City looks at past, future of Telegraph Avenue

Originally published in The Daily Californian, Mar. 18, 2013 | Photo by Daily Cal staff photographer Dean Ignacio

For many Berkeley residents, the Downtown area serves as a transportation gateway to the rest of the Bay Area.

But while Berkeley residents have been using Downtown as a portal out, others in the Bay Area have been coming in, settling down and calling it their new home — leaving Telegraph Avenue on the sidelines. With flocks of young professionals coming to find new housing, Downtown has seen a boom in housing development, with nearly 1,000 apartment units planned for the area.

Telegraph, however, has yet to witness the same kind of growth. Struggling to reclaim its storied past as a hub of intellectual activity, many on Telegraph are looking to Downtown and feeling left behind.

Telegraph: home to students

“Telegraph has been starved for attention and money from the city of Berkeley for years,” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington. “It’s long past time to do something about it.”

The lack of attention shows. There stand a few housing developments, including one at the corner of Haste Street and Telegraph that has slowly emerged more than a year after the fire at the Sequoia building. But it is nothing on the scale of what is going on Downtown.

The Residences at Berkeley Plaza, for instance, is an ambitious proposal for a 17-story building in the historic Hinks Department Store that currently houses Shattuck Cinemas. Another project, Acheson Commons, will occupy the northeast corner of University and Shattuck avenues and add hundreds of new units to the city’s rental housing stock. These are just two of the more ambitious developments proposed among the many in place for Downtown, spanning nearly 1,000 apartment units.

“Telegraph doesn’t resonate with people as much as it used to,” said Roland Peterson, the executive director of the Telegraph Business Improvement District. “Any commercial district is not going to succeed unless the people who live around it support it.”

The people who live around Telegraph, however, have found themselves to be one of the area’s greatest strengths and weaknesses. Developers are continuously building units suited more for student needs than those of the young professionals who are spurring the housing growth Downtown.

Of the nearly 200 proposed housing units near Telegraph on Southside, around 120 of the units describe themselves as “dormitory-style” housing and “student-oriented rental apartment units.”

Downtown: Berkeley’s transportation hub

Just a few streets away, however, Bay Area professionals are increasingly finding Downtown to be a suitable housing option, in contrast to the student-heavy Telegraph and Southside.

“Attitudes are changing about the Downtown,” said Downtown Berkeley Association CEO John Caner. “People see it as an up-and-coming, fun environment.”

Yet Downtown’s growth is only a recent phenomenon, and the city is still actively working to revitalize the area under the Downtown Area Plan. One of the reasons for this newfound growth, on top of Bay Area regional economic recovery, appears to be Downtown’s transportation strengths.

In fact, for experts like former Oakland city planner and longtime Berkeley resident John English, the BART station may be the overriding reason that Downtown is thriving while Telegraph seems stagnant.

With BART and the buses providing easy access to Oakland and San Francisco, the appeal of the area as a transportation hub attracts students and professionals equally — thus spiking housing demand.

“Downtown is a node of activity for the greater Bay Area,” said Berkeley developer Derek Allen, director of development for ROEM Corporation.

Notably, the current location of Downtown Berkeley BART’s iconic brown dome was not the only spot for the station that was considered when the transit system was still in the works.

“I remember when the BART system was being planned,” English said. “There was the plan of BART running up Telegraph and into Sproul Plaza.”

Finding a niche for Telegraph

Had that been the case, Telegraph’s story might be different today. Instead, Telegraph’s residents feel left in the dust in the wave of Downtown’s heavy development.

No one is more aware of the problems on Telegraph than city officials. As such, the iconic street has seen years of meetings and get-togethers discussing how to revamp its slumped economy and dilapidated facade. There is generally a sense of what people want to see in a recovered Telegraph.

“You have to have specialty stores in niche markets,” said Mayor Tom Bates, who has recently undertaken efforts to address Telegraph’s problems. “We have to find that niche, a combination of good food, shops and exciting places to be.”

Current ideas for improving Telegraph in the near future to reach that ideal include installing LED lights, an in-progress project funded by the university; changing the flows of both pedestrian and vehicular traffic and enticing new stores to move into the area.

Yet Worthington worries that improvements to the now-fragile district will remain just talk for quite some time.

“There are dozens of ideas that have been circulating,” Worthington said. “There are dozens of meetings that have been held. And yet, very little has actually been done for years. We need to actually come up with specific things we can do to support the stores there and support the area.”

This includes making sure Telegraph Avenue lives up to its historic reputation.

“When I’m hitchhiking around Europe, when I’m walking down the streets in India and say I live in Berkeley — Telegraph Avenue is the iconic street of Berkeley,” Worthington said. “Nobody in Europe or India asks me about Shattuck Avenue, Ashby Avenue, San Pablo — it’s always Telegraph.”