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.

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]

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  • Bruce Love


    Friends of mine who work in Bay Area boutiques say that business is booming right now.

    I don’t think you’ll see that strongly reflected in municipal tax revenues, bank lending, and so forth.

    small stores that put together relatively unique amalgamations of goods

    From the context (e.g., “boutiques”, “people with disposable income”) I think you mostly refer to higher-end stores.   In this context you are suggesting that as a matter of public policy, Berkeley should envision Telegraph as a destination point for such businesses.

    You would have a hard case to make.  The retail segment you’re talking about is not huge and faces a lot of competition in the bay area.   Telegraph (unlike 4th St.) has no exceptional features that favor that market.  In fact, just because of the heavy student population alone, Telegraph has strikes against it for that kind of development.   Nobody can predict the future of retail with certainty but the trends don’t look in favor of your idea.

    [Berkeley’s similarity to Pittsburgh]

    Pittsburgh and the surrounding, semi-integral townships are vast compared to Berkeley.   Consequently, it is a city of neighborhoods, where each closely related cluster of small neighborhoods is closer in scale to Berkeley in population, geographic size, economics, and administration.    There are a few districts in the city that are historically affluent and that have quite a lot in common with Berkeley demographically, aesthetically, politically, and economically.   The one’s closest in those ways to Berkeley are the one’s closest to the universities.

    Pittsburgh had the perversely good fortune to have its economy crash hard and bottom out years and years before everyone else’s — while managing to *mostly* avoid winding up looking like Detroit.   (Make no mistake, though — some big swaths of Pittsburgh did wind up looking like Detroit-at-its-worst.)   It affords a lot of lessons about how things fall apart and about strategies for mending that which can not ever be repaired.

    “Fascistic hate and classism”, or an accurate description of the
    junk/trinket street vendors and gutter punks panhandling and sleeping on
    the sidewalk? Tomato, tomahto.

    Wow.   You really have no idea where you live or who you are talking about, do you?

  • The Sharkey

    I don’t know if I’d consider working-class cafes and stores that sell giftware in the $1-$30 price range “high-end” but that’s a matter of opinion I suppose. Either way, it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the feasibility/practicality of installing strings of commercial-quality LED Christmas lights above the street on wires and what that could do for the feel of the area.

    The times, they are a’changin’, and not changin’ with them is what has lead Telegraph to the decline it’s in right now. Pontificating on the history of Telegraph won’t revitalize it, no matter how noble that history might be.

    I’d love to continue the discussion further but I fear we’re treading into that “tiresome back-and-forth” that our hosts have warned us not to get into. Alas!

  • I’m jes’ sayin’

     Sort of like … plants?

  • Bruce Love

     I understand the point you’re trying to make but, ironically, yes — somewhat like plants:

    Immature or naturally fragile plants have a hard time in urban settings like this, as would plants that are easy to steal for some form of profit.

    In places that I’ve seen fall apart, the “nature bandaid” planters are one of the common victims as are things like plantings around the bases of trees.

  • Greg

    If you’re pinning the development of antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria on people who largely go without medication of any kind, antibiotics included, then maybe you should direct your ire towards those who failed you in your high school science education.

  • Greg

    Given Telegraph makes the most sense as retail district serving the student population it really seems like this whole exercise missed the obvious solution.

    If ever there was a pliable demographic willing to be led around by their collective nose it is the 17-22 year old student set.  Certainly it would be cheaper to just bend their tastes to Telegraph rather than the inverse?  

    Convince the students to smoke more pot and adopt the fashion/music of the gutterpunks and watch the money roll in.  They’ll buy their bongs at Annapurna.  They’ll buy their studded belts at Hot Topic.  They’ll buy their Discharge records at Amoeba.  After all that shopping maybe a slice at Blondies?  It can’t fail!

  • The Sharkey

    Wouldn’t plants “burden the city with a new maintenance problem” and “be very precious and fussy and then look like crap when maintenance became deferred…”

    Just sayin’…

  • AlltooclosetoTelegraph

    Unfortunately I live near Telegraph and Dwight, and the area is a cesspool.  The best thing to do would be to develop people’s park, clean out the homeless encampments, and remove the urban vagrant detritus that scars the street.  It’s just an unpleasant place to walk, particularly late at night.  It’s not a safe area and as it stands now it has little to recommend it.  When out of town visitors ask, I inevitably tell them that if it’s a college town they want, they should visit Madison or some other university town.  Berkeley’s glory days are far in the past.

  • Julie

    I guess the mayor can fund what he wants and let the rest of the city needs go to hell. 
    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 Resident

    Pit bulls are abused by their owners which is why they become violent.  A kindly raised pit bull is no more violent than any other dog of its size.

  • Malcolm

    I’ve had that experience in front of the Med. Before a nut’s attack dog dove at my neck, I stopped a couple of toddlers from approaching it. The dog’s owner returned with his dog a few days later, in reach of passersby, many with children, of course.

  • batard

    Actually it’s because they  s h i t  on the sidewalk.

  • batard

    I hope that was a lame attempt at sarcasm.

    The DFH lobby is the problem, time to pave the park and remove anything that makes the area attractive to folks who own one (or fewer) pair of underpants.

  • Bruce Love

    I hope that [swipe at socially inept, effete, middle class types with offensively unjustified senses of entitlement ruining otherwise good shopping experiences] was a lame attempt at sarcasm.

    The DFH lobby is the problem, time to pave the park and remove anything that makes the area attractive to folks who own one (or fewer) pair of underpants.

    (emphasis added.)

    I only wish it could have been purely sarcastic.

  • The Sharkey


    But an abusively raised pit bull is much more dangerous than an abusively raised Dauschhund.

  • Hello I was a gutter punk there in 1990. I now live and work in Colorado. I think a start to the decline of telegraph, is when the decision was made to install the courts in peoples park. For any attraction to be liked by the public you need character. The artists and craft dealers and homeless well behaved youth and hippies brought that character. I am hearing about pitbulls and I can just imagine how it must make people feel to have to walk by them. I know I don’t like intimidating looking animals.  There was a big dog named gator, he didn’t pay no mind to any one as long as his owners said so. My thought is image….the new form of turning people off is not purple hair but grinning pit bulls. We also had dogs but not pit bulls. I would say people who go to the UC come from all over and most have the idea that pit bulls are vicious. So the choices are take away the pit bulls or take the fear of pit bulls away……make the homeless prove that their dogs are not vicious, if they can’t…then take their dogs away with out question. Just know that they will fight this action, no doubt. Always test for reaction, and make adjustments accordingly. There once was an Officer whose name I think was Pang but we always called him Officer Pain. He knew when to respect us and we showed respect back to him him when he asked for compliance. The reason I am discussing all these things is to show that respect needs to be built between the consumers and the characters of telegraph ave. If you want a consumer only district, then DO NOT incorporate substance enjoying establishments like clubs, bars, coffee shops that pander to “thinkers” or book stores with reading areas, into your plans for a new telegraph. These businesses only create a breeding ground of sympathy for homeless pandering. I suggest sticking to high dollar attorney offices, classy deli eateries ( think professional sport coat types), bridal stores, office supply shops, radio shack, chocolate shops, hair salons, athletic clubs or any businesses that promote positive directed living rather than creative meandering social awareness. I hope my opinion shows a  good impact  on your situation.


                                                                         James (Caligula (kill))  

  • yasmin

    Kill, I remember you …..

  • Charles_Siegel

    The city is finally having a public forum on these suggestions, Thursday, Feb 28, 6-8:30, in the Willard School Multipurpose Room.

    I am not surprised to hear that someone is giving out leaflets to street vendors and telling them that this is a plan to demolish all the existing buildings on Telegraph Ave. and replace them with highrises – and that a developer is waiting in the wings. The Paranoid Style in American Politics.

  • The_Sharkey

    If you can get your hands on one of those leaflets, or identify who’s putting out lies to try to pack the Council chambers with angry folks who don’t know what they’re talking about, please forward that information to Berkeleyside so they can run a story on it.

    It’s disgusting how frequently politicos in Berkeley resort to bald-faced lies to get their way. Blatant lying from anti-change advocates seems to be a consistent reaction to any campaign to try to improve any part of the city.