Berkeley BART plaza plans ‘not a bad first start’

Image: BART plaza

BART hopes to create a more inviting, safe plaza both day and night. Note the walkable clear skylight over the station below. Image: BART plaza

More than 100 people attended an open house Monday to assess the latest proposal for significant updates to the downtown Berkeley BART plaza.

A light-filled rotunda, more trees and open space, new bus shelters and an opened-up pedestrian area were among the suggestions presented in the 35%, preliminary, design plans on display at the Brower Center on Monday afternoon.

BART has proposed removing the brick planters and benches and replacing much of the brick with concrete and permeable pavement. That would increase pedestrian space by 3,500 square feet.

The $11.2 million project could come before council in the next few months, with plans for construction from September 2015 to February 2017.

Image: BART

An “art wall” is proposed on the southern end of the plaza to display anything from pictures to public health information. Image: BART

Project director Tian Feng told open house attendees that the goal is to transform the “dilapidated plaza to a dignified gateway” for Berkeley, to create a “lobby for downtown.”

He described the designs as “modern and clean, not flashy,” and said the project team aimed for “more harmony” between the plaza and its surroundings. He said the team hoped to create a calming environment that promotes a sense of “timelessness.”

Perhaps the most visible change would be to the main BART entrance, which would become mostly transparent, and include a walkable skylight over the station below.

A “multimedia wall” on one end of the plaza could display art or a variety of other information via an LED display.

Proposed project elements include new BART entrances, a leasable pavilion, room for art and more. (Click to view larger.) Image: BART

Proposed project elements include new BART entrances, a leasable pavilion, room for art and more. (Click to view larger.) Image: BART

Mayor Tom Bates said Monday’s presentation was “a major improvement” over designs presented at an open house in January. He said he liked the approach to the main entrance, including the walkable glass element. He said the southern BART entrance, too, appeared more inviting.

Councilman Laurie Capitelli said he, too, was excited to see the new designs.

“I love the simplicity, I love the openness,” he said Monday.

Berkeley transportation manager Farid Javandel (center) discusses BART's plans with members of the public who attended Monday's open house. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Berkeley transportation manager Farid Javandel (center) discusses BART’s plans with members of the public who attended Monday’s open house. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Berkeley architect David Snippen said he still has many questions about exactly how the project will work. He wondered about where tables and chairs shown in concept designs would be stored, and how light and sound elements, and various sustainability features, would actually function. He also noted reservations about the main entrance.

“It’s not a signature design that would make people say, ‘Wow, that’s Berkeley,'” he said. “I’m not convinced. It needs a lot more creative attention to the design. But it’s moving in the right direction.”

Downtown Berkeley Association leader John Caner said he, too, saw the designs as “a good start,” but added that there’s still a lot to figure out.

He said he wasn’t sure about the use of concrete on the plaza, or how well the glass area — which pedestrians could walk on — would hold up over time.

BART and the city of Berkeley plan to overall the downtown Berkeley plaza. Photo: Emilie Raguso

BART and the city of Berkeley plan to overall the downtown Berkeley plaza. Photo: Emilie Raguso

He said he would also like to see an entrance to the station that is “more inspirational.” He said he is concerned about how the art wall might work in relation to a proposed cafe space currently suggested south of the wall and, therefore, cut off from the main plaza area.

Caner said the Downtown Berkeley Association is hoping to get a more permanent “welcome kiosk” space included in the designs, and wants more detail about the proposed “path of travel,” given the nearby retail and proposed outdoor seating.

“It’s not a bad first start, but there’s a lot that still needs to be done,” he said.

Monday evening, the plaza itself was relatively empty, with a handful of people — some of whom appeared to be homeless — sitting on the benches or walking through the area.

Berkeley resident Michael Ray sat on a brick planter eating ice cream with his two children. He said he could imagine more trees and people-friendly elements on site.

“There are a lot of awkward spaces, feng shui issues,” he said. “I think they could do better. But it’s a nice enough place for us to sit today.”

See the project website here via BART. See a presentation from Monday’s event here.

Berkeley BART plaza workshop comes Monday (01.30.14)
Downtown Berkeley BART plaza slated for major overhaul (11.26.13)
Berkeley set for $12.7m in downtown transport grants (05.28.13)
Berkeley council approves plans to green downtown (01.30.13)
Berkeley’s downtown BART is all roses as part of clean-up (07.17.12)
BART plaza to become an inviting spot (08.04.10)

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  • BBnet3000

    Definitely an improvement. The current dome attracts people peeing.

    Permeable pavement right above an underground train station though? Isnt that the one place you want to avoid water seeping into the ground because the station isnt perfectly sealed?

  • guest

    The current dome attracts people peeing.

    So will the “walkable skylight” in the new design proposal. If you think things around the downtown station are a little hinky now, just wait until you’re traveling up the escalator and look up just in time to see a bum drop his pants and pinch one off directly above your head.

  • Guest

    Uh. Not to be the downer here but it doesn’t matter how pretty or “feng shui’d” or “accessible” or whatever other positive adjectives you want to throw at it; the area’s still going to be populated by the aggressive loud transient population that sets up shop out there.

  • Mrdrew3782

    The plaza is currently mostly used for homeless and transients to hang out. Most people hug the storefront and walk past it. It’s not a very inviting place to linger in. I like the design choices. It feels more airy and spacious. The neutral concrete sidewalks would be less abrasive then the red brick is now. The entrance looks very bright and modern and will be a nice addition. I worry about the transparent entrances maintenance though. Once the graffiti shows up its going to be a bit of an eye sore. Outdoor cafes are nice in the right environment. If you are surrounded by homeless and high school kids it could be a bit obnoxious. Overall it looks like a good design.

  • Charles_Siegel

    I agree that it is a good start and an improvement over the last design. But I also agree that

    “It’s not a signature design that would make people say, ‘Wow, that’s Berkeley,’”

    Let me suggest one or two vine-covered redwood trellises flanking the main entrance to the BART station – a Maybeck-like design would say, “that’s Berkeley.”

    The trellises would also be visible from a distance. The current drum is visible up and down Shattuck Ave and helps people to find the BART station and orient themselves, but merchants complain that it blocks the view of their stores. The trellises would be equally visible, but they would have a much smaller footprint, so they would not block the view of stores.

    They would have the same sort of softening effect as the baskets of flowers that they hang from the lightpoles – but it would be a stronger effect and would require less maintenance. Let’s add some beauty to this design.

  • Charles_Siegel

    I also think they would do better to put the seating next to the stores for their customers, like on Center St, rather than having the seating out in the plaza.

  • Nic Dominguez

    The problem with having the seating alongside the shops is that it disrupts the flow of pedestrian traffic and forces it into the plaza which may be in used for events and performances. Anyone just trying to get to the next block should not be forced to navigate through a standing crowd. It would also cause a bottleneck effect at the end of the block in the space between the southern BART entrance and any restaurant seating. I think it is important to maintain a straight path for traveling pedestrians separate from the plaza area designed for lingering.

  • Bill N

    A definite improvement. You certainly want to take out the walls and raised planters. As suggested in another comment, I would move the chairs closer to the buildings like on the west side of Center St.. I’m unsure how the permeable pavement will work in a dense, dirty, and lots of dropped stuff urban environment.

  • suckatash

    This is where the old “sit/lie” law would have been handy. With tasers.

  • Guest

    The proposal looks beautiful. I like the public art spaces, as well as the suggestion of a more permanent welcome kiosk. However, I agree with other commenters that the skylight seems unlikely to hold up well over time…skylights on roofs get filthy, and that’s without people walking on them day in and day out (not even taking the susceptibility for intentional vandism into account).

    I live near downtown and am in this plaza on a near-daily basis. There’s a lot about the neighborhood that I love, and I applaud efforts to rejuvenate it. I don’t know how to balance those feelings with some of the realities of the area, though. Unfortunately, after once witnessing a woman get up from a plaza bench, walk into Shattuck in the middle of rush hour to defecate, and then return to the bench (sans pants or use of toilet paper…), I’ve largely lost interest in lingering.

  • Guest

    Just wanted to add a big “YUP!” to John Caner’s comment re. “He said he is concerned about how the art wall might work in relation to a proposed cafe space currently suggested south of the wall and, therefore, cut off from the main plaza area.” Totally agreed.

    I think the cafe space should be at the north end of the plaza, not the south end. The north end has a couple of advantages:

    1) It’s wider, so there’s more space for cafe seating, any lines that may form, etc. That would allow people to move through there more easily if things are busy at the cafe (fingers crossed that they are!)

    2) Putting it at the north end would make it easier for folks coming from BART to campus to stop for their morning cup of coffee, a bag lunch, or whatever.

    I’d also hope that by putting it at the north end, they could allow the cafe to have sufficient kitchen and seating space to be a viable breakfast/lunch/dinner/evening coffee sort of place. Not necessarily anything hugely fancy or elaborate, just the sort of space that would stay busy throughout the day: something Strada or FSM Cafe-like, maybe. My reasoning is that the more successful a business the cafe is, the more inherent drive there will be to keep the whole plaza looking nice.

  • Guest

    Emilie/Berkeleyside folks: Do you know if anyone involved with planning this project knows about this article and is following the comments here? I’ve been impressed with the quality of some of the suggestions I’ve read in this thread (not just my own!), and I hope the project planners see them.

  • DisGuested

    Excellent way for a culture that is absurdly in debt to dig its own grave even further in the name of cosmetic improvements.

  • Charles_Siegel

    I think we could have seating next to the stores and still have room for a straight path. Look at the aerial view (third picture from the top) and see if I am right. Imagine it with seating areas like the seating on Center St. It would work on the northern half or two-thirds of the plaza, but not at the southern end, where the Art Wall narrows the space.

    This would still leave enough plaza space for small events, such as the musicians that the DBA sometimes has there. They are also planning to close Center St. to cars, and that will be the location for large events.

    The benefit of putting the seating next to the stores is that it would be for customers. The problem with having the seating in the plaza is that it would attract the same crowd we have there now.

  • Charles_Siegel

    I agree. The “leasable pavilion” and its cafe space should be at the north end of the plaza, next to the BART entrance. That is where there is room for it. That is where we need people to fill the space.

  • emraguso

    I’ll make sure they see it. But will report back if they want comments in some other form.

  • probusybody

    Wisteria! You can see through it most of the year, but when in bloom… woo hoo!!

  • emraguso

    For those who are interested, the project website is here and comments appear to be able to be submitted online:

  • ZK

    As mentioned, put the cafe on the north end where there is a lot of unused space right now. Require the cafe to bring in all seating (individual chairs only) for the night. Remove ALL the benches and make the planter walls thin so people can’t sleep on them. We all know the biggest problem right now is the vagrants that loiter there 24/7 and harass residents and tourists as they get on/off BART.

    The bike rack next to the BART entrance should be parallel to the street so the public and police can easily see the rack. Right now its too easy for criminals to hide on the side of the building and steal / vandalize bikes (happened to me once already).

    I love that they’re getting rid of the prison-style brick walkway. The plan is on the right track. I hope the planners spend some time in the area to get a real sense of the current problems.

  • Jaso

    As a daily user of this station I have some suggestions –

    – make it easy to clean. The entrances to the BART station are all filthy. The stairwell entrances are caked with poo and stained with urine. The rotunda interior is caked with dust and garbage. Please make it easier to clean.

    – re-orient the entrance or entrances to address that the majority of people using this station immediately head up Center St. towards campus. Not that it’s hard to cross the street currently, but it seems that the crosswalk is undersized and ill-timed for most users of the station.

    – make any art that is incorporated “interesting” but not “Berkeley specific.” By that I mean, we don’t need any more awful depictions of people doing “Berkeley” things like protesting or flying kites. Please heed the example of the truly banal and awful sculptures that anchor the pedestrian bridge across the freeway south of University Ave. These sculptures are an embarrassment to our city and should serve as a reminder that art doesn’t have to be so literal and place-specific to be beautiful and successful.

  • Rebecca Saltzman

    I am the BART boardmember that represents Downtown Berkeley, and I am reading the comments here. You can also contact me directly:

  • guestino

    Thank you. I cringe every time I walk past those statues on the bridge. They’re beyond self-parody. Honestly, I’d rather skip the public art altogether than have another cartoony tribute to the sixties, or sustainable farming, or the struggles of various minority groups (including the one I belong to).

  • 7thgenberkelyan

    Ugh. it looks like a mall.
    Can we please have a set-up that actually looks like it belongs in our historically beautiful city?
    Speaking of historical, what happened to daylighting Strawberry Creek, which runs right through here?

  • emraguso

    Actually, you cannot submit comments online per se, but if you follow the link above, you’ll reach a comment card page you can use to draft an email.

  • emraguso

    For those who are interested, learned today that the glass floor (skylight) would need to be obscured glass that allows light to pass through, but not sight lines.

  • Doug F

    Yes, they had that problem with the 4th-floor open-grate pedestrian bridge inside the SF MOMA. I suspect that’ll be different when it reopens after renovation.

  • Doug F

    About those computer artist’s illustrations–not bad, but what did they do with all the homeless who hang out there all day? Put them in an internment camp?
    I give it a week until some creative vandal figures out how to shatter the bullet-resistant glass in that walk-on skylight. And you can’t make it out of any plastic–it’d rapidly become badly scratched .

  • emraguso

    Here’s a mostly visual presentation from Monday’s event; hoping to get more of the info sheets that were on display Monday from BART at BART’s convenience.

  • CS

    “…plans for construction from September 2015 to February 2017.”

    I mean, why?

  • guesto

    I know what you mean. The first time I saw those statues, I honestly thought they were parody.

  • Joey

    This design would look incredibly awkward in downtown Berkeley. Berkeley should not have to look a shopping mall to please yuppies.

  • Charles_Siegel

    The plan to straighten out the intersection of University and Shattuck and the complete-street project for Hearst are both connected with this and will be going on at the same time. It adds up to a lot of work, so it will take time.

  • Guest

    And that’s only 18 months, inclusive, so that’s not bad, really.

  • baklazhan

    Shopping malls are themselves an imitation of traditional, pre-automobile city streets.

  • elrod

    Let’s consider using 2 beloved designs from the NYC Metro system, the Union Square station and the Astor Place station. They’re both simple, yet elegant, and if used in Berkeley, would fit in and look as if it had always been there. I would think most people here would prefer a “historical’ design over a “modern” one.

  • Charles_Siegel

    It is a nice idea.

    Here is the Astor Place subway entrance

    Maybe even better, here is a design by the famous Art Nouveau architect, Guimard, for a Paris Metro entrance

    Why can’t we do as well nowadays?

  • guest

    Cast iron is expensive and costly to maintain.