for inflation. Source: City of Berkeley

The evening, described as a “brainstorming” by the mayor’s office, opened with a sobering presentation from Michael Caplan, head of economic development for the city. Caplan said the economic problems of Telegraph had been “slowly accumulating for two decades.” He pointed out that the old retail strengths of Telegraph — books and records — were the two categories most affected by the rise of internet retailers.

Telegraph_2012q1_sales tax by econ category chart
While total sales have declined, food sales have remained relatively constant. Source: City of Berkeley

He said the two biggest remaining retail strengths of Telegraph were food and apparel.

“If we had one or two strong anchors [for apparel], we could draw people in,” Caplan said. “There are plenty of opportunities to create food and entertainment venues.”

Caplan thought the projects slated for Haste and Telegraph — two new mixed-use apartment buildings and a restaurant/entertainment venue called Mad Monk — were particularly important for the life of the street.

“This corner could go from the most challenged in the city to the most vibrant,” he said.

Another positive vision for Telegraph was presented by Matt Taecker and Alex Bergtraun, who are part of Berkeley Design Advocates, a non-profit group dedicated to improving the built environment. BDA held a design charrette last April to develop ideas for Telegraph. The report from the charrette can be downloaded here (warning: very large file).

BDA originated the idea of a “canopy of lights” to change the visual environment of Telegraph at night. A Chancellor’s Grant from UC Berkeley is funding the canopy, which Bergtraun said should be up in the next two months. He said, however, the money would not yet allow plans to install free community WiFi with the lighting. Bergtraun also said the university’s new development on Bancroft would be vital for Telegraph.

“Even if we did nothing else to Telegraph, this is happening,” he said. “Telegraph becomes the front porch to this project.”

Part of Berkeley Design Advocates’ ideas for Telegraph: the dangerous corner at Dwight and Telegraph would be turned into a plaza and become a proper gateway to upper Telegraph. Source: Berkeley Design Advocates

BDA also advocate creating a plaza at Dwight and Telegraph, that could both calm traffic and become a gateway to the retailers on upper Telegraph.

One of the tensions of Telegraph that emerged in public comment at the meeting is between the street vendors and the fixed merchants. Some of the plans discussed for Telegraph could trim the space available for street vendors, which raised hackles among some long-standing vendors.

“Don’t take away the three feet of space you want to take away,” one declared to considerable applause.

“I need to hear more about that problem,” said Bates. “I know it’s been a thorn for a long time, but it’s also part of the solution.”

One suggestion from the public that Bates said was particularly helpful was to study other college communities that have similar retail districts near their campuses to discover both best practices and ideas that have not succeeded.

There was also some discussion of the impact of nearby People’s Park on Telegraph Avenue.

Emily Marthinson, assistant vice chancellor, physical and environmental planning, Taecker, from BDA, said there was a need “to people People’s Park.” The university, she said, wants to find ways It’s important, he said, to make it a more attractive, welcoming place. The sentiments were echoed by Roland Peterson, executive director of the Telegraph Avenue Business Improvement District. “If the park is a pleasant place adjacent to the business district, Telegraph Avenue will be a more welcoming place,” he said.

One speaker during the public comments had a more dramatic suggestion for People’s Park: have it designated a national monument.

“I think that’s an interesting idea,” said Bates, “but I’m not sure how practical it is.”

New building proposed for Sequoia site on Telegraph [02.27.13]
New Sproul design ideas provide optimism for Telegraph [11.29.12]
Can Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue get it mojo back? [04.18.12]
Telegraph site owner plans for temporary resurrection [02.06.12]
Imagining a future for Telegraph Avenue without blinders [04.11.12]
Telegraph fire site owner plans for temporary resurrection [02.06.12]
Berkeley’s 95-year-old Sequoia Building is brought down [11.29.11]
“Largest fire since 1991″ leaves many locals homeless [11.19.11]
Urban think tank: Student visions for blighted Telegraph lot [10.03.11]
City hands ultimatum to Sarachan on vacant Telegraph lot [09.07.11]
The rats of Telegraph Avenue (video) [01.28.11]

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