To glimpse Telegraph Avenue as its visionaries and community leaders see it is to view a thriving, bustling European-like utopia, complete with pedestrian plaza, solar-powered trash cans, and enough parklets and bicycle racks to make even the most cynical hipster swoon.
The ambitious if bureaucratically titled “Telegraph Public Realm Plan” has a sweeping vision that’s soon to hit the pavement — first in increments and demonstrations, and then, if all goes well, full-fledged cosmetic surgery for the historic avenue.
“We began with near-term design interventions we can make that would be noticeable and create some buzz around the avenue,” Matt Taecker, of Taecker Planning and Design, told Berkeleyside in a phone interview. The designs were created by Taecker and Alex Bergtraun of Studio Bergtraun.
“Simultaneously, we were thinking about the long-term vision, and we also came up with something that is quite interesting: it’s a shared street, a plaza, where you allow cars to drive. But it’s a pedestrian-oriented space and the cars will pass slowly because you’ve done certain things design-wise.”
Two demonstration projects are set to kick off the changes, with the aim of testing and refining design features, and making significant changes that are light on the city’s wallet.
At the Bank of America building on the corner of Telegraph and Durant, planners hope to set up a “small plaza comprised of art and artifacts” that will showcase temporary art installations, as well as new design features for the streets, such as new sidewalks and the proposed “modular stations.”
More than just solar-powered trash and recycling compactors, the units will house street lighting and museum-like exhibits that will educate passers-by on Telegraph Avenue’s rich history and cultural significance.
The second demo project is at Telegraph and Dwight Way. Stuart Baker, executive director of the Telegraph Business Improvement District, calls the second test “Dwight Triangle,” referring to the pork chop-shaped concrete island that sits in the middle of the asphalt where Dwight and Telegraph intersect. “It’s the gateway to the street if you’re driving,” Baker said.
Current plans call for traffic-calming measures to the triangle such as narrowing the vehicle travel lane and adding bollards to protect the bicycle lane. For the pork chop island itself, planners envision a well-lit passage to usher people into the business district, and a landscaped berm that will fill the rest of the space.
Together the two demonstration projects carry an estimated tab of over $400,000, according to the plans.
But the overall vision is far more ambitious: “The first two projects are demonstrations but the plan is eventually for the whole street,” Taecker said.
The most significant challenge for the whole street, he said, is that “somebody planted very sticky trees in the 1970s, and those trees have left a mucky mess on the sidewalks. We want to create a really clean floor for everybody, but those trees are a hassle.”
UC Berkeley’s landscape architect has recommended planting new tree species in the future, such as the “Street keeper” Honelocust or Pyramidal European Hornbeam, according to the plan. In addition to the trees, new streetscaping requires new storm-water drains on the east-west traveling streets, which the Public Realm plan includes as “green infrastructure” that would filter urban, potentially polluted, runoff.
Plans call for a host of other improvements for the proposed plaza that would stretch — so Baker and the TBID hope — from Dwight to Bancroft. The most visible change is likely to be the plaza-like roadway that would mean pedestrians and motorists would share the existing space.
The idea, which has been successfully implemented in European and Asian cities, is to let pedestrians cross mid-block amid slow-moving vehicle traffic. To do so, the plan suggests eliminating elevated sidewalks — food and road traffic would be on the same level — and installing safety measures to slow traffic, such as bollards and rumble strips.
According to the plans, the shared road would continue to give private vehicles access — presumably to accommodate deliveries, for example — but also allow temporary closures for pedestrian-only events like street fairs and concerts.
Part and parcel with the plaza would be adding additional vendor and performer space, as well as preserving what’s already there. “Vendors are very, very important for the life of the street,” said Taecker. “We wanted to give them high-quality space, and the improvements we looked at, we’ve done things that won’t impinge on vendors.”
The new construction would also give the city license to add myriad other improvements to make the area more inviting to walk. In the short run, the plan calls for repainting the intersection at Bancroft and Telegraph to highlight the fact the signals are timed to allow pedestrians to cross diagonally — called a “scramble intersection” in urban design jargon. Such intersections are potentially planned on Telegraph from Bancroft to Dwight.
The proposals are not the first to try to envisage a brighter future for arguably Berkeley’s most well-known thoroughfare, and likely won’t be the last. Recent developments — including new construction and the arrival of new merchants — have been largely positive, several local business-owners said recently. But the continuing presence of transient populations and homeless people, spurred by Telegraph’s proximity to People’s Park, does present a continuing “struggle with community sidewalk behaviors,” Baker told Berkeleyside last month.
The Public Realm plan, Taecker said, is just the beginning of the possibilities for the avenue. The near-term and demonstration projects, according to documents, could be completed in 2016 or 2017. In the longer run, once city residents get a chance to see the demo projects in action, and view the ambitious goals on paper, he hopes others will take matters into their own plans. Those could take between three and ten years to implement — depending on the specific component.
“I hope it excites people to go out and find grants and funding to add additional improvements,” he said. “I’m an urban planner, but having that plan in place is what allows people to rally around something to get more done.”
Merchants see recent changes on Telegraph Avenue as mostly positive (08.22.16)