Can Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue get its mojo back?

Berkeley Design Advocates, a group of urban design specialists, recently formed a charrette to brainstorm ideas for Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue

When a group of urban design experts gather to brainstorm ideas for revitalizing Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue there are some unstated, but fundamental, shared understandings. People’s Park, which abuts the avenue, is a sensitive issue, as are the street’s semi-permanent populations of homeless people and transient youth. Suggesting any type of change in general can be a tough call in Berkeley. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that when a student group calling itself the Telegraph Livable Coalition some time ago drafted a checklist of 21 things that might be achieved on Telegraph before they graduated, the starting point was that they would only consider issues “that nobody would protest against.”

Last weekend, Berkeley Design Advocates, a volunteer group of architects, urban planners and transit specialists, came together to drum up new visions for Telegraph Avenue. They called it the Telegraph Project charrette, using the French term that has come to mean an intense period of design activity. Members of the public were encouraged to attend and bring their own thoughts to the Friday night kick-off session at which the avenue’s “current state of play” was presented.

The group then met early on Saturday, April 14, and worked through the morning sketching, debating and mapping a possible future for Telegraph. The results were shared with a 50-strong community group on Saturday afternoon.

Berkeley Design Advocates split into sub-groups and worked on different aspects of the issues facing Telegraph Avenue

Potential constraints to any proposals were deliberately set aside — the aim was blue-sky thinking — but Mayor Tom Bates, who attended the Saturday debrief, spoke of at least one way the beginning of a transformation could be funded. Money for the shelved Bus Rapid Transit proposal is still available, he said, and AC Transit is willing to make concessions. This could kickstart change on the avenue, he said.


Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue was once one of the nation’s most storied streets, and certainly one of the country’s most important college streets. Known as the birthplace of the free-speech movement, it was for years a destination for visitors and a thriving shopping and eating hub for local residents. “It was the center for civic life in Berkeley, with people flocking there at weekends for lively handicrafts markets,” said Dave Fogarty from the city’s economic development department who presented at the Friday session of the charrette.

Much thought was given to the west corner of Telegraph and Dwight and the stretch of Telegraph that leads to Blake

Today, vacant lots and empty storefronts testify to the impact of market changes that have struck  books and music retailers particularly hard, two of Telegraph’s mainstays for many years. In 1990, Telegraph was Berkeley’s largest sales district when measured by sales tax, said Fogarty, but it has seen a 40% decline since then, 70% of which is concentrated in retail rather than restaurants.

“The problem is that Telegraph hasn’t reinvented itself,” Fogarty said.

Compounding the problem is that the UC Berkeley students who represent a core target market for Telegraph don’t share a nostalgia for the street’s 1960s heyday, and many of them turn their back of the avenue. In a 2011 survey of 1,800 graduate and undergraduate students, half of the respondents said they visited the street less than once a month to shop, work, or get personal or professional services. The stores they do visit, according to research, are big-box ones such as Target and Bed Bath & Beyond. Students do like the retail spine of Bancroft opposite the campus, which is served by stores such as Urban Outfitters and American Apparel.

Landscape specialists envisaged more trees, particularly at intersections, leaving “open living room” stretches in between

And big changes are coming to the Cal end of Telegraph which could keep students away from the street still further, or potentially create a hub of activity which spills over from the Bancroft Way edge of campus onto the avenue. A $223 million proposal for a revamped Lower Sproul Plaza will see Eshleman Hall replaced with new buildings for student activities including many dining options. The aim is for the area to be a beacon: a lively 24-hour place that will be open all night long. (Berkeleyside will be reporting on this separately.)

Here are some of the ideas that were conceived during the charrette:

  • Returning Telegraph Avenue to two-way traffic.
  • Getting Telegraph listed as a Historic District.
  • Embedding plaques in the sidewalks with references to the avenue’s “free speech” legacy.
  • Make Telegraph a 24-hour destination with expanded permits for restaurants, and attractions such as nightclubs, comedy clubs and theaters.
  • Build more student and affordable housing to make it more of a “working neighborhood” and increase density and foot traffic.
  • Plant trees and introduce new landscaping, particulary around intersections, leaving the rest of the street as stretches of “open living rooms”.
  • Add inexpensive sidewalk furniture, such as benches.
  • Attract more “anchor” stores to the street.
  • Open up the blank walls of the Bank of America building at Telegraph and Durant.
  • Make Telegraph an all-ages destination and attract a more diverse population.
  • Tackle the dangerous slip-road crossing at Dwight and Telegraph by subsuming it into a park space. Couple this with a widening of the sidewalks in the Dwight-Blake block.
  • Create a rooftop destination on parking garage which would offer views of the bay.
  • Create a transit platform with a canopy near the Dwight-Telegraph intersection.
  • Intensify parking in nearby streets, including potentially introducing diagonal parking on Dwight and Durant..
  • Pursue a Chancellor’s Grant worth $100,000 to be invested in lighting, specifically garlands of LED lights crisscrossing the avenue with chandeliers at center points. (See sketch below.)
  • Eliminate buses on Telegraph.
  • Make Telegraph pedestrian-only, and boost parking at the four corners.
  • Bolster the Amoeba experience with live music sessions.
  • Create a Jupiter-style beer garden in the Sequoia Building vacant lot at Haste and Telegraph.
  • Create more activities around the edges of People’s Park — walking routes, parking, student performance spaces, a Caffe Med back terrace giving on to park — and encourage more members of the community to use the park.
A Chancellor’s Grant might be invested in lighting, specifically garlands of LED lights crisscrossing the avenue with chandeliers at the center
The Telegraph Project charrette group, who worked together on a volunteer basis

Berkeley Design Advocates hopes to write up its concepts into a “document for debate” and the designs and ideas will also be displayed in a vacant storefront on Telegraph for the general public to peruse.

Related:
Imagining a future for Telegraph Avenue without blinders [04.11.12]
Telegraph fire site owner plans for temporary resurrection [02.06.12]
Urban think tank: Student visions for blighted Telegraph lot [10.03.11]
City hands ultimatum to Sarachan on vacant Telegraph lot [09.07.11]
What about that vacant lot on Haste and Telegraph? [08.11.11]
Berkeley students want better stores, fewer street people [05.31.11]
City says it is addressing Telegraph Avenue rats problem [02.10.11]
The rats of Telegraph Avenue (video) [01.28.11]