New Sproul, design ideas provide optimism for Telegraph

An architect’s rendering of the new Eshleman Hall, along Bancroft Way

The future of Telegraph Avenue was the focus of a special work session of Berkeley’s City Council on Tuesday evening. Where most discussions of Telegraph concentrate on the many problems of the area — declining retail sales, vacant lots, troubling street behavior — Tuesday was filled with positive images and ideas for the avenue.

At the center of the discussions was one concrete project — the University of California Berkeley’s Lower Sproul Plaza redevelopment — and one ambitious series of new ideas, created by Berkeley Design Advocates following their design charrette last April

Construction starts in February for the Lower Sproul Project, the centerpiece of which is a new Eshleman Hall along Bancroft Way. The project replaces the seismically unsafe Eshleman with a building 50% larger and with far better facilities for student organizations as well as study. It also improves the accessibility of Lower Sproul Plaza, and expands the student union. The new design provides both a more welcoming front for the university along Bancroft, and also integrates the campus much more effectively with the city.

During the council discussion, there was both enthusiasm for the new work and also concern for its impact on Telegraph. During the anticipated two years of construction, there should be a boost for Telegraph: retail and food units in the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union will be closed, so according to the university’s Emily Marthinsen, students are expected to shop and eat in greater numbers on Telegraph. Once the new building and the additions to the King Union are finished in fall 2015, however, council members wondered whether the new facilities would prove a greater lure.

Marthinsen said the new facilities would have “about the same amount of retail space” as the current King Union, so the university did not expect a significant impact on Telegraph.

“I’m very excited that Lower Sproul is going forward,” said Councilman Jesse Arreguín. “But the centralization of food and retail on campus has had an effect on Telegraph. One issue we have to think about going forward is how we can use the Lower Sproul Project to improve Telegraph.”

Councilman Kriss Worthington, whose district includes Telegraph Avenue, asked Marthinsen whether the university would compensate businesses along Bancroft whose business would suffer during the construction period. Marthinsen said the university was working to minimize any effects from the construction.

Berkeley Design Advocates, a volunteer organization of local architects, urban planners and transit specialists, presented seven principles for improving Telegraph, some of which could be implemented in the short term. In their introduction to their ideas, BDA’s Matt Taecker noted that Telegraph is “fraught with issues,” including retail sales that have “declined precipitously” over the years.

But Taecker and Alex Bergtraun were enthusiastic in presenting their seven ideas:

  • Enhance Telegraph’s sense of place
  • Calm traffic and increase pedestrian space
  • Strengthen Telegraph as a destination
  • Make Telegraph a center for the arts
  • Encourage more intensity and activity
  • Address social needs
  • People Peoples’ Park

To enhance the sense of place, BDA have proposed what Taecker called a “canopy of lights” for the four blocks of Telegraph nearest the campus. These would be a series of archways using LED lights, and would be funded through a Chancellor’s Grant from the university. The scheme, dubbed Telegraph Connects, would also include ubiquitous wireless network public access points to the area.

On traffic, BDA recommends making Telegraph, Bancroft and Durant two way streets, which a number of councilmembers and Mayor Tom Bates seemed enthusiastic about.

They also presented a sketch proposal for the vexed corner of Telegraph and Dwight, which is a pedestrian blackspot as cars speed around the right turn from Dwight onto Telegraph. The BDA sketch (left) proposes a larger plaza which could provide an entertainment anchor on the south end of Telegraph. Entertainment is a large part of the BDA vision for Telegraph. Just as Oakland has successfully developed Art Murmur, BDA suggests Telegraph become the center for a new Music Murmur.

To increase intensity and activity, BDA encourages housing above the retail level on Telegraph, as well as live-work lofts, galleries, offices and temporary space for the university.

Bergtraun and Taecker were cautious in addressing social needs and Peoples’ Park (one member of the audience started heckling as soon as the park was mentioned), but their proposal suggested a drop-in center for transient youth, schemes to house Telegraph’s chronically homeless, and finding ways to encourage greater use for a broader cross-section of the community in Peoples’ Park.

Although the proposals were wide-ranging, Bergtraun said “these are concepts to start a conversation.”

“I’m more interested in the short-term, non-controversial things than in the short-term controversial things,” said Worthington, “because I think the non-controversial things are more likely to happen.”

Worthington said the lighting improvements, a transit plaza at Dwight, the Music Murmur idea, and the drop-in center for youth were, for him, non-controversial.

“While I’m focused on the short term, I think we also need to have a longer term plan and we need to figure out how we get agreement on that,” he said.

“I’m one of those people who think we have a great opportunity, but we also have a great challenge here,” said Mayor Bates. “We need to have some exciting, major changes. Without that makeover, Telegraph is going to continue to slide.”

Bates said that AC Transit has money available from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission for improvements on Telegraph. He also said Telegraph should have been designated a transit-oriented development area (TDA), but “we sort of dropped the ball on the issue.”

He also said in the short term it would be good to see more street closures with events on Telegraph during weekends. “Maybe we can try some closures and if they’re successful we can figure out how to extend them.”

“I want to work with the city manager to put together some roundtables to have some real discussions,” Bates said. “I don’t want to take on Peoples’ Park initially. Obviously that issue is not going away, but it’s a question of resources. I’d like to focus on the things that we can do.”

Before closing the meeting, Bates spotted Ken Sarachan, who owns the long-vacant lot on the northeast corner of Telegraph and Haste, as well as the vacant Cody’s building on the southwest corner, and asked him if he wished to comment. The city is currently suing Sarachan over the vacant lot, and Sarachen has issued a countersuit. In a few brief remarks, Sarachen complained about what he claimed was obstruction from the city in executing his plans.

The contention between Sarachan and the city suggests navigating a brighter future for Telegraph will not be easy. But the optimistic visions and discussion on Tuesday gives some impetus for forward thinking about a way ahead for Telegraph.

Can Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue get its mojo back [04.18.12]
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]

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  • Jacob Lynn

    I’m excited to hear about the possibility of two-way streets and of fixing that turn at Dwight and Telegraph.

    Next up on my wish list:
    1. add Dwight to the list of two-way streets (while slowing down the crazy traffic)
    2. real actual Telegraph BRT!

  • BBnet3000

    The new Eshleman Hall engaging with Bancroft would be a good thing. That street suffers from blank walls and staircases for pretty much the entire UC campus.

  • Charles_Siegel

    I agree that it would be a great benefit to make Bancroft, Durant, and Telegraph two-way.

    The new design of Eshleman Hall, facing the sidewalk, is also a great improvement. It shows how far we have come since UC built the intramural sports facility a bit further down Bancroft, with a blank wall facing the sidewalk.

  • Mudman

    Too bad its kind of ugly.

  • Chris

    So, in 21 years there has been no increase in tax revenue from Telegraph?

  • The Sharkey

    I have to agree.
    Looks like an overpriced loft in San Francisco.

  • Howie Mencken

    The University is building its own mise en scène; previously provided by Telegraph Avenue (until the sets got so foul smelling, everyone left the play.)

  • deirdre

    “The city is currently suing Sarachan over the vacant lot, and Sarachen has issued a countersuit.” What is his countersuit about?

  • Howie Mencken

    New plan!..Owners and retail tenants on Telegraph put a reasonable price on their properties and businesses and sell the four blocks of street frontage to a big mall developer! The developer builds a beautiful pedestrian/cycling mall full of all the things the students and community needs and wants!

  • Caltastrophe

    Will the University compensate businesses? Ha! The University is the only reason those businesses exist. You want people to shop on Telegraph? Blinkly lights and free wifi aren’t going to help. Kick out the hobos, improve traffic flow, add lots of free parking, and bring in some real stores. There’s a reason we all shop in Emeryville. Telegraph is filthy and pathetic.

  • Jacob Lynn

    Can’t tell if you’re being serious, but that sounds awesome. No need to sell four blocks to one developer, though — don’t we have a city government for things like this?

  • The way to have more people shopping on Telegraph is to have more people living on Telegraph. And with 30,000 students, there’s more demand for small studio units or dorm rooms than we could ever build.

    We have two vacant lots on opposite sides of Tele at Haste. Combine them into one parcel that blocks through traffic, maybe even make the three blocks between Haste and Bancroft a permanent ped mall. Build high-density student housing.

    A high-rise dorm on that combined parcel would not be out of place. But DON’T add any parking. Telegraph will be full of students again, and a lot less fuel will be burned by commuting students.

    A less extreme version is to connect the two parcels at the third or fourth story, leaving Telegraph open but using the airspace. Think of the view from the “flying cafe” over the Avenue, looking right up the centerline of the counterculture.

    This could all happen a lot faster if U.C. buys the parcels and has state agency status with respect to local zoning.

  • I’d nix the single developer idea also – better to allow the market-driven diversity to flourish. What we need is more students living close to campus. Telegraph is never going to be reborn as a shopping destination for people who don’t live nearby – back in the day, there was no internet and no CostCo.

  • Jenn

    I wouldn’t be so quick to nix – Millikan & Abrams did an amazing job transforming Berkeley’s Fourth Street into a shopping and dining “destination” that serves a regional clientele. Telegraph Avenue can & should be just that.

  • Howie Mencken

    Telegraph was killed in a fight between stb (small town berkeley) and the University of California, a world renown, and world changing, educational and research institution located in Berkeley.

    From the mid ’70s* on, stb politicos began promoting the notion that; because they had the same last name, they should receive half the glory. Anti-university sentiment became the norm in stb politics for obvious reasons: it created the illusion that talentless stb’ers we’re equals in influence and importance to the university.

    As ego boosting as that is, the only reaction the university has had is to make stb irrelevant to its progress. They put up their stadium, their labs and now their own mall on their own land. They’ve always had their own police force and their own trespassing laws. You won’t be dealing with beggars outside the new Eshleman/Student Center project.
    *For the first century of UC’s existence the north end of Telegraph was a collection of financially successful retail and service businesses devoted almost entirely to the students, faculty and employees of the university. It was a de facto mall serving a strong market and adapting as needed to market demands.

  • Charles_Siegel

    If you provide lots of free parking, you will attract lots more cars. How would you improve traffic flow to accommodate existing traffic plus all those new cars?

    Would you demolish all the buildings on one side of Telegraph between Bancroft and Dwight, so we can widen it from two lanes to four lanes?

    That is the only way that I can think of to increase traffic flow here. If you have some other, practical way to improve traffic flow, please share it with us.

  • anotherguest

    The “help” from “homeless advocates” didn’t make things better either.

  • Charles_Siegel

    I agree with most of this, but I think you are misusing the word “mall” in your footnote. Telegraph was a shopping street, not a mall. The term “shopping mall” was not even current when Telegraph was built. Here are a couple of definitions of “mall” from wikipedia:

    A shopping mall, shopping centre, shopping arcade, shopping precinct or simply mall is one or more buildings forming a complex of shops representing merchandisers, with interconnecting walkways
    enabling visitors to easily walk from unit to unit, along with a parking area – a modern, indoor version of the traditional marketplace.

    A strip mall (also called a shopping plaza, shopping center, or mini-mall) is an open-air shopping mall where the stores are arranged in a row, with a sidewalk in front. Strip malls are typically developed as a unit and have large parking lots in front. They face major traffic arterials and tend to be self-contained with few pedestrian connections to surrounding neighborhoods.

    You may also be misusing the word mall in your other comment about calling in a “mall developer” to rebuild Telegraph. Do you want someone to replace Telegraph with a “mall” as defined here? Or do you want something like Fourth St, which is not a “mall” according to these definitions?

  • erikschmitt58

    Good question. My understanding is that this property owner has kept one building vacant for years as well as a vacant lot on Telegraph. This obviously contributes to a sense of decay on the street and needs to be addressed immediately. Is ‪Eminent domain‬ an option? Endless bickering between one property owner and an entire city as one of its primary civic centers decays is outrageous!

  • david m

    bingo. build up on telegraph with ground floor commercial, simple recipe for fixing everything.

  • erikschmitt3

    I highly recommend that people read the seven principles for improving Telegraph (see link within text above). Lots of really good thinking. Read the Near Term Actions section. These are actions that should be easy to implement quickly. The Peoples Park ideas are super intriguing. It would be great to open up that space so it is less threatening and more welcoming to all people. Many of these ideas will also signal that Berkeley is no longer a focal point for people who want to pan handle for a living. Solving the problem of people who are homeless because of serious problems (drugs etc.) will be tougher of course.

  • Howie Mecken

    See above, “de facto mall” = “shopping street”. The earlier post below was of humorous intent. I hope that clarifies…

  • Edward

    Adjusting for inflation, there has been a 45% drop in that period.

  • Charles_Siegel

    But notice that all of the people who replied to that other post either did not understand what you meant by mall or thought you meant something like Fourth St, and as a result, they weren’t sure whether you were being humorous or not.

    It is a result of the loose use of the word “mall” to mean any shopping district, not only by you but by many people.

  • chamelean75

    When are they going demolish and rebuild the Hearst Gym and Evans Hall? Both are seismically unsafe.

  • Howie Mencken

    Irony is its own reward.

  • George Beier

    I’ve certainly been an advocate for redevelopment of Telegraph and still am. But that new building… just seems to massive to me. Reminds me of the Moscone West buildings in SF. Puts up a wall on Bancroft. At least that how it looks to me from the rendering.

    PS — I won’t eat at Blondie’s or buy anything from Rasputin until he does something with that vacant lot. If we all boycotted him, this eyesore would finally get developed in responsible way.

  • Maurice Patapon

    All this nonsense about “revitalization.” Ask the people of Berkeley what kind of “vitality” they want on Telegraph. As for me, Telly has been a lot less vital since the cop/merchant association started chasing all the funky people away. Does ALL of Telegraph have to become as sterile and boring as the Cal campus has become? Lower Sproul used to at least provide some overlap between campus life and Berkeley city life, yeah with its grit too and you know you loved it as a kid. What a scene those drummers were! But of course such nostalgia has to make way for the Bates redevelopment machine, and all of the classic arguments about hygiene and crime will be trotted out in order further the ambitions of the Board of Regents and their cronies. Remember when the freaks tried to turn the SE corner of Tel and Haste into another park? Well it wasn’t 1969 but the billy clubs came down anyway. The idea of such open, not profitable public spaces like that or lower Sproul is like a foreign language to our latest crop of urban planning eggheads. Attracts the “wrong element,” i.e. ordinary people. We deal with petty crimes by privatizing everything so the petty criminals have no place to go. C’mon Berkeley, where’s your spirit?