Spring storms over Berkeley. Photo: D.H. Parks
Many things happened in 2013 that will change the shape of Berkeley for years to come. Photo: Joe Parks

2013 was a significant year for Berkeley residents, and not only because of what happened inside the city’s boundaries. This was the year the Supreme Court ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional and declined to consider the repeal of Prop 8 — two rulings that opened the way for gays to marry one another. (Two Berkeley women, Kris Perry and Sandy Stier were the plaintiffs in the latter suit.) 2013 was also the year that sign-ups began for Affordable Health Care Act and that Congress let unemployment benefits lapse for millions, and sliced food stamp benefits. Berkeley residents were affected by all those developments. The new eastern span of the Bay Bridge opened and BART workers went on a disabling strike — twice.

The new and the old: the new span of the Bay Bridge, opened in September, shows off its gleaming white suspension tower next to the 80-year-old original eastern span. Photo: Pete Rosos

But there were a number of developments unique to Berkeley that will change the shape of the city for years to come. Here are Berkeleyside’s selections for the most important stories of the year.

The transformation of Berkeley’s downtown

A view of Berkeley's downtown from the Skydeck. Photo: Tracey Taylor
Did downtown Berkeley turn a corner in 2013? Photo: Tracey Taylor

It’s been a long time coming, but 2013 may go down as the year that the downtown core began its most significant transformation into a vibrant, pedestrian-oriented hub of music, theater, food and homes. In late December, two separate developers announced they wanted to construct towers that would bring more people downtown. The first announcement came from the Nasser family, who submitted plans to construct a 120-foot-high 12-story apartment complex on Shattuck Avenue and Berkeley Way. A few weeks later, a Carmel developer submitted plans to build a 180-foot-high, 16-story hotel and office building complex on Shattuck Avenue and Center Street. The two new towers will join a third planned for Harold Way adjacent to the Shattuck Theaters complex on Shattuck Avenue. A Los Angeles developer submitted plans in December 2012 to construct 365 units aimed at professionals in a 17-story tower.

A rendering of the Acheson Commons complex on University Avenue, which now will go forward. Image: Kirk Peterson Architects
The Acheson Commons complex, which will be built on University in downtown Berkeley. Image: Kirk Peterson Architects

That’s not all. The city has given the go-ahead to Acheson Commons, a 205-unit building that will take up most of a block on University Avenue and Shattuck Avenue. In February, Berkeleyside tallied up all the apartments planned or under construction to determine that as many as 1,000 new units would soon be built. That number has now expanded to 1,200 or 1,300, according to Michael Caplan, the director of Berkeley’s Economic Development department.

The building boom is a sharp contrast to what happened after the bottom fell out of the economy in late 2008. Construction stopped. Banks declined to lend. Some developers couldn’t afford to finish their projects and were forced to sell their half-completed buildings or entitled properties under duress.

The construction also reflects the certainty developers feel about Berkeley’s building climate. After more than a decade of discussion, a referendum drive, a ballot measure and numerous contentious city council meetings, Berkeley adopted the Downtown Area Plan in 2012. The law set out guidelines for areas that can take increased density, specifically along main streets like Shattuck Avenue. It set a cap of five large towers in the central core. It established guidelines for community benefits for affordable housing, childcare, and transportation. The plan introduced certainty into a city long known for its uncertainty and fervent citizenry suspicious of developers.

All this construction “is going to take us from a small town to a wonderfully vibrant community with exciting things happening,” said Mayor Tom Bates. “We have all these fabulous restaurants. We have great cultural aspects. We have the number one public university in the country. It seems there are going to be thousands of people living here, working here. It has already been determined to be the number one walkable city in the U.S. If someone had told me this would happen in 1994, I would have said you are crazy. I am so delighted to have had the opportunity to see this come together.”

The growth also reflects the shift of many technology industry jobs from Silicon Valley to San Francisco — a shift that has had major impact of the region’s vitality and affordability. As more companies opened headquarters in the city, more highly paid professionals have looked for housing in San Francisco, driving up rents, driving out long-time renters, and driving more people to move to Alameda County. Rent for new units are high in Berkeley, too, although there have not been the massive Ellis Act evictions like in San Francisco. But the new Berkeley developments have their costs, too. Ace Hardware has to leave its current location on University Avenue while Acheson Commons is built; so far, Ace has not found a suitable new home. The complex planned for Shattuck and Berkeley Way will force Berkeley Vacuum to leave its home of 30 years, and will shutter a number of other small businesses. Read more about real estate plans in Berkeley here.

A boom in Berkeley restaurants

Build Pizzeria Roma, which opened in April, was just one of many new places to eat and drink that opened in Berkeley this year. Photo: Build

Pathos. Eureka!. Build Pizzeria Roma. Easy Creole. Sliver. Iyasare. Bleecker Bistro. Stella Nonna. These are just a few of the new restaurants that opened in Berkeley in 2013, and which were covered by Berkeleyside Nosh. The city already has an impressive resident-to-restaurant ratio, according to Berkeley’s economic development department, but it has certainly gotten smaller in the past few months. A number of established restaurants were also transformed in 2013, unhappily by fire. A kitchen fire broke out in March at Chez Panisse, shocking the world. Alice Waters pledged to rebuild and make the place better, which she did. Waters got the fast-track from the city and Chez Panisse reopened in June. Great China Restaurant on Kittredge Aveue was not so lucky. A kitchen fire put it out of business in January 2012, and it reopened in a much larger space on Bancroft Avenue just this month. Scores of interesting coffee shops opened as well, including Take 5 Café on Sacramento Street, Artís Coffee Roasters on Fourth Street, and Lindgren’s Coffee and Café on Dwight Way in downtown. But it could easily be argued 2013 was the “Year of Beer” with a new tasting room on Fourth Street for Sierra Nevada, called the Torpedo Room, and the arrival of both the Moxy Beer Garden and The Mead Kitchen. Approval was also given for the Westbrae Biergarten on Gilman and Curtis. See Berkeleyside’s drinking map for more local watering holes. Read more about dining in Berkeley.

Italian gelato spot Caravaggio opened on Shattuck Ave. in November. Photo: Caravaggio

It was a good year for ice cream too, with controversial Dream (across the street from the ever-popular Cream) opening on Telegraph Avenue, as well as Italian gelato spot Caravaggio on Shattuck Ave.

Four gleaming new libraries

Berkeley citizens turned out in high numbers to welcome their new library. Photo: Richard Friedman
Berkeley citizens turned out in May to welcome the new South Berkeley library, one of four branch libraries to open up with redone buildings and new facilities this year. Photo: Richard Friedman

Berkeley residents love their libraries and they are willing to pay more to have top notch facilities. 2013 marked the completion of a $26 million re-do of all four of the city’s branch libraries. The Claremont and North Branch, both located in historic buildings, were gutted and redone to retain a historic feel yet equip the branches with new computers, book processing equipment, video and audio features, and more. The old south and west branches were torn down completely and replaced with larger, airy structures. This massive project, overseen by Library Director Donna Corbeil and her staff, came in under budget as well.

The loss of Berkeley’s Tuolumne Family Camp

The destruction by the devastating Rim Fire of the Tuolumne Family Camp left many Berkeleyans shocked and dismayed. Photo: U.S. Forestry Servie
The destruction by the devastating Rim Fire of the Tuolumne Family Camp on August 25 left many Berkeleyans shocked and dismayed. Photo: U.S. Forest Service

2013 is about to go down in history as the driest year for California since 1849. One tragic consequence of all that dryness was the Rim Fire, which broke out Aug. 17 after a hunter lost control of his illegal fire. The inferno destroyed 257,315 acres in the Sierra Nevada, making it the third largest wildfire in California history. The flames ripped through the city-run Tuolumne Family Camp that has been enjoyed by Berkeley families for generations. Gone are most of the tent cabins, the dining hall, the nature center and the stage.

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Several hundred fans of the Berkeley Tuolumne Family Camp came together to share memories in Berkeley’s Civic Center Park on the evening of Monday Aug. 26. Photo: Ted Friedman

The loss of the camp left many in shock and hundreds gathered in August in Civic Center Park to hold a vigil and remember the good times they had spent there. Berkeley officials and camp supporters have vowed to rebuild, but no firm plans have yet been developed. Read more on Berkeleyside about Tuolumne Family Camp.

A new start for UC Berkeley?

UC Berkeley enjoyed something of a reprieve from its troubles in 2013. Photo: John Morgan

After watching state support for the university drop from $600 million to $300 million over the last eight years, the university got a reprieve from further cuts in 2013 after voters approved a sales tax to help support schools. Having accomplished that, UC President Mark Yudoff stepped down and was replaced by Janet Napolitano, the former Secretary of Homeland Security and someone with more government than education credentials. The ASUC Senate immediately held a no-confidence vote in her.

Chancellor Robert Birgeneau departed for his physics lab and teaching duties, noting UC Berkeley’s increasing success in securing non-state funding (the state now provides less than 20% of the university’s budget funding). Nicholas Dirks, a professor of Indian history and a former senior administrator at Columbia University, took over the role in June. There were no Occupy-like protests to greet Dirks, but he did have to contend in September with a campus blackout, and possibly its first ever mass evacuation, caused by an electrical malfunction (not by vandals stealing copper wire as originally thought.) UC Berkeley saw its name in lights, too, most notably in famed documentarian Frederick Wiseman’s four-hour long movie about the school, called, aptly, At Berkeley. Robert Reich, Cal professor and former labor secretary during the Clinton Administration, was the centerpiece of another film, Inequality for All. And then there was the football team. Perhaps the less said the better. Read more about UC Berkeley.

The fight against illegal medical cannabis collectives

Berkeley’s medical marijuana dispensaries were once more in the spotlight in 2013. Photo: Dave H.
Berkeley’s medical marijuana dispensaries were once more in the spotlight in 2013. Photo: Dave H.

Operators of medical cannabis dispensaries were under scrutiny this year once more. U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag has taken a hard line against Berkeley Patient’s Group, twice telling the organization that it is located too close to schools and must shut down. In 2012, BPG moved from its long-time home on San Pablo further north to a smaller site on the same block. Haag has issues with that location as well and has filed a lawsuit against the landlord to force her to evict BPG.

While the city of Berkeley has thrown its support behind Berkeley Patients Group — it filed its own suit against Haag in May and passed a declaration stating that BPG has been a good corporate citizen — it has not been so friendly to a number of collectives that have been opening up. The city has declared at least three of the collectives a public nuisance because they are operating in a commercial district. Berkeley laws allow only dispensaries to be in commercial areas. Collectives (which are smaller) need to be in residential areas and only be “incidental” to the use of the home. In June, the city council voted to declare Greenleaf Wellness Group on Dwight Way a public nuisance. It shut a short time later. In October, the city declared Forty Acres Medical Growers’ Collective a public nuisance and ordered it to shut. Its owner, Chris Smith, is fighting the city on the declaration. (Another collective, 3PG, closed in November 2012 after Berkeley declared it a public nuisance.) Read more about medical cannabis on Berkeleyside.

Berkeley resolutions for 2014 – and how 2013 went (01.01.14)
Biggest Berkeley crime stories of 2013 (12.31.13)
Top 2013 stories in Berkeley: Newsy, quirky and plain fun (12.31.13)
The most important stories in Berkeley in 2012  (12.28.12)

Your (really) last chance this year to support Berkeleyside? We’ve delivered you a lot of news in 2013 and we want you to help us do even more in 2014.  Advertising only covers about half of Berkeleyside’s costs. To make up the rest, we need your support. You can chip in as little as $5 a month – less than a 25 cents a day – to support independent local journalism and become a Member. Just visit our Membership page. (If you’re already a Member: Thank you!) 

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Berkeleyside staff

Berkeleyside is Berkeley, California’s independently-owned local news site. Learn more about the Berkeleyside team. Questions?...