Op-Ed: Turn Berkeley post office into European-style public market

I live in Dudley, England’s second-largest town and a metropolitan borough, and I think this town has some lessons for Berkeley.

Dudley has 320,000 people and is two hours from London, 15 minutes from Birmingham. Dudley is a conurbation, a series of villages connected by roads dotted with industrial estates. Each village in the conurbation has its own high (or main) street, its own health clinic, its own public market.

The public markets here vary in what they offer. West Bromwich, a city with a Premier League football team about 12 minutes away, has a well-developed public market in an enclosed open air public space selling everything from desserts to barbecue.  The malls that have surrounded it are half-empty. Not enough retailers see a value in coming inside for a self-contained space and instead grow by adding tables in other markets.

In Dudley Town center, near to my home, we have a 12th century castle, a zoo, a living history museum, and the seat of the borough’s government. My local market is open seven days and week and offers fresh fish, meat, vegetables, confections, cleaning products, clothing, CDs and DVDs, pet food and cell phone accessories. Around it are butcher shops, florists, bakers, two pharmacies, a dozen charity shops, hair dressers, coffee shops, clothing stores, government buildings, sandwich shops and betting shops. The zoo’s lions, who roar from their hill across to mine most nights, are just a part of the attraction of living where I do.

The Borough has weather like San Francisco, and snow in the winter. It lost its town railway station in the 1960s and, although it has good bus links, it competes with a Westfield-owned mall for shoppers. My public market area has retained 11 family-owned butcher shops and JRR Tolkein’s grandson operates a free meditation parlor 200 feet away. There are 10,000 businesses in Dudley, including my own.

In 2007, one of the biggest stores on the the high street, Woolworth’s, shut down, a casualty of the subprime crash. With it gone, the town center lost its last department store and suddenly had more than 10,000 square feet of hard-to-fill open space.

But in Dudley, the Woolworth space had a second life, and that story may hold some lessons for Berkeley. A warehouse shop operator took over the building and leased it out to commercial tenants who set up stands selling a variety of goods. There are now more than 30 businesses in 5,000 square feet, including a butcher shop, nail salon, hardware store, jewelry shop, bakery, restaurant and more. Annual rent is on average £2,600 ($3,986) a year, plus utilities.

The Berkeley post office on Allston Way could be turned into something similar, with only minimal remodeling. Businesses could form a weatherproof Fourth Street in the tradition of a European public market just steps from Berkeley BART.

The reason Berkeleyans should consider this idea is because of the proximity to BART, not campus. It provides a secure one-stop shop for people who would otherwise miss farmers’ markets. It draws commerce off the high street but not out of the area. The reason Public Market in Emeryville failed was because it relied on drivers. In turn, that public market crowded out mom-and-pop places and replaced them what one Yelp reviewer calls a “pathetically horribly designed fractured art gallery with some restaurants attached.”

The post office should remain a public service building as a public market.

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John E. Parman, who was born in Berkeley and lived here for 24 years, is the director of Black Country Tool Bank in the UK, which rebuilds neighborhoods by lending tools to volunteer projects. He researches the return on investment of social entrepreneurs in the private sector.