The Shattuck-University intersections are being reconfigured as part of the Downtown Area Plan. Work began this week and is expected to take up to two years. Photo: Tracey Taylor

This week Berkeley began transforming a dangerous area, around the intersection of Shattuck and University avenues in downtown, into a friendlier thoroughfare for drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists.

The city is eliminating one-way traffic on Shattuck that staggers northbound vehicles that have to turn left onto University before having to turn right to continue onto Shattuck. It sounds simple enough in theory, but the extra turn has helped make the busy intersection bordering Shattuck Square a danger zone for anyone trying to walk, ride or drive through it.

“The reconfiguration of Shattuck, between Allston and University, is particularly exciting,” said councilwoman Kate Harrison, whose District 4 includes downtown. “It will improve pedestrian safety, especially at the Shattuck and University intersection.”

The Shattuck Reconfiguration Plan is part of a $10.3 million effort, approved by the City Council in 2013, to revitalize the stretch and improve access to BART, downtown merchants, and improve safety for everyone moving through the area. Funding came from a combination of sources, including city and regional ballot measures, the state, and a grant from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. The project — slated to take place over the next year-and-a-half to two years — is part of the larger Downtown Area Plan, launched in 2012, and the Streets and Open Space Plan, which got started in 2013.

“The biggest thing is trying to increase safety and trying to increase flow through the downtown,” said city spokesman Matthai Chakko. “That right turn onto Shattuck (from westbound University) has been a priority of ours for years. We’re trying to make it safer for pedestrians.”

Chakko sourced data from July 1, 1997 to June 30, 2007 that showed there were 16 vehicle-pedestrian collisions at the intersection of Shattuck and University — the highest rate on record over a 10-year period.

John Caner, executive director of the Downtown Berkeley Association, said there is a lot going on in the downtown area, citing the street project alongside the re-developed Downtown BART station, the new Center Street parking garage, and Pyramid Hotel Group’s 16-story hotel under construction on Shattuck at Center Street, as major improvements in the area.

“By the end of 2020, it’s almost a new downtown,” Caner said. “In the long term, it’s all good news.”

City traffic engineers estimate the three-block stretch from Shattuck to University, back to northbound Shattuck, costs drivers 25 extra seconds, per car, during commute hours. Multiply that by the number of cars traveling through the area, and the delay becomes significant.

The project will also turn the one-way western strip of Shattuck into a four-lane, two-way street, re-directing northbound traffic straight through that part of downtown without turns. Adjacent sidewalks, from Center to University, will be narrowed slightly – to eight feet – until April 2019, and street parking will be eliminated on the western side of Shattuck.

The eastern, northbound stretch of Shattuck will get the reverse treatment. One lane of the three-lane stretch will be eliminated for diagonal parking, which will double the amount of spaces in the immediate area. Bordering sidewalks will be widened, with the entire area losing just one parking spot.

One lane on northbound Shattuck will be closed from February 11 until May, as EBMUD relocates a water main.

Between Shattuck and Oxford Street, work has already been completed so that Hearst Avenue lost a traffic lane but gained turn pockets, plus an uphill bike lane and a median strip, creating more safety for pedestrians. Parking on Hearst from Oxford to Euclid Avenue was replaced by a bike lane and sidewalk. The opposite side of Oxford is now emblazoned with share-the-road arrows and the divider is still in place. Alongside the campus, a physical divider separates cars and bicycles.

Caner said redeveloping the Downtown Berkeley BART station on Shattuck “was a really big deal,” and better pedestrian flow will not only help downtown merchants, but rail commuters too.

After delays and rising costs, the rebuilt, $13 million BART Plaza opened in October, featuring new glass awnings over the entrance, increased illumination at night, art by local artists (including sound installations playing through eight sound and light poles), outdoor café tables and chairs, increased sidewalk seating at nearby restaurants, and live music.

The BART project was funded by various sources, including Measure F and state Proposition 1B. Money also came from the city’s Arts Commission and Berkeley’s 1.5% tax on city-funded construction for public art. The city is required to set aside that money for art when it takes out bonds for capital construction.

Despite the presence of new temporary signs alerting drivers to the work on Shattuck, Chakko said residents “can still drive to downtown,” and that they can use the city’s new state-of-the-art, 720-space Center Street parking garage.

Chakko also stressed that the downtown is still fully functional and open for business during the construction. But, if drivers can take alternative routes to get through the intersection of Shattuck and University over the next 18 to 24 months, they should.

Correction: This story was updated after publication to make clear that the work on Hearst Avenue that is part of the Downtown Area Plan has already been completed.

This story was updated after publication with new information from the city on collision data.

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,...