Gehl Studio is helping the city of Berkeley reimagine how its Civic Center might function. Photo: Emilie Raguso

People go out of their way to avoid Berkeley’s Civic Center. When they’re running nearby, they’ll pick less direct routes through the neighborhood so they don’t have to go by it, a survey found. On Saturdays, when the farmers market is in full swing, there’s little overflow into the large park alongside it that was originally designed to serve as the heart of the city.

But Berkeley officials and staff are hoping to change all that. Last year, the city hired consultant Gehl Studio to run a robust public process that aims to use community input to reimagine how Berkeley’s Civic Center works and transform it from a largely empty space into the city’s “main square.”

That could mean more activities and events for all ages, or a center devoted to the study of social change or the free speech movement. There could be symphony performances in the park, or perhaps a redesigned, world-class interactive museum to display the extensive archives held by the Berkeley Historical Society. There might even be food trucks. At this point, the city is asking members of the public to share ideas about what they would like to see.

“It is about your Civic Center,” project manager Rute Nieto Ferreira told officials at a recent meeting. “It is about everybody in Berkeley’s Civic Center. They should own this project.”

Since last year, Ferreira and the project team, which includes Siegel & Strain Architects, Taecker Planning & Design and Strategic Economics along with Gehl, have been taking a close look at three main sites: Civic Center Park, the Maudelle Shirek Building (aka Old City Hall) and the Veterans Memorial Building. They’ve held various workshops and focus groups since the effort began. Two workshops — one this Saturday and then another on March 26 — are scheduled for the coming weeks.

The goal of the project is to turn Berkeley’s Civic Center into a public commons where everyone feels comfortable, “a place designed for civic participation, cultural events, community interaction, and where one can sit and relax,” according to Gehl.

In January, Gehl presented its work during a Berkeley City Council work session. Few members of the public were in attendance, but former state Sen. Loni Hancock and her husband Tom Bates, Berkeley’s last mayor, were among them. Both told council they were excited to consider the possibilities of what could be a momentous undertaking. They also said the city would be wise to figure out the financing, which is likely to require private-sector partnerships, sooner rather than later.

John Caner, who lives a few blocks from the park and also runs Berkeley’s downtown business association, said he and other neighbors have a “real hunger for a place that’s going to be inviting.”

He said the endeavor would likely involve a “massive bond measure” along with philanthropy or private money, but that it would be worth it: “Let’s not preclude dreaming big on this,” Caner told officials. “We’re Berkeley. This is an incredible asset, this Civic Center.”

Berkeley’s Civic Center historic district includes the Civic Center building, where city offices are headquartered; Berkeley High School, the U.S. Post Office, the YMCA building and more. The district was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998, according to the city.


“Originally conceived at the turn of the 20th Century, the Civic Center was master planned and molded by City Beautiful Movement principles, and anchored by the 1909 construction of Berkeley’s second City Hall (now known as the Maudelle Shirek Building at 2134 Martin Luther King Jr Way),” according to a recent staff report. “The plan transformed the City’s center into a cohesive group of civic buildings surrounding a central park by the 1940s. Today the Civic Center comprises portions of the area surrounding Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park including the Maudelle Shirek Building ‘Old City Hall’ (1909) and the Veterans Memorial Building (1928) which flank the Park on the west and north sides.”

When it hired Gehl, Berkeley asked the firm to focus on the park, Old City Hall and the veterans building. As part of the work, each site was assessed to learn about its historic significance and also what sort of repairs would be needed to address safety and other issues.

In the fall, Gehl did a “Public Space Public Life” survey to observe how community members are currently using the park and its environs. Over two days in October, the project team counted people using the park as well as those moving through the area in a 12-hour period. The found that the park is not “a destination” and that it tends to repel rather than attract. Because there isn’t much going on there, they found, most community members avoid it.

“It’s surrounded by quite wonderful buildings but they are quite monumental,” the project team explained to council last month. “The scale of the buildings isn’t particularly inviting. Some of them almost turn their backs to the park.”

On the bright side, however, the team found that people do use the park during the “right” conditions — such as during large events or on a sunny day when the ledges of the Civic Center building are popular with students. They also found that the space is multi-generational, with quite a few teenage users. The park is surrounded by historic buildings that are “awaiting their next act,” Gehl found.

Ghigo DiTommaso, Gehl’s design director, told council about several “design opportunities” the team has identified for Civic Center. Later this month, at the March 26 workshop, Gehl is slated to present up to three conceptual designs that will encapsulate all the community feedback that’s been collected.

DiTommaso said the team is looking at ways to strengthen the link between Civic Center and the UC Berkeley campus.

“We want to see more pedestrian flow coming down from Center Street all the way to Civic Center,” DiTommaso said. Gehl hopes to draw foot traffic from the BART Plaza, which saw its own overhaul and subsequent rebirth in recent years, westward on Center Street to the new main square.

The team is also looking at how to activate several Civic Center buildings — including the city offices on Milvia and the high school — through “design interventions” that would re-orient those structures toward the park through activities or other tweaks, such as how their entrances work. Ideas include making it safer to cross MLK to and from the Maudelle Shirek building and perhaps removing one lane of traffic in front of the veterans building. The team is considering how to bring City Council meetings back to Civic Center, which has been a recurring theme that’s come up during the public engagement process.

Gehl also plans to suggest ways to break up the park into smaller spaces that would be more inviting. The park would still be able to hold large events like a big rally, said DiTommaso, but more intimate spaces would also encourage smaller groups to use the park.

“We often heard from members of your community a lot of excitement around the idea that Civic Center could become the true heart of the community, the physical place that represents it,” he said, “just the way it is in many parts of the world.”

It’s certainly a tall order, but if anyone can help Berkeley accomplish it, it may be Gehl. The firm has been credited with transforming Times Square in New York City and Market Street in San Francisco. It’s been hired to improve public spaces everywhere from London and Istanbul to Buenos Aires.

In the January staff report, the city describes Gehl as “one of the world’s leading urban design and architecture firms.”

Jan Gehl and a partner founded Gehl Architects in Copenhagen in 2000 after several decades studying how people in cities use their public spaces, where they linger and what they avoid. For decades, engineers had been counting cars to make decisions about traffic flow. But no one, until Gehl, had really applied that approach to people.

DiTommaso told Berkeleyside in an interview last month that the team had learned valuable lessons for Berkeley during its work on its project in San Francisco. Both civic centers were designed during the same era, he said, with beautiful, monumental buildings that have massive facades. As a result, “they’re not really able to foster vibrant public life,” he said: “Everything is a little bit too big to be really hospitable.”

Blaine Merker, the managing director of Gehl’s San Francisco office and a Berkeley resident, said Gehl often looks at the “stickiness” of public spaces by seeing how many people actually stay in the area rather than moving through or around it. Gehl considers a place sticky if more than 10% actually stop. Some of the stickiest public spaces see 50% or 80% of people hunker down. Civic Center Park’s rating was 5%, the survey found.

“There’s a lot of room for improvement,” he said. And it will be a challenge to get it right because the space has to meet multiple demands: “It’s got to feel cozy when there are 20 people there and it’s got to feel comfortable when there are 10,000.”

Before Gehl, Merker worked at Rebar Art and Design Studio, which launched the “parklet” movement in San Francisco. It’s therefore no surprise to hear him wonder what Berkeley’s Civic Center might look like if there was less vehicle traffic in the immediate area.

“What would a Center Street be like that felt like it was more part of the park than the street system,” he said, “rather than creating a barrier between the park and the buildings?”

Public engagement has been at the heart of Gehl’s work. In one exercise, people filled out postcards about what they would like Civic Center to become. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Whatever happens in Berkeley, it’s going to be expensive. Depending on the approach, seismic upgrades for the veterans building are estimated to cost either $18 million or $62 million, according to a January staff report. The Maudelle Shirek Building will cost either $13 million or $33 million to rehab. The less expensive approach would fulfill basic seismic requirements.

“It has to do with how quickly you can occupy the building,” a member of the project team told council in January. With the lower budget, she added, “it won’t fall down and you can get out safely, but you may not be able to bring it back to a habitable state.”

With the higher price tag, the buildings would survive and be repairable after a seismic event.

Berkeley is using about $380,000 in T1 money to pay for the visioning process, according to the city website. The project team is set to return to council over the summer with a final report.

Mayor Jesse Arreguín said, during the January meeting, that he sees the project sites as “crown jewels” that are a significant part of Berkeley’s historic and cultural heritage and should be maintained for public use. Reenvisioning the area would turn the Civic Center into a destination that reflects Berkeley’s values and create important new venues for arts and culture in the city.

“I want us to really think big,” he said. “This is an investment in the future of our city, something that will be here for future generations.”

Councilwoman Sophie Hahn said Gehl’s presentation brought to mind the grand public spaces of cities like Paris and New York, as well as Oaxaca’s Zócalo plaza in Mexico.

“Berkeley deserves to have that level of public space. We don’t have it. I think this is our best opportunity to do that,” she said. “I think, if we inspire the people of Berkeley, they will give us the portion of the money that we need from them to do something inspired.”

Councilman Rigel Robinson — a UC Berkeley alum — said he had found himself wondering as a student about how it was that “the center of student government seemed more glamorous” than Berkeley’s city center.

“We are all good at telling our history,” he said, “but our Civic Center isn’t. And we have so much to share — that anyone stumbling in our city should be able to find easily.”

Would you like to learn more? On Saturday, March 7, the city is offering a tour of Old City Hall and the Veterans Memorial Building. On March 26, there will be a presentation of conceptual design options. Learn more about both workshops and find additional resources on the project website.

Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...