After 4.5 years leading Telegraph Avenue’s merchants association, Stuart Baker has stepped down from the role to take a well-deserved break.
Baker’s last days as executive director of the Telegraph Business Improvement District (TBID) were in December. That month, the Berkeley City Council honored him with a proclamation for his efforts to develop the Telegraph Public Realm Plan to improve the avenue for everyone, fight for public restrooms in the busy shopping district, and push for student housing projects near campus, among other achievements.
“Telegraph and Southside have been so lucky for Stuart Baker’s years of service. From new murals to trash corrals to the continued excellence of the ambassadors program, Telegraph has been transformed under his leadership,” Councilman Rigel Robinson, who represents District 7’s Southside neighborhood, told Berkeleyside this week.
John Caner, who runs the downtown merchants group — the Downtown Berkeley Association — said Baker did an extraordinary job developing a vision for the avenue and coming up with a plan to make it happen. He credited Baker for bringing beautiful new murals, as well as other improvements, such as Telegraph’s peace sign bike racks and its mosaicked trash receptacles, to the neighborhood.
“It’s his attention to detail but also his strategic mind, his compassion and caring and really intense level of commitment,” Caner said. Baker also built strong partnerships with everyone he worked with, Caner added, from the merchants and property owners to the City Council and UC Berkeley. “He’s really an extraordinary individual. I miss him sorely.”
Berkeleyside sat down with Baker to hear some of his thoughts about what he accomplished and what he sees coming to the avenue in terms of business, housing, streets and transit, and more.
It’s been an interesting time to be in charge. There have been protests and political clashes, and the closure of Telegraph institutions like Caffe Med and Shakespeare & Co. Work finally began in a long-vacant lot on a student dormitory designed to look like a Moorish palace. The community prepared to say goodbye to quirky indoor mall The Village. The University of California announced it would build housing in People’s Park.
In recent years, commercial vacancy rates on Telegraph Avenue have fallen from a high of nearly 18% in 2012 to a low of closer to 4%, according to economic data from the city. Sales tax revenue on Telegraph has been trending up in both food services and retail, the two biggest types of commerce in the neighborhood.
Baker said he made it a point when he began working on Telegraph in June 2015 to find ways to improve mobility and accessibility around the avenue. He wanted to make it cleaner and safer, but he also wanted to boost the district’s visual impact.
“This area was just a canvas waiting to have color applied to it,” he said. That’s where the murals, mosaics and peace sign bike racks came in.
One of Baker’s most memorable achievements, he said, was the creation of a smartphone app designed to help people learn about Telegraph Avenue’s rich history. He said he wanted to make that history more accessible to visitors.
“I’d see tourists coming from Germany and France. They’d come down the street and be looking around,” he said. Baker said he would often field their questions. “We’ve heard so much about Telegraph Avenue,” they’d tell him. “What’s here? What do we do?”
He said helping conceptualize the app was a challenge because it involved finding 10 people who had lived through significant moments on the avenue, such as the civil rights shop-ins at Lucky’s Supermarket and the time someone firebombed Cody’s Books because it had Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses” on display.
As for the now-iconic peace sign bike racks, Baker said he went through several manufacturers before finding a small outfit of “hippie welders” in San Francisco. The owner promised to give the bike racks special treatment to ensure the best weld possible because he “felt so much affiliation with the peace symbol.”
The bike racks went in on Telegraph during the same year protests over Milo Yiannopoulos swept through the area. Merchants boarded up their windows as the political clashes sometimes resulted in property damage. The strain of those repeated protests made it a difficult year for many in Berkeley. Baker recalled Moe’s owner Doris Moskowitz telling him that, when she the peace sign bike racks being installed, however, she knew things were going to be OK.
Among other new artworks, Baker brought a mural in homage to Chiura Obata to the corner of Telegraph and Dwight, and a huge mural to the wall outside Mars Vintage. He said that painting has become the most Instagrammed image in the district. The mural, which features huge blossoms, several planets, a magic eight ball and other images, has a surrealistic, groovy vibe.
“It just really represents so much of Telegraph in a strange and eye-catching way,” he said.
The first big mural idea Baker came up with, however, was outside Shakespeare & Co. when that shop was closing. The business owner wanted a temporary mural during construction, so Baker went to Craiglist and posed a question: “I’ve got this great wall, would you paint it?” he wrote.
Artist Nigel Sussman answered the ad. For Sussman, who has now gone on to make murals in downtown Oakland and Berkeley and for major clients like Nike and Google, it was his first public gig, Baker said. Sussman also created a mural on boards outside the Mezzo and Raleigh’s storefronts while they were under construction. But people liked it so much, the owner ultimately had it installed inside.
Baker said it wasn’t surprising that Sussman had gone on to bigger gigs after that first Shakespeare & Co. mural. The artist purposely chose the avenue as his debut, Baker said, because it’s such a high-profile location.
“He knew that people would see it on Telegraph Avenue,” said Baker.
Over the years, he said, it had been hard to say goodbye to spots like Tammy’s Chicken & Waffles and Smart Alec’s, which ultimately was replaced by a Super Duper burger shop. That wasn’t a smooth transition, to say the least. Baker said Super Duper struggled for more than a year over a planning department technicality related to regulations about quotas on the avenue. Ultimately, Baker worked with the city to change the regulations to make the process more fair, he said.
And, of course, there was the Med, which closed in 2016. It was the end of an era, he said.
“That was one of the best parties,” Baker recalled, of the closing night festivities. “Seeing all the characters, having the mayor there. Having the place packed. So many memories and so much connection. It was this rare moment when everyone in Berkeley got together and felt the same way.”
During his tenure, Baker also pushed for zoning changes to make it easier for eateries to open, as well as making parking requirements more streamlined. He helped change how the city approaches entertainment venues, too, such that businesses like AxeVentures — which invites customers to try their hand at the sport of axe throwing — to open with a zoning certificate rather than a more onerous permit process.
Baker said he’s also done whatever he can to support the construction of new housing near the UC Berkeley campus. According to one housing pipeline estimate by the city, there are nearly 580 units and, separately, about 2,000 beds under construction, approved or recently completed in the neighborhood. Sustainability is at the heart of his passion.
“If you can walk to your class over taking a bus, your carbon footprint is better,” he said.
Baker said he’s excited to see The Enclave — inspired by Moorish architecture — take shape at Telegraph and Haste. And he is fully in support of the university’s plan to build housing at People’s Park for 1,000 students and 100 homeless individuals.
“We are in a place that we’ve been able to make that change happen,” Baker said. “It really is a win-win.”
Looking ahead, he said he’s interested to see how the city’s disposable foodware ordinance goes in addition to how local merchants will tackle challenges related to garbage and recycling pickup. Unlike some other cities, there are no alleyways on Telegraph for trash bins, so the only place to put them is right on the sidewalk. Baker has experimented with how to shield those bins from view to diminish their impact, but it’s been a work in progress.
Baker said he’s also excited to see what happens with the reconfiguration of some of the streets in the Southside neighborhood to create two-way protected bike lanes, better signalization and bus shelters, among other changes.
But the project that’s been closest to his heart, he said, was the creation of a new program to let members of the association’s outreach team — known as ambassadors — rent rooms at the downtown Berkeley YMCA. Now, they don’t have to spend hours commuting on public transit from places like Redwood City every day, he said.
“To not have that commute and to live in the community that you serve, it’s just so powerful to be a part of that,” Baker said. “Just to hear the situations folks come from. To have that ability to exercise, cook their own meals, close a door behind them and have a place to call their own, it’s just wonderful.”
Baker said he’s hoping to put more of his time, post-Telegraph Avenue, into efforts related to work around housing. There’s no concrete plan for what that might look like, but there’s certainly no shortage of opportunities to attack the crisis.
So why is he stepping down now? Baker said he put a lot of energy into the TBID work and just needed to regroup for awhile before his next venture.
“This job has a certain level of intensity,” he said. “With that comes a certain shelf life. I just feel like, if I were to stay longer, I would become less effective because of the demands of the job.”