Op-Ed: Wider sidewalks would revitalize Southside

By Charles Siegel

Charles Siegel is a Berkeley resident, environmental activist, and author of "Unplanning: Livable Cities and Political Choices."

Bancroft Avenue near Telegraph Avenue. Photo: Charles Siegel
Bancroft Way near Telegraph Avenue. Photo: Charles Siegel

Berkeley Design Advocates has suggested many good ideas for revitalizing the Telegraph Ave. shopping district, and I think the most important is their proposal to make Bancroft and Durant two-way, which would allow us to widen sidewalks in key locations.

In the picture, you can see that the campus side of Bancroft has a fairly attractive sidewalk with trees, while the south side of the street has a narrow, bland sidewalk. Imagine how different this picture could be if we made Bancroft two-way and widened this narrow sidewalk by 10 feet. We would have room to plant trees and add cafe seating on this side of the street, making it an attractive shopping street facing campus.

Business improved dramatically when the city widened the sidewalk on Center St. just west of campus, and we could do the same by widening sidewalks on the blocks of Bancroft adjacent to Telegraph and on the block of Durant east of Telegraph.

We could begin by widening the sidewalk on Bancroft east of Telegraph, where there is a row of restaurants that could use outdoor seating, and where we could widen the sidewalk without any change in current traffic patterns, so the cost would be low. We could adopt a plan to make the streets two-way, so we could widen the other sidewalks when funding is available.

Because these streets are close to campus, they are the southside blocks where it is easiest to attract new business from the university. We should build on their strength. As they become more successful, the success will spill over to other parts of the Telegraph shopping district.

Years ago, the Southside plan studied making Bancroft, Durant, and Telegraph two-way, and it found that traffic would work with one traffic lane in each direction and left-turn pockets at intersections. Going from three to two traffic lanes would give us an extra 10 feet on Bancroft and Durant, which we could use to widen sidewalks in some places and possibly also to increase parking by adding diagonal parking in other places.

But making Telegraph two-way is not politically feasible or beneficial.

Merchants and street vendors are very strongly opposed to two-way Telegraph, because they need to stop in the traffic lane for loading and unloading, which would block traffic if there were only one lane in each direction. I am generally in favor of making streets two-way, but this is one place where I think it would not work for traffic flow, because too many people stop in the traffic lane.

In addition, two-way Telegraph would require left-turn pockets on two-way Bancroft and Durant east of Telegraph, preventing us from widening the sidewalks at these locations. We should not sacrifice these widened sidewalks, which would be a significant benefit, for the sake of two-way Telegraph, which would have little or no benefit.

It could be politically feasible to make Bancroft and Durant two-way, if we emphasize the benefits to business: drawing more customers with wider, more attractive sidewalks at key locations, and possibly increasing the supply of parking by adding diagonal parking on the blocks where we do not widen the sidewalk.

Center Street. Photo: Charles Siegel
Center Street. Photo: Charles Siegel

Center St. west of campus has thousands of people from the University walking on it each day. Twenty years ago, this block was very shaky economically, because it did not attract many of these people to stop at its stores. Then the city widened the sidewalks and added new trees and planters on this block, making it attractive enough that business improved dramatically. Compare this picture of Center St. with the picture of Bancroft above.

Bancroft and Durant south of campus have as many people from the university walking by them each day as Center St. does. In fact, Bancroft has a better location than Center, because it is right across the street from the busiest part of campus. It is visible to a huge number of people on campus – but right now it is not appealing enough to attract many of those people.

If you want to imagine a better future for Southside businesses, go to Center St. and look at how much the businesses there were helped by the sidewalk widening, new plantings, new trees, and cafe seating.

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