Monday, December 17, 2007

Revitalizing Downtown Berkeley

The City of Berkeley is home of 7% of Alameda's total population but 40% of the county's homeless live in Berkeley. Does such tolerance have unintended consequences? The stores in downtown Berkeley think so. This article says that merchants blame "rowdy behavior" for the ghost town effect that the educated, liberal community of Berkeley is voting with their feet and are not shopping in downtown Berkeley.

The proposed solution to this challenge? "Public Commons for Everyone Initiative, a wide-ranging crackdown on rowdy street behavior intended to channel unruly homeless people into shelters and rehabilitation centers." This sounds like a make work act for ACLU lawyers but I certainly agree that it is a good idea.

Note that economists are punched at the end of the article. Our attempts to engage in "program evaluation" are not welcome here. This raises an interesting issue; how do people define the words "good policy" if they don't allow the economists to do a serious quantitative study and make policy decisions before they receive such inputs? If a "good policy" is one that makes every heterogeneous person better off and nobody worse off, then government might not enact many laws each year. Call in Ken Arrow (at Stanford) to explain this point to you!

An urban economist here would advocate the separation theorems. Allocate downtown Berkeley's land to the highest bidders while trying to internalize synergies between land parces. Take the revenue collected from land auctions and property taxes and then the liberal city government can write checks to the favored few who it feels deserves government transfers. This approach beats market distortions that lead to misallocation of scarce resources.

I love this quote from Will Travis (see below) that adjacent Emeryville has been the big winner from Berkeley's "experiment". This point about cross-elasticities bears more academic research.

Berkeley hopes to restore its downtown to life
Carolyn Jones, Chronicle Staff Writer

Monday, December 17, 2007

Berkeley is one of the most affluent, lively cities in the Bay Area, but its downtown looks more like Tombstone, Ariz., on a slow day.

Shuttered businesses dot the streets like tumbleweeds in a ghost town: Barnes and Noble. Gateway Computers. UC Theater. Soon to join their grim ranks: Ross Dress for Less and Shoe Pavilion.

"Berkeley's downtown plan has resulted in a wonderful, vibrant, mixed-use community. It's called Emeryville," said Will Travis, chairman of the city committee charged with revitalizing the beleaguered commercial district around Shattuck and University avenues.

In a few years, downtown Berkeley could look a bit more like downtown San Francisco under a makeover plan to be considered Tuesday by the City Council - a bustling urban center thick with hotels, office high-rises, theaters and museums, but low on parking and sunlight.

The plan was created by the 20-member Downtown Area Planning Advisory Committee, which met more than 100 times in the past two years and looked at everything from sustainability to historic preservation. After a hearing before the council, the blueprint will undergo a lengthy review by the Planning Commission before going back to the council for a final vote in May 2009.

The committee came up with a set of goals to remake downtown into a regional cultural center that would accommodate UC Berkeley's ambitious expansion plans - including a Toyo Ito-designed art museum and a 19-story hotel and conference center - as well as the needs of residents, students, office workers and visitors.

"In 10 years, downtown will be a better version of what it is now," said Berkeley's economic development director, Michael Caplan. "It'll have more cultural venues, hopefully more retail, it'll be cleaner and more attractive and have more green buildings. But it'll still have that lively, urban college town feel."

The committee has proposed raising the building height limit from five stories to seven stories, but allowing a handful of exceptions: two 19-story hotels, four 10-story buildings and four 8-story buildings, all required to have the highest green construction rating.

It also suggests several pedestrian improvements, such as closing Center Street between Shattuck Avenue and Oxford Street and possibly uncovering Strawberry Creek, widening the sidewalks, adding public art and lighting and creating a series of small parks.

A more elaborate entrance to the University of California is also part of the proposal.

Coupled with the new downtown plan is Berkeley's recently approved Public Commons for Everyone Initiative, a wide-ranging crackdown on rowdy street behavior intended to channel unruly homeless people into shelters and rehabilitation centers.

Merchants, city staff and residents have blamed the decline of downtown Berkeley in part to the proliferation of homeless people. Forty percent of Alameda County's homeless population lives in Berkeley, which has just 7 percent of the county's population.

The plan also coincides with huge private investment downtown, totaling tens of millions of dollars over the past few years. Berkeley City College, Berkeley Repertory Theater, Freight and Salvage nightclub and the Shattuck Hotel are a few downtown businesses that have recently undergone extensive expansions and refurbishing.

The downtown committee was far from unanimous in its support for the proposal. Many members think downtown could use a good cleaning but otherwise is fine as is. High-rise buildings would overwhelm the historic character, bring unwanted crowds and cloak the whole district in shade, they say.

"Some of us voted for increasing the height limits because of the wonderful sustainability elements we added," said Patty Dacey, a planning commissioner who served on the committee. "But it's a compromise. It's like a beautiful sweater - if you pull one thread, the whole sweater falls apart."

The committee voted 11-1, with eight abstentions, to increase height limits to 85 feet, and the fight is expected to continue at the Planning Commission.

Another potential problem with the plan is that no one knows if it's economically feasible. Developers might not be able to make a profit with the proposed height limits and green construction requirements, ultimately leaving downtown in the long-term slump it's in now.

"We're very much concerned. We want to see some real economic measurement," said Deborah Badhia, executive director of the Downtown Berkeley Association, which represents business owners. "There's a lot we agree with, but we very much want to see the business sector remain healthy."

The committee didn't look at economic factors it ran out of time, and "the majority (of members) felt they couldn't trust economists," Travis said. "We felt it was our job to come up with a Christmas wish list for the city. It's up to the parents to decide what we actually get."

Get involved
The Berkeley City Council will discuss the Downtown Area Plan from 5-7 p.m. Tuesday in the council chambers, 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Read the plan at

E-mail Carolyn Jones at