Berkeley Beats EmeryvilleOpinion/News Analysis
Travel down San Pablo Avenue in Emeryville and look around. It's not the kind of thing however, someone would want to do on foot; a car works much better here. And that's not an accident - it's a result of a specific vision and suite of policy decisions authored by city council member Nora Davis and her council majority colleagues. Fast food, baking parking lots, blank walls crowding the sidewalk, drive-in drive-out podium condominiums...it's the anti-pedestrian, feel bad street-scape made for high speed cars, it's San Pablo Avenue in Emeryville.
Council member Nora Davis is fond of telling citizens it used to be worse before her transformative 25 year reign changed it into...what? It's been transformed alright but just not someplace where you'd want to linger.
San Pablo is a perfect street to put the Nora Davis city planning vision into stark perspective. The street traces it's trajectory through neighboring Berkeley as well as Emeryville and two different city planning philosophies are readily apparent as one crosses between the contrasting cities.
Twenty five years ago, San Pablo Avenue represented, from a pedestrian and neighbor perspective, failed urban planning in both Emeryville and Berkeley. Both cities then began campaigns making the street friendlier, with government programs for pedestrian amenities and general beautification. Raised medians were added with copious plantings and street trees were planted in both cities along with beautiful new street lighting. But that's where the similarities stop. After all the government spending on San Pablo, one town continues to be largely and arguably an urban wasteland while the other town has sparked a civic rebirth and the street has become an extremely vibrant community gathering place filled with street cafes, one-of-a-kind shops, an independent bookstore, art galleries, slow food restaurants and such.
Berkeley's Funky Vibe
The most amazing thing about Berkeley's transformation of San Pablo Avenue is how the street continues to maintain its funky vibe in the face of this transformation...it's not just yuppies and overpriced boutiques like Fourth Street. Since the street has extremely varied retail opportunities offering shopping and a civic space conducive to sustain a neighborhood, middle class and working class people are well served and they continue to live and shop in the neighborhood.
Over the years there have been a few attempts to make San Pablo in Emeryville more pedestrian friendly, most notably former council member John Fricke's work to bring Arizmendi's Bakery to the Promenade development but mostly it's been the anti-pedestrian / anti-neighborhood vision of council member Davis that has been the dominant force.
Berkeley, famous for its hyper involved citizenry and disdain for suburban style malls and fast food restaurants has left its stamp on San Pablo. Decisions, large and small, made by the Berkeley city council (with the threat of a citizen uprising at a moments notice) has wrought what we now see in that city on San Pablo Avenue. Tortuous as it is, the process has worked in Berkeley and the neighbors are the beneficiaries.
Emeryville's Deference To Developers
In Emeryville, Ms Davis and the rest of the council majority has long held that the best way to develop the city is to put the developers themselves in the drivers seat. It's a sort of an anti-planning city planning philosophy. The idea is that rational market forces know best and market forces, left to their own devises will deliver a vibrant neighborhood filled with the kinds of development consumers want.
Not to put too much emphasis on the city council policy vision of developer deference, what some might call governmental neglect, it should be noted that Ms Davis has in fact directly intervened to impose a fast food centric program for San Pablo. At least twice councilwoman Davis has actively worked on the behalf of specific fast food restaurants for the street. In 2003, Ms Davis even started a citizen signature drive to assure that International House of Pancakes would get the premier Park Avenue corner spot reserved for the Promenade development. Earlier, she intervened directly and led a council majority drive for a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant.
We can see, some 20 years after the street beautification work, the results of the two cities aggregate visions; one market based that sees citizens as consumers and the other neighborhood based that values community.
San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley presents pedestrians and neighbors a whole different psychology of public space than in Emeryville. The street has a democratic feeling to it. But what are the ingredients in Berkeley that create this vibrant civic space? It's really pretty simple:
- Mature beautiful street trees
- Reasonably interesting historic architecture
- Lack of franchise chain retail and fast food
The street trees make a larger contribution and Berkeley here too beats Emeryville. While Emeryville has planted many trees along San Pablo, the species selected don't grow as large and spreading as Berkeley's and Emeryville has historically allowed developers to cut down the street trees and plant new saplings. It seems we're forever watching juvenile trees struggle to become mature here.
But by far the biggest reason Berkeley has won this contest is the lack of franchise chain retail and fast food restaurants. Though hard to quantify, there can be no mistake about the erosional nature against street vitality this kind of nation-wide ubiquitous development has had. It's not hyperbolic to note that this kind of development kills pedestrians natural desire to want to linger in an otherwise grand public space. And people lingering, not rushing is how community is created.
The paradigm of franchise chain retail and fast food is the result of a lazy city council at best and a council driven by pro-developer ideology at worst. People here should expect the city council to put the public into public policy and work to value add to the commons as a way to build community as they have done in Berkeley. The council keeps touting how they're going to build and sustain community on San Pablo by reliance on one project: the incipient Center of Community Life. But to expect to have 20 years of this developer led policy directed from Nora Davis and her council majority colleagues be offset by one pie-in-the-sky project is a set up for failure. The Emeryville city council needs to stop coddling developers on San Pablo Avenue and start doing what Berkeley has done; show some leadership in governing.