For the first time last week, the Berkeley City Council weighed in on improvements planned for the downtown Berkeley plaza and BART station. (Click the image for details.) Image: BART
For the first time last week, the Berkeley City Council weighed in on improvements planned for the downtown Berkeley plaza and BART station. (Click the image for details.) Image: BART

Berkeley’s main downtown plaza is set for some major changes in the next few years, and the Berkeley City Council had a chance to share ideas about the project last week.

The project is driven in large part by BART, which intends to renovate its station entrances, improve travel through the plaza, at Shattuck Avenue and Center Street, repave the area and make it easier to for visitors to navigate the area.

BART announced plans for the plaza late last year, and held public meetings in February and April to collect public feedback. 

Since the last public open house about the project, BART has held a series of meetings with numerous Berkeley groups, and came back last week with a new design for the main station entrance.

Berkeley Transportation Division manager Farid Javandel told the council last Tuesday night, July 1, about other changes since April, including the removal of landscaping and the addition of seating near buildings on the block, more attention to pedestrian travel paths and the needs of people making transit connections, and changes to an “art wall” to attach it to a venting structure on site.

Javandel said, currently, BART plans to pave most of the plaza with concrete, but will use a modular approach that would allow better materials to be added should more money become available.

Mayor Tom Bates said he is already trying to find money, from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission or other sources, to be able to pave the area with better materials, either from the start or at a later date.

Councilman Laurie Capitelli said he, too, would prefer “to have a higher grade finish” on the plaza, and those views were echoed by other members of the council, including Councilman Darryl Moore, who said the city deserves “something other than stamped concrete,” which “gets very dirty and nasty.”

The new BART rotunda, currently designed as a glass structure with triangular sides that’s set into a circle of walkable, obscured glass panels around it, met with mixed reviews.

Bates said the design had met with “almost uniform support” in a range of community meetings, and Councilman Jesse Arreguín — who represents downtown’s District 4 — said he liked the way sight lines throughout the plaza had been improved.

Arreguín described the project as a “huge shot in the arm to the downtown,” and said it was “incredibly exciting.”

Arreguín said he isn’t convinced, however, about the need for the glass panels in the ground, and suggested that money spent on those might be better used to improve the overall paving for the plaza. Several other council members concurred with that idea.

Councilwoman Susan Wengraf said she is concerned that the rotunda will become an “attractive nuisance” to people looking to climb on it.

“I’d hate to see this get all scratched up, and I’d hate to see somebody get hurt,” she said. She also asked BART to make sure there is ample space in the new plaza design for people getting dropped off from vehicles.

BART has the final say in what the rotunda will look like, and is somewhat constrained due to both cost and timing; the main entrance to the station would be closed during its construction, and BART must complete that piece of the project within 10-12 weeks.

Council members and members of the public also asked BART to add in more cover on the plaza for those needing shelter from rain or sun.

Officials asked, too, for BART to find space on the plaza or very nearby for a bicycle rental program that is slated to come to Berkeley next year.

Council members ultimately voted unanimously to approve the early designs in concept, and asked for better paving, more shelter and another look at alternatives to existing red brick structures around the satellite entrances that BART had planned to leave in place.

Councilman Gordon Wozniak injected perhaps the largest shot of creativity into the meeting, with ideas about public art on the plaza. Wozniak said he’d like to see an “iconic” structure on site, or “some whimsy,” such as “a mythical beast coming out of a netherworld,” like a dragon with wings, that could double as shelter from the rain.

“I’m not an architect or an artist, and it’s dangerous to ask people their opinions on these things,” he said, adding, “we want people to remember this BART station.”

The project team had planned for construction from September 2015 to February 2017. According to the staff report for last week’s meeting, state funding could potentially be delayed, so BART has applied for different state money to fill the gap. If BART does not receive that money, additional bridge funding will need to be identified to keep the project on schedule.

According to the staff report, the total cost for the project is listed as $11.2 million, to be paid for by federal grants and local matching funds. No fiscal impacts to the city budget are listed at this time.

Read more about the project in the City Council staff report prepared for last week’s meeting.

Berkeley BART plaza plans ‘not a bad first start’ (04.29.14)
Berkeley BART plaza workshop comes Monday (01.30.14)
Downtown Berkeley BART plaza slated for major overhaul (11.26.13)
Berkeley set for $12.7m in downtown transport grants (05.28.13)
Berkeley council approves plans to green downtown (01.30.13)
Berkeley’s downtown BART is all roses as part of clean-up (07.17.12)

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...