The Center Street garage, which opens today, has brightly colored stairs, green on one side, red on the other. Photo: Jef Poskanzer Credit: Jef Poskanzer

Over the course of just five minutes Thursday morning, three drivers tried entering the Addison side of the Berkeley’s new Center Street Parking Garage.

All three looked disappointed when the city’s transportation manager, Farid Javandel, said they had to wait one more day.

“From commuters, I’ve been hearing it is the best-looking new building in downtown Berkeley,” Javandel said, smiling at the idea.

The city opens the $40 million, eight-level facility with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 1 p.m. today. It’s the first new city garage built in nearly a decade. And, in typical Berkeley style, it’s very forward-thinking.

More spacious than typical parking facilities, thanks to its double-helix design, the garage is solar-powered and adds 720 parking spaces downtown, with space for 350 bicycles, 20 charging stations for electric cars (it’s wired for an additional 37), an area for public art, retail space, and a nerve center overseeing all three city-run garages. There are also several dedicated spots for car-share vehicles, plus lower-level spots for short-term parking, to encourage shopping in nearby stores.

At night, the Center Street garage is an array of color. Photo: Valerie Carter

Bordered by Addison Street to the north (across from Berkeley Repertory Theater), the 248,000 square-feet garage replaces the former Center Street Garage, which was built in 1958 and closed in June 2016.

Located at 2025 Center Street, the structure includes a state-of-the-art guidance system, with overhead units lit with green or red lights next to cameras monitoring the traffic flow at garage intersections. The displays allow drivers to see where to find the empty spaces. The Center Street side of the garage has green markings, while the Addison side has red. Large arrows on the ground outline safe pathways for walking to the closest exit.

Near the entrances sit air-filling machines (for cars and bikes) and bike valet and storage service.

“It’s like going to the cleaners,” said Parking Services Manager Danette Perry. “The staff takes your bike and puts it in the back.”

They can also do minor repairs for a small fee, while patrons hang around the coffee bar across the room.

“The bike station is a wonderful addition, plus the café space (across the room),” said John Caner, the CEO of the Downtown Berkeley Association. “From a business perspective, 720 parking spaces is a tremendous asset for downtown. (City) staff has done an amazing job on this.”

Caner used words like “amazing” and “extraordinary” to describe the garage.

“It’s been over two years (since the old garage closed) and it’s been tough,” said Caner, who called the old facility “tired” and said it was difficult to maneuver for cars. “We’re absolutely thrilled.”

The structure also has a flexible lane in each entrance that can switch directions based on time of day which will avoid some of the previous traffic backups caused by big events in the neighboring arts district.

It also features public lobby bathrooms with stainless steel fixtures, tiled walls and floors, and large, doorless entrances. Not coincidentally, both are within a few yards of a security guard station. “That’s really important to us because the old ones were a little scary,” said Caner.

New city garage at Center Street. Photo: Gordon Hansen

The new garage has brightly colored, open-air staircases on the building’s exterior, a direct contrast to other garages, where users might feel constrained using interior stairwells. “It should certainly seem more secure,” Javandel said.

The garage – which Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín has called “probably the greenest parking garage in California” – likely already rates a LEED Gold or Silver rating for its environmental-friendly design and features, according to Perry. The solar panels, which cover approximately half the top level, provide enough energy for the garage and then some. The city considered setting up a system by which excess power generated by the panels could be used outside the garage in emergencies, but ultimately decided it wasn’t cost effective. That could change down the line.

While the design not only increases capacity and accessibility, it improves pedestrian access and creates more space on surrounding sidewalks.

“The idea is to do more and more to make downtown more pedestrian friendly,” said Javandel, who added that planners also designed the garage to mesh well with the design of surrounding buildings, like Berkeley Rep. The top floor has impressive views stretching all the way to the Bay and surrounding hills. Rainwater will flow through cisterns to irrigate planters adjacent to the building.

“We got very creative during design,” said Javandel.

And there’s more creativity to come. The designated art space – which has the capacity to use projectors for light displays – currently holds photos and information about the newly constructed garage. That will change, once the city arts commission decides what to put inside.

“They’re really trying for more dynamic art,” Javandel said.

The Center Street garage is open Monday through Friday, from 5:15 a.m. until midnight; 7 a.m. to midnight Saturdays; and noon to midnight Sundays. The cost is $3 per hour for the first four hours, then the daily rate of $25 kicks in. The flat fee drops to $15 for early birds who arrive before 9 a.m. and leave by 6 p.m. The evening rate is $8 after 5 p.m. Monthly parking costs $250.

The garage is the latest addition to a downtown face-lift that includes the recently-renovated BART plaza a block away on Shattuck Avenue. A 16-story hotel is under construction just east of the garage, and a major re-configuration of Shattuck will commence in 2019.

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Tony Hicks is an East Bay native who spent 22 years working for Bay Area News Group, covering crime, education and the city of Berkeley. He also worked in the features department of the Contra Costa Times,...