Telegraph Avenue redesign gets green light from Berkeley City Council

Plans call for a new bus lane along four blocks of Telegraph near UC Berkeley, plus a new curbless, plaza-style design for the avenue.

The Berkeley City Council approved a plan to reserve one of Telegraph Avenue’s two traffic lanes for buses along the four blocks between Dwight Way and campus. Credit: Nico Savidge

Plans to dramatically redesign the north end of Telegraph Avenue with a new bus lane and curbless, plaza-style street are moving forward with the Berkeley City Council’s approval.

More than a decade after the city shot down a plan for a bus rapid transit project along the corridor to UC Berkeley, councilmembers on Tuesday night unanimously approved the outlines of a smaller-scale project that will dedicate one of Telegraph’s two traffic lanes to public transit for a four-block stretch near campus. Three other nearby streets will also get new protected bike lanes and reworked intersections as part of an $8.3 million project that aims to improve bicyclist and pedestrian safety in the bustling Southside neighborhood.

And changes along Telegraph may not stop there, as the council also voted to launch a process exploring whether to ban private cars altogether from a stretch of the avenue north of Dwight Way. Dozens of speakers called for that change at Tuesday’s meeting, many of them UC Berkeley students backing a car-free vision championed by the advocacy group Telegraph for People.

“By removing cars from Telegraph and providing safe and enjoyable alternatives — including transit riding, walking [and] cycling — we encourage people to leave their cars behind and embrace more environmentally friendly modes of transportation,” student Cecilia Lunaparra told the council.

A city diagram shows the new Telegraph Avenue design that was approved this week. Plans call for creating a new bus lane along four blocks of the avenue north of Dwight Way, and raising the street to create a curbless plaza. Credit: City of Berkeley rendering

Several speakers criticized existing street designs in the neighborhood, saying they prioritize car drivers when far more residents and visitors get around on foot, bike and public transit. The city’s Southside Complete Streets plan amounts to a redistribution of that space along portions of Bancroft Way, Dana Street and Fulton Street, in addition to Telegraph — buses and bicycles would get new dedicated lanes, while car drivers would have fewer traffic lanes or reduced street parking.

“The conditions that we deal with as students on Telegraph every day as pedestrians and transit riders are just unacceptable — we’re crowded onto sidewalks that are way too narrow and buses that are blocked by traffic,” student Sam Greenberg said in comments at Tuesday’s meeting. “Students need bus lanes, we need bike lanes, we need a car-free Telegraph.”

Crews are scheduled to break ground on the project next year; it’s funded with grants from Caltrans and the Alameda County Transportation Commission.

Many of the neighborhood’s merchants are unhappy with the changes, though, concerned that they could increase traffic congestion and make customer parking or commercial deliveries more difficult.

Ken Sarachan, a vocal opponent of the Telegraph redesign who owns Rasputin Records and other Southside properties, derided the project’s plan to raise Telegraph Avenue’s roadway to be level with the sidewalk. Proponents say that will create an inviting pedestrian-oriented plaza; according to Sarachan, it would instead amount to “one big food court on Telegraph for students.”

“You’re going to totally destroy what’s left of a deteriorating economic environment on Telegraph,” Sarachan told the council.

The Telegraph Business Improvement District has asked council members to adopt a different set of street designs, one of which would install a two-way bike track on Telegraph rather than a transit lane. Endorsing the bus lane, executive director Alex Knox warned, “Could get in the way of constructive engagement with our community on important improvements to the pedestrian environment.” The council did not discuss the district’s proposal Tuesday night.

Councilmember Rigel Robinson, a longtime supporter of the car-free Telegraph plan who represents the area, stressed that key details of the project — including precisely how it will affect parking and loading space — will be determined as city staff develop specific engineering plans over the next several months. That process will involve more outreach to the neighborhood’s residents and businesses, he said.

High school student Fern Hahn was one of several speakers Tuesday night who argued merchants are misguided in their fear that the project will make the area hostile to customers. Backers of the bus lane and car-free ideas cited a range of examples — from pedestrian-only historic districts in Europe to UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza and Sather Lane, which were once roadways — to argue that booting private vehicles will make Telegraph a more attractive destination, rather than a thoroughfare.

“Give public space back to the people and everyone will reap benefits,” Hahn said.

Nico Savidge is Berkeleyside's senior reporter covering city hall. Email: nico@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: NSavidge.