As Mel Ash presents a potential site for a new mural on the Haste Street-side wall of the recently opened Mad Monk: Center for Anachronistic Media on Telegraph Avenue, a woman standing nearby methodically tears a book apart. Pulling one page at a time from the old volume, she carefully sets each page on the pavement in an array around her. After finishing his description, Ash turns to the woman and reminds her not to make a mess — that she can hang out, but he won’t tolerate her littering outside Mad Monk. “I’ll pull up my pants, and put my shoes on,” she grumbles, and promises to tidy the pages.
Claiming that Telegraph Avenue has shaken its “seen better days” reputation and been completely revitalized would be a mistake. To wit, across the avenue from Mad Monk on the northeast corner of Telegraph and Haste, the infamous Heroin Hotel lot remains a fenced-off vacant lot. A Drug Free Zone city sign there has been altered by an unknown interloper to read simply “Drug Zone.”
Shopkeepers interviewed for this report complained about the chronic homelessness, as well as the people with mental-health issues who gravitate to the neighborhood. Sidewalks are dirty (another merchant complaint). People’s Park remains People’s Park. But despite residual signs of blight and little development, in many ways the Telegraph community has now nudged its trajectory toward a different future.
Mad Monk itself is strong example. As black-clad, salt and pepper-bearded Ash walks the floor with Stuart Baker, the executive director of the Telegraph Business Improvement District, he talks with enthusiasm about the business, which opened its doors in April. Taking over the old Cody’s Books building, which itself sat vacant for around 10 years, the shop aims to capitalize on vinyl’s resurgence, as well as play host to a collection of books that represents Berkeley’s vibrant history and literary community. Inside, the shop is adorned with sculptures and artwork from Mark Bulwinkle.
“Everything started here: free speech, hippies, pot, equal rights, the intellectuals,” Ash, a Mad Monk manager, says, adding that in the coming months, Mad Monk wants to add an event space that includes a stage for acoustic music, and workshops.
Mad Monk is far from the only example. On the north side of Haste, across the street from Mad Monk, a mixed-use development project is nearing completion. It is the newly built apartment building, designed by Berkeley architects Studio KDA, that replaced the Sequoia Apartments, destroyed in a devastating fire in 2011. The new property, owned by Gregory Ent, will likely accommodate primarily students. It will also include new incarnations of the two restaurants housed in the old Sequoia: Intermezzo — to be named simply Mezzo — and Raleigh’s Bar and Grill. The U-shaped building embraces a courtyard on the back which will be open for customers of the restaurants, and includes an outdoor bar and bocce court.
So where, not so long ago, three of the four corner lots at the Telegraph-Haste intersection stood either vacant or abandoned, now the area is coming back to life, with just one corner — the so-called Heroin Hotel lot which gained notoriety in 2011 when it was shown to be overrun by rats — remaining untouched, providing nothing more than blight to the neighborhood. Owned by Ken Sarachan, who is also behind Mad Monk, the lot has been that way since a fire in 1990 brought down the old Berkeley Inn. Plans submitted by Sarachan in 2012 to build a Moorish palace-style edifice have stalled. There was talk of UC Berkeley getting involved but, as yet, no final decision.
Baker says “plans are in the works” on that property now that the city is allowing denser housing, but he declined to go into specifics because, he said, rival developers are competing for the project.
There’s activity one block south of the Haste-Telegraph intersection too: After the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore closed in June 2015 after 51 years in Berkeley, the building at 2499 Telegraph is being revamped by Ito Ripsteen and will reopen with a new coffee shop called Romeo’s. While construction is underway a mural, designed by Nigel Sussman, covers the first floor, and another mural, further up Telegraph, that celebrates Chiura Obata, is about a third complete. The murals are public art projects Baker’s group (and the merchant community) are encouraging.
The city, Baker says by way of another example of improvements, also has plans to create a two-way protected bike lane on Bancroft Way to connect Telegraph to the rest of the city.
The new bike way is just one of a host of proposed, or in-the-works, improvements to the district that are supposed to encourage people to bike, walk or take transit to get there. The district’s ambassadors — who are responsible for picking up litter, giving tourists directions and have a host of other duties — pulled 22 tons of garbage off the streets in 2015, which is yet another effort to make the district more attractive to shoppers on foot. There are even trash, recycling and compost bins that use solar technology to power compactors to increase the capacity of receptacles without increasing their size.
Overall, vacant lots are on the decline, according to city data, and since 2008 there’s been a near 50% drop in vacant square footage. Businesses such as eateries and coffee shops are driving growth, which is likely, at least in part, due to the rising population of students.
“There’s a combination of things driving the change,” Baker said. “Clearly the economy is still red hot, the housing market, the rental market is pushing a lot of change, and we’re taking advantage of what’s happening right now.”
As Baker strolls the neighborhood, he often speaks about housing in terms of the number of beds versus the unit count that’s often found in city documents and developer marketing materials. It’s no wonder why: Over the next four years, UC Berkeley is set to add about 1,000 students each year, according to the city’s Office of Economic Development, and that’s already after a similar increase from 2009 through 2014.
According to a recent city presentation there are seven projects around Telegraph Avenue in the “development pipeline,” which should translate into more than 500 new housing units. Baker says increasing housing density north of Dwight Way should also help ease the housing crunch without creating the development-related issues that often arise in neighborhoods dominated by single-family homes.
But growth and change bring other challenges. At the moment, merchants on Telegraph and the surrounding streets are nervous about commercial rents. Russ, who runs a small shop on Telegraph and refused to give his last name, was bewildered by rents that he said could easily top $4,000 to $5,000 a month for a relatively small space (Baker says between $2 and $4 per square foot is the average).
Russ’ building was constructed by the original owners, who have hung onto the property. He called his landlords “the best” because they hadn’t driven rents to unimaginable (at least for Russ) heights. Combined with soaring rents, small business owners are also concerned with the minimum-wage increase — though Russ isn’t because he doesn’t have employees — which, combined with rent can put the squeeze on already struggling merchants. Big business is also on the way, with a Taco Bell Cantina set to open on Durant (between Telegraph Avenue and Bowditch Street), but merchants say they are generally concerned that large corporations can afford higher rents and wages than local businesses.
Back at Mad Monk on Baker’s way out, the woman tearing pages from a book has stopped to arrange the papers in a pile near the sidewalk, making an apparent effort to comply with Ash’s directive. At the moment, Berkeley does not have a so-called “sit-lie” law, which would give police the power to ticket people sitting or lying on the sidewalks if they don’t move when asked. A measure to introduce such a law in the city narrowly failed in the 2012 election.
“We do struggle with community sidewalk behaviors,” Baker said. “For whatever reason some people are service resistant, or haven’t made the connection yet. It’s a struggle that not only we face, but now all of Berkeley has seen the same types of challenges come up.”
Regardless, compared with even a year ago, Telegraph has visibly changed. Baker and the merchants he represents insist more change is coming, especially as the school year begins anew and students once more descend on campus.
Get the latest Berkeley news in your inbox with Berkeleyside’s free Daily Briefing. And make sure to bookmark Berkeleyside’s pages on Facebook and Twitter. You don’t need an account on those sites to view important information.