Activists, actors, former presidents — even a soft French cheese.
Any of the above could end up permanently affixed to a street sign in downtown Berkeley.
The city’s $10.3 million Shattuck Avenue reconfiguration project, which began this year, will eliminate the split, one-way stretches of the street between University Avenue and Allston Way. The project will create a two-way thoroughfare on the western side and build a new, narrower, two-block street to the east.
That’s where Barack Obama Street, Love and Compassion Way and, yes, Brie Boulevard come in.
If you’ve walked around the area this week, you’ve likely seen a chalkboard installed at 2025 Shattuck Ave. — the old Mandarin Garden site — and a solicitation from the city of Berkeley for street name suggestions. Several people have already scrawled submissions on this “idea wall,” which will stay up through the end of the year. The only rules: “Nothing disrespectful, mean or vulgar please.”
The young man who strolled up to the wall Thursday, backpack on and earphones dangling, and paused to think for a moment before quickly scribbling “Piss Off” and then continuing on his way, might have missed those instructions.
The naming project is led by Berkeley’s Office of Economic Development. The city is also collecting submissions via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and sharing more information at a community meeting at the restaurant Veggie Grill at 48 Shattuck Sq. on Thursday, Oct. 24 at 3 p.m. A new committee will distill the suggestions down to a shortlist of 10 names, then the Public Works Commission will pick half of those to list on the Berkeley Considers public input website and to present to the City Council, which will make the final decision in early 2020.
City spokesman Matthai Chakko said the interactive naming process is part of the broader city effort to calm a dangerous intersection and make Berkeley’s streets “more encompassing of all the people who use them, whether they’re on foot or on bicycle.”
“This is really a street that’s very central to our entire community,” Chakko said. “It’s just more appropriate to involve the whole community in this kind of decision.”
Stopping at the chalkboard Thursday afternoon, Berkeley resident Carlos Fernandez-Gray said he was startled by the shortage of locally focused suggestions on the list so far. The attorney and writer has lived in Berkeley most of his life after spending his childhood in Colorado (“but my mother says I was conceived here”) and said he’d like to see the area’s history and unique identity better reflected on the brainstorm list.
“I would go with ‘Bears’ before ’49er Ave.,'” he said, tsk-tsk-ing at one of the scribbled ideas.
Fernandez-Gray’s own contribution: Ohlone Plaza or Ohlone Place.
“I’m surprised it wasn’t there already,” he said, on his homage to the indigenous people of the Northern California coast.
Another man, Diego Sanchez, wandered over to the idea board around the same time.
“It’s a great exercise in community engagement and city planning, very original,” Sanchez said.
A Mexico City native in Berkeley to get his master’s degree in real estate, Sanchez said he didn’t necessarily understand the handful of local references that had made it onto the board.
Instead, he proposed a more personally resonant name: Student Way.
Fernandez-Gray noted that current Cal students like Sanchez might be disgruntled to find out that the very stretch of roadway in question was once named Stanford Place.
Local historian Steve Finacom confirmed the unthinkable tidbit, but noted that namesake Leland Stanford, the president of the Central Pacific Railroad, had a strong Berkeley connection too. What’s now called Shattuck Square, and splits the two sides of the street, was once home to a prominent train station.
“In the days of extensive railroad development in the 19th century it was not uncommon to name physical features —streets, new towns, etc. — along a railroad in honor of railroad officials,” Finacom said in an email. “I believe the same practice was followed in Oakland with the naming of Stanford Street — which is still there — along the alignment of the branch railroad line.”
There is no railroad royalty written on the new idea board (yet), but some of today’s revered figures — Beyoncé, for example — have not been left out.
The renaming project is just a small piece of the overall effort to reconfigure one of the most central intersections in town.
City planners say the split part of Shattuck has been problematic for decades. The right turn from westbound University to northbound Shattuck is awkward, and a hotspot for collisions and road rage incidents. The city says the project will eliminate that unwieldiness as well as the added time it takes for cars to snake around the east side of Shattuck Square.
The Shattuck Reconfiguration Plan was originally approved in 2013, with construction starting this past January. The whole project is expected to take two years, and work is on schedule, according to Chakko. Funding for the major project is coming from local and regional ballot measures, the state and a Metropolitan Transportation Commission grant. Berkeleyside has asked the city for the specific cost of renaming the eastern part of the project zone.
Other local institutions have been renamed recently too: LeConte Elementary became Sylvia Mendez, and the South Branch Library is now named after Tarea Hall Pittman. The longtime use of “Gourmet Ghetto” to label the North Berkeley foodie neighborhood has prompted plenty of recent debate.
The city’s 2012 renaming policy calls for monikers that “will enhance the values and heritage of the city of Berkeley and will be compatible with community interest.”
Berkeley agencies are hardly alone in facing a widespread reckoning, in recent years, over iconic names now considered outdated or offensive. Changing those names can be challenging and controversial.
The Shattuck Renaming Project presents a rare opportunity for name change without loss. Local government official Francis Kittredge Shattuck will continue to be represented on many a block, from North Berkeley to North Oakland.
Now, per the ideas chalked-in so far, Angela Davis or, uh, Pandaman have their shots at immortalization as well.
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