People sit on the grassy area next to Berkeley's Thursday Farmers Market in its current location. Photo: courtesy Ecology Center
Those who want to keep the North Berkeley farmers market in its current location argue that its grassy area, used for picnicking and socializing, is the market’s centerpiece. Photo: Ecology Center
Those who want to keep the North Berkeley farmers market in its current location argue that its grassy area, used for picnicking and socializing, is the market’s centerpiece. Photo: Ecology Center

Citing safety concerns, the city of Berkeley wants to move Thursday’s North Berkeley farmers market to a location a few hundred feet south-east of its current site on the stretch of Shattuck Avenue that runs between Shattuck Place and Rose Street. The Ecology Center, which runs all of Berkeley’s farmers markets, is resisting the move, saying the proposed new site, on the service road in front of businesses such as Saul’s Deli and Masse’s bakery, presents problems of its own.

Visitors to the market in recent weeks have been asked to sign petitions to lobby to keep the local food stalls where they are.

Discussions about the location and safety of the 11-year old Gourmet Ghetto market, which attracts an average of 1,800 people a week, have been ongoing for many months, according to both the city and the Ecology Center. The talks appear to have reached something of a stalemate, however.

The city would like to see a site that offers a better flow for pedestrians and traffic, improved ADA access, and more of a separation between the market-goers and the street, according to city spokesman Matthai Chakko.

“Our top priority is safety,” he said.

At its current site, the section of Shattuck Avenue that runs between its fork with Shattuck Place and Rose Street, is closed to traffic. Reviews of the site by the city in the past — including when it was home to mobile truck market Off The Grid in 2011-2012 — determined that the market was too vulnerable to northbound traffic on Shattuck. Barricades were brought in for when Off The Grid was in session, according to Heather Hensley, executive director of the North Shattuck Association. Hensley said other options have been considered too, such as breaking through the median and installing signage and bollards. (Off the Grid closed the market in Dec. 2012 after local merchants complained it was taking business away from them.)

Visitors to the Thursday farmers market also make use of the grassy median that runs between two stretches of Shattuck Avenue, as they did when the food trucks were there. People sit, socialize and eat on the median.

For Ben Feldman, the Ecology Center’s market manager, the grassy area is a focal point of the market, and losing it by relocating to the service road site, he said, would put the viability of the market in jeopardy.

“Our biggest concern is losing the grassy median,” he said.”It’s the social centerpiece of the market, where people can rest and kids can play.”

Feldman said he is also concerned the proposed new configuration in what he refers to as a “single-file, narrow strip” would present safety issues for workers and vendors as they would need to step over a raised cement median, which poses the risk of tripping. He also anticipates that people would still be drawn to the grassy median, but that they would have to cross open traffic lanes to access it.

Feldman said the Ecology Center chose the current location because it offered a good combination of the different elements that are needed for a successful market. He said there are many criteria, including a certain road width for emergency vehicle access and for vendors to be able to keep their vehicles close to their stalls.

“Other factors can make a move challenging,” he said. “It’s a lot like starting over for a farmers market. Permitting process, additional review, environmental, health and traffic, police and fire. Yes there are challenges, but the biggest piece is that is a great location for the market and it’s tried and true.”

Feldman added that vendors are happy with the status quo. They are not required to report sales numbers, he said, but turnover at the market has been very low. “Vendors are consistently asking to do that market.”

To address one of the safety issues, the market recently started parking one of its trucks across the southern end of the market as an additional barrier to northbound traffic, Hensley said.

Adding to the discussion is the fact that several business owners at 1400 Shattuck, the building which abuts the current market, have said they would like to see the market move, according to Hensley. Some tenants at the building — which include Lo Coco’s restaurant, Vitamin Shoppe and Kamado Sushi — have complained to the property owner about the market causing restricted access and visibility for their businesses, and reduced parking, according to Hensley

Map shows area including current location of North Berkeley farmers market and proposed new site. Image: Goolg Maps
Map shows area including current location of North Berkeley farmers market and proposed new site: both are on stretches of Shattuck Avenue. Image: Google Maps

Berkeley has three farmers markets, all operated by the Ecology Center: downtown on Saturdays, South Berkeley on Tuesdays, and North Berkeley on Thursdays. The Tuesday market was the original one, opening in 1987. It relocated from Derby Street at MLK Way to Adeline and 63rd streets in the Lorin District in the summer of 2012.

The city has asked the Ecology Center to try a six-month trial for the North Berkeley market in the service-road location.

Speaking about the proposed market move last month, Peter Levitt, co-owner of Saul’s Deli, said: “We think that it’ll work fine once some modifications are made in the roadway there. What’s nice about the Saturday or Tuesday market is the village nature. We won’t have that feeling over here, so that’s the thing we’re worried about. And we’re worried about the number of parking spaces we’ll lose in total. But we have to try it to understand what it’s going to be, we don’t know that yet.”

Communication between the city and the Ecology Center over the North Berkeley relocation seems to have reached an impasse. After meeting with the city in September and October last year, Feldman said he was taken aback to hear, in early January, that the move was, in effect, a fait accompli.

“We share the city’s desire to improve pedestrian safety and believe that we can do so with the current layout of the market. We were in conversation with the city about ways to do that at the end of last year. As a result, the city’s demand to move the market to the frontage road within the next few weeks came a shock to us,” he said.

“We are hoping for a real dialogue where we can find a long-term strategy for the current location,” he said.

In a January 22 blog post published on the Ecology’s website, the non-profit wrote that they believed the city’s proposal “was crafted without important community and operational input. We feel that the decision-making process has been rushed and doesn’t take into account the Ecology Center’s expertise or the priorities of the farmers, neighbors, and market shoppers who have vested interests in the current configuration.”

Chakko said the city had made “many attempts” to talk to the Ecology Center and to market stakeholders. He said the city would like to see the market relocated “sooner rather than later.”

Feldman said if the city is adamant that the current site is not viable, then “all potential locations should be on the table.” “We shouldn’t assume this location is the answer,” he said.

Hensley said there are several regular events that are held on the service road, such as Chocolate & Chalk Art and Dias de los Muertos, that show the location can be successful.  The new location would also allow the market to expand, she said, as there are 100 more linear feet there than in the current site.

“It could work well,” she said. “Obviously we don’t want to lose the market.”

Saul’s owner applies to build a parklet in front of deli (01.14.15)
Off The Grid says goodbye to Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto (12.20.12)
Berkeley’s Tuesday farmers market moving to Lorin District (06.07.12)

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Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...