In early fall, 2003 I was persuaded by Deborah Badhia to join the DBA Design Committee. She had learned that I knew about the BUSD school construction program and a lot about the construction of the new building at the Berkeley High campus. The DBA was seeking information about the new building at BHS and had not located a person in BUSD who could answer their questions. To the outside, BUSD can sometimes seem like Kafka's “Castle.” I had served on the BUSD “Citizen's Contruction Advisory Committee” since '96 and was well versed with the BUSD building program. I agreed to begin attending the Design Committee.
After serving about 1 ½ years on the committee I became its chair.
I found the DBA Design Committee an exceptionally interesting volunteer position. The committee included highly qualified, busy people. It also seated permanently divergent viewpoints – two BAHA people at the same table with architects executing major commerical projects. The meetings were always attended by a senior city official via whom we heard the latest gossip from inside the bureaucracy. The pace of our meetings was determined by the time limits of the busy professionals who attended. Not a minute was wasted. Our meetings were never attended by the press, which may have accounted for the exceptional candor.
In those days we hosted presentations by sponsors of downtown development projects. I was amazed that entire project teams would expend their resources to present their projects to the likes of us – a powerless, title-less group. We saw a presentation on the Brower Center perhaps six years ago, for example, before anyone at the city had seen it. Perhaps we were considered a rehearsal for the succession of difficult audiences to follow. But the presenters were not indifferent to our responses. The team for the current Mechanic's Bank development returned for a second presentation after we recorded critical comments of aspects of their design.
Our meetings seemed never to want for purpose. Several times a year the planning or public works department of the city asked DBA for input or for opinion to inform design and planning proposals in the works at the city. The committee took these requests seriously and agendaed time accordingly. For example, we were asked several times for input regarding BART plaza and regarding consultant studies pertaining to it. We devoted more than one meeting to the Transit Zone Urban Design Plan (TZUDP) of 2006. A sample of the committee's comments on TZUDP are included: Design Co, Tues, Nov 14, 8:30am, DBA Office 11/6/2006 The DBA Design Committee later championed this polished, highly informed, city-commissioned study to the DAPAC who were largely ignorant of its content and ill-informed about transit design alternatives in downtown.
The end hour always came sooner than bidden. These meetings were far removed from a waste of time. Nevertheless, shortly after I became chair we were challenged by Avery Taylor Moore who sat in one day for the usual ELS representative. “Your committee should have a product other than merely talk.” I took this comment to heart. Such a wealth of talent, opinion and candor could be put to good purpose I thought.
In 2/10/2004 we hosted a presentation from the personable Jim Cunradi of AC transit regarding BRT. (Design Committee, minutes on BRT, your comments please Feb 10, 2004) Jim had been seeking audiences with any group in Berkeley willing to listen. Though we qualified as the most obscure of venues, Jim was forthcoming with his time and candor Afterward we crowded around his laptop and re-visited lots of his slides. No one on the design committee had formerly been well informed about BRT. Jim's slideshow corrected that, leaving us dumbfounded. It was very specific, complete with photo-realistic computer renderings of downtown with and without BRT. The architects and landscape architects saw in Jim's slides a pedestrian-hostile streetscape. Small scale retail along Shattuck also appeared to be in harm's way. We expressed our alarm. Jim was calm. “Look, we're engineers not designers. Give us Berkeley's design for placing BRT into downtown. Our engineers will figure out how to make it work!”
We asked Jim why he was appearing before the likes of us instead of before more prestigious venues like the Planning Department, the Planning Commission, the mayor, etc. "Whom may I call?" he asked. Apparently he had found few doors open to his efforts to present his show. We all turned to our city official Ted Burton for insight. He unconvincingly mentioned "understaffing" and "hiring freezes."
At subsequent meetings we resumed the topic. John Roberts, on his own time, drew scaled sketches of several alternate ways of threading BRT through downtown. (6/28/04) I still have these. He brought them to the next Design Committee meeting. These drawings made us more vehement about the need for an adequate design process to determine the route. His sketches showed the impacts of alternate routes. Not all were bad. One or two of the alternatives were very interesting. Every one differed sharply from AC's crude route design. It was clear that BRT could potentially devastate downtown. But it could alternately be a windfall. AC's money to spend on altering the streets of downtown could readily serve two ends, the needs of BRT and a major enhancement of the pedestrian environment of downtown. The quality of outcome depended completely upon the design.
It was obvious to me that the city needed to immediately hire a planner specializing in transit route engineering in order to shepherd the search for a design. (BRT draft letter 2/10/04)
John Roberts wanted to meet with mayor Tom Bates and walk him through the sketches. I cautioned him not to expect too much. I worked with Tom Bates before he became mayor and found his intuition ill suited to this sort of problem. I urged John to mention the idea of hiring a transit planner. John met with the mayor. History records no known consequence of this meeting. But the Design Committee had heard the trumpet call. We began to raise the alarm as best we could that this was a threat as well as an opportunity of great consequence for Berkeley, It needed an adequate, timely response from the city.
On May 4, 2005 we were host to a presentation by the “Creeks People” of their proposal to “daylight” Strawberry Creek. Our guests included about three of the authors of their recently rejected grant proposal. Richard Register himself did not appear. We listened with avid curiosity. They proposed to excavate an 8' deep trench in the middle of Center Street beween Oxford and Shattuck to hold water diverted from its present route, a pipe located one block south under Allston Way. The creek had never actually flowed in the location of Center Street. But Center Street was the designated location because Alston Way is narrow to host the gesture. Their proposal included sketchy hydrology information, no cost information, no renderings and not a single section diagram of Center Street illustrating the ravine.
As soon as the guests concluded and exited, a lively discussion ignited. We were in immediate and complete rejection of the idea. Benefit was overwhelmed by problems and disadvantages. But Dorit Fromm who works in downtown for ELS Architects changed the discussion's direction: “it certainly would be nice to have a serene green place downtown where one could eat one's lunch.”
A steep-sided shaded ravine swallowing most of the width of Center Street, apt to be ill-maintained, garbage and rodent-infested did not qualify as "serene green place." But we quickly brainstormed our way to “water feature in a green strip” as being a much more useful and practical land use.
For a year prior to this date we had seen presentations of several major downtown developments in the works. We had hosted the BRT presentation by Jim Cunradi and had spent much time promoting our view that the City needed to get proactive about design in downtown. Mindful of the flock of design issues over downtown, Dorit proposed that DBA sponsor a public design charette for downtown. This was an immediately hit among us. Dorit and the DBA had all the means to make it happen. But we quickly brainstormed our way to the prerequisite question:
"What does downtown want to be?"
From that day's conversation, several years' activity were launched.
The excitement of that meeting inspired Dorit to unprecedented between-meeting activity. She promptly held off-the-record but on-her-notepad conversations with veteran local architects and planners with whom she was acquainted. These professionals, familiar with the Berkeley scene for many years, were unmoved. They saw no opportunity which would not succumb to the usual gravity. Their reservations can be summarized "does Berkeley really want a downtown?"
Dorit shared with me her notes from these conversations. I was sobered but not discouraged. Something might be possible if people shared a vision. Around what vision of downtown could Berkeleyans rally?
Many factions and individuals have attempted to impose their vision upon downtown, or at least that is Berkeley's impression. "Developers" have a "vision," popularly assumed to be greedy. Anti-car "green" and "bicycle" folk have a vision of a downtown from which all cars and parking have been eliminated. The "Eco-city Berkeley" organization has not only a vision but renderings of a downtown yielded to profuse greenery and "daylighted creeks." The City of Berkeley wants a downtown which can yield more revenue for the city via fees, taxes or whatever. All these actors have aggressive agendas. But what might ordinary residents embrace?
From Dorit's notes was born my "Visioning a Downtown" proposal. I conceived of a city-wide, one or two year process of harvesting from the people of Berkeley a vision of downtown to which the populace could commit. It was to engage a great variety of people, including those only temporarily resident like students, visiting lecturers and even travelers. The problem with typical city-initiated committees is that they enroll a very narrow description of resident, typically the least transient long-term resident, including many permanent commission-sitters. This breeds provincialism. The "visioning exercise" was to include a solicitation of essays, comments at public visioning workshops, and a formal opinion poll of voters. My optimism was based upon my experince of like processes in the prior twelve years. They included the school district's successful reconstruction of the K-12 buidling inventory and the Halcyon neighborhood's citizen-initiated park ( The Gestation of Halcyon Commons.)
At subsequent Design Committee meetings we considered the design charette and the "visioning a downtown" ideas. Here is an early draft I sent to Dorit: (Re: Proposal for Design Subcommittee's "product" 7/11/2005) The idea was shaped by more iterations and by comments from Mark McLeod and others. At last we presented it to the DBA board. The board was very interested. Some members were highly excited by the potential. A few had reservations, mainly due to the high visibility of the proposed process.
Deborah circulated it to a few of city staff including Mark Rhoades. The city was bemused, seeing no point in it due to fancied ampleness of their own policy. (FW: Can we talk about DAP & visioning? How about Friday afternoon? 9/27/2005)
To fast-forward, here is the final draft of the "Visioning" proposal:
“Visioning a Downtown” ( http://busduse.org/VisioningDowntownProposal.html )
One day in September 2005 our committee was surprised by the sudden attendance of Matt Taecker. Matt did not work for the city at that time. I knew him because he had sat for years on the committee I chaired at BUSD. After the meeting I learned that Matt had applied for the “Downtown Planner” position recently created by the city in response to the settlement of Tom Bates' U.C. lawsuit. Apparently Matt considered our committee one of several means of getting up to speed on downtown design issues. He dropped in while we were still discussing the “visioning downtown” process.
A few weeks later, we first heard of the council and mayor's intention to convene what was later called “DAPAC” the "DAP" resolution passed by the council. The occasion was the mayor's lawsuit against U.C. Berkeley. U.C. Berkeley required an additional 640,00 sq ft of office space in downtown Berkeley. The city was obliged to determine how to locate it. In turn, U.C. put up the funds to cover the staff costs of sustaining an adequate "public process."
The DBA's response to events is inherently slow due to its board-dominant structure. It has authority only by vote of its board; its board meets once per month and cannot be expected to act on anything the first time it hears of it. The speed with which DAPAC was breathed into existence assured the DBA could make no official response. A few of us urged Raudel, the president at that time, to send a letter of concern to the mayor and council. A letter was drafted and vetted. But Raudel, not being much engaged in planning issues and probably anticipating his exit from DBA, did not pay close attention. I do not know if it was actually sent. (Draft letter from Raudel to the City, 10/17/2005) DAPAC was a "done deal" before the DBA board had had a chance to discuss it.
In my opinion “DAPAC” was a poor tool for its purpose. In concept and in form it reproduced the most dysfunctional public participation episode I have ever experienced, "The BUSD School Reconfiguration Task Force of 1993."
The commission was named "advisory", but the commissioners' understanding was that the task of writing the downtown plan was theirs. Though the 21 citizens who populated the commission were mostly laypeople - regular folk with sufficient time to spare - they rapidly shed any doubt they were qualified to author the statuatory basis of planning decisions in the downtown for the next 20 years. It seemed of importance to no one - neither politicians nor appointees - that plan writing is typically a technical task performed by paid professionals informed by appropriate citizen input, by consultants and by city staff. It concerned no one that the stakeholders of downtown – the businesses, non profits and restaurants who wholly depend for their survival upon the viability of downtown - were given no voice at all. It seemed of no importance that this was conceived from the beginning as the mother of all timesinks, assuring that nobody whose time is valuable and limited could serve. This made it inevitably constituted by the retired, the politically opportunistic and the peculiar "commissioner" class of Berkeley. Many of the appointees were faces familiar to one another from various other commission.
The commission's conviction of ownership was acute. When the city staff alter, added or delete text, the changes received minute scrutiny and often sentence by sentence parsing. As the conclusion of the DAPAC era neared, the commissioners voiced defiant murmers that the plan need be preserved intact by the Planning Commission, the next tier of public review.
Did the mayor and council assume that DAPAC would serve as a public visioning exercise, providing subjective input as well as political cover to staff who would thereafter write the actual plan, including its less palatable ingredients? “If citizens bake it then they will happily eat it.” Such was not the committee's understanding of its charge.
DAPAC advanced glacially. Without any seat - voting or non-voting - the DBA's means for monitoring its progress were limited to reading the local newpaper or sitting in the audience at meetings. Sampling a few meetings, it was clear the DAPAC appointees would need a lot of time to come up to speed on the issues. The DAPAC appeared determined to gouge its groove at its pace, mostly indifferent to whom had passed that way before or to work performed earlier. It became evident there might be no way to profitably share our prior knowledge and efforts with the DAPAC commissioners.
On May 5, 2006, the city planning department hosted a design charette on downtown. This was mandated by the original DAP resolution passed by the council. But the way it was executed was the decision of the city planning department. Customarily, design charettes are public events wide open to the community. Because the invited designers donate most or all of their time, their compensation is the glory and the marketing value of appearing before a large crowd. The public benefit is the synergy of sowing ideas among many minds, including those of the non-professional "public." Typically the charette is recorded on video and all sketches photographed. Afterward, copies of the video and of the "book" are available on request.
The City of Berkeley Planning Department did not run their charette this way. The event was labeled a "technical advisory" rather than a Design Charette. It was closed to the public and to the press. The only products made subsequently available were nine "slides" - merely hand-held low resolution snapshots, copied here. 9 Slides of design charette
The Design Committee, like the presss and most of the populace, learned of this Design Charette after the fact. The "Downtown Design Charette" envisioned and avidly anticipated by Design Committee was cancelled by the city's version. Thought the city's event yielded no synergy nor public excitement, it DID drain the tap of local designers' pro-bono talent and time. The downtown "Design Charette"of this generation had happened. We and the entire city population had been excluded.
The reason the city make the charette secret has never been clear. If one asks the Planning Department one is given an official explanation which lacks logic.
The Design Committee had been focused on Center Street from the day in 2005 we hosted the "Creeks Daylighting" presentation. We learned in the summer of 2006 that DAPAC had seized upon Center Street as an early focus of its attention. We were more surprised to learn that a subcommittee might recommend the "daylighting" of a creek in the middle of Center Street, not as one of several alternatives for consideration but as a non-negotiable mandate of DAPAC.
The Center Street block is one of the more complex nodes in Downtown. It was the anticipated location of a future conference center and an art museum. Key AC bus cannot easily relocate because of restrictions on parallel streets. That Center Street block is presently one of the most viable of Downtown. Any change runs a risk of messing it up. Any designer would consider the resolution of this block a matter for care, successive iterations, and a long gestation. So how could a bunch of non-designers be so resolute about a single design solution - and the most extreme, risky and expensive - for this street?
In late September members of the Design Committee and Mark McLeod met with Phil Kamlarz and Dan Marks to express our concern. To them we urged the city to designate the superblock including that center street block an area of special design focus. We urged the city to hire a planner/designer on a temporary basis to work with DAPAC and the city to evolve several alternate designs for Center Street and the super-block extending to University Avenue. The DBA offered to contribute $10,000 to that effort.
Dan and Phil affably chatted with us. They apologized for not seating the DBA on the DAPAC. But they noted, "what's done is done." They observed that "DAPAC is the arena of decision" and urged us to "get into that arena" and advocate as best we can. Dan also revealed that he planned to hire a firm as a design consultant for the very purpose we advocated. But rather than use city funds he planned to divert $100,000 from the permit fee for the hotel/conference center for the purpose. He anticpated that permit application at any time. Its submission was already months later than his expectation.
We felt, or fancied, their implicit endorsement. Following the meeting we formed a plan of action. With faith in the process after hearing it recommended by Phil and Dan, we planned a presentation to the Center Street subcommittee. Mark McLeod rapidly organized a meeting with merchants on that block and in the vicinity to tally their concerns. Jamie and John began to prepare sketches showing design alternatives. A mini design charette was held at ELS architects to author a wider range of alternatives. (Sketch session) We began attending regular lunches by Helen Burke's "creek" subgroup of DAPAC calling itself "Enviros".
I began creating 3D models of Center Street with an 8' trench down the middle. The "Creeks people" had shown no sketch of Center Street with creek ravine. I believed that even they did not have an accurate mental picture of the pedestrian experience of a ravine in Center Street. (3D Models of Center Street: http://busduse.org/CenterSt/ )
I commenced a concurrent project, a comparative study of successful downton closed streets around the U.S.. I have seen first-hand the results of failed closed street experiments in various cities around the country because I have traveled exceptionally widely in the U.S. in the '80's. I believed it urgent to understand the urban logic which has allowed a very few to work while hundreds have failed. I began preparing a matrix. (Comparison matrix, closed streets - never completed )
We worked hard to prepare our respective elements of the presentation.
The evening designated for our appearance arrived - October 26, 2006. We believed our presentation was on the agenda. That proved an incorrect presumption. Rob Wrenn, the chair, denied us from presenting as a group. Days prior to the meeting I had sent Rob two URL's for dissemination to the committee so they had time to view them prior to the meeting. They were not distributed. Rob tried to limit our total "presentation" to a three minute "public comment." After some discussion he yielded somewhat, allowed one to three minutes to each of the four of us - Mark, Jaime, John and I. Making the best of this, Mark outlined our efforts and presented the concerns of the businesses in the vicinity. Jaime patiently explained the design opportunity on this block. John spellbound the audience and won more time. Because the committee had not been able to see the images or information I had compiled because they had not received the URL's, I could only ineffectually summarize the work I had done. The audience was decidedly unfriendly. Perhaps our presentation, compressed into short duration, simply lost them. Their non-response leaves us to guess. The city's appointed chair of DAPAC, Will Travis, was present but remained mute. Other city and consultant representatives were present and remained mute. Only one committee member made his interest obvious by engaging in dialog with us. I later learned this person's identity: Jim Samuels.
The least negative interpretation of our treatment is that the chair did not recognize our qualification or our relevance as a voice for a larger group. Other interpretations are more negative.
We perceived that a single decision outcome would pass and be recommended up to the broad DAPAC, regardless of any presentation or evidence by us. The committee's recommendation was locked in place. (Agenda, Talking Points; Center St subcommittee 10/26/06) We were allowed to speak only in formal deference to the public comment obligation.
It wasted our time and taught us to expect the worst from DAPAC. The task upon which we were aimed by Phil and Dan was merely an appeasement strategy. It afforded zero opportunity to educate this subcommittee before they finished considering whatever factors they considered. Predictably, they went on to recommend the closure of the block and the "daylighting" of the creek.
Following this we were not soon inclined to engage effort in DAPAC. Yet, it soldiered on as its anticipated date of conclusion kept backing away. The fact that DBA had zero voice meant nothing to city goverment and to the majority of the members.
It had never been more apparent that the DBA as an organization lacking sufficient power to influence local events of vital concern to its constituents.
The Design Committee, Deborah and Mark continued to monitor the DAPAC agenda's and its gradually accumulating documents deposit. Months after the Center Street disappointment, a council member offered Mark a seat on DAPAC of one month's duration as a substitute for a regular member. Mark is not a resident of Berkeley and could not serve. I agreed to serve in order to give some voice to DBA's interests. The one month's service stretched into two, with an subsequent occasional one-meeting appearance..
The time this service consumed was far out of proportion to its benefit. But this small consideration of DBA had to be exploited with all energy. I cannot point to any deciding influence I exerted upon DAPAC. I at least succeeded in making the identity of the DBA more explicit to the DAPAC by showing a face (mine) and by iterating, in my rare chances to speak, who constitutes the DBA. The DAPAC seemed to conflate the DBA with evil developers, evil Chamber of Commerce schemers, evil capitalists, evil landlords, evil Republicans, evil car drivers and other dreaded predators. I constantly reiterated that DBA is mostly tiny restarant and shop owners, the Y, the Rep, the library, the museums - the humans who animate downtown.
My advent coincided with DAPAC's response to AC transit's DEIR for BRT. In this respect I believe I did have a decisive influence. As a DAPAC member I attemped to join the subcommittee on BRT. Several members objected because I was not permanently seated on DAPAC. They obliged the entire DAPAC to spent more than 15 minutes discussing whether Bruce Wicinas, a sworn DAPAC member but only a temporary one, might be allowed to serve on the BRT subcommittee. Following the discussion the DAPAC was obliged to vote on this question. This illustrates how DAPAC used its time (i.e., frivilously in the opinion of me.) Over its duration the DAPAC may have spent more time debating "process" than considering downtown's future.
In the end I was not permitted to join the subcommittee. I could not be prevented from attending, of course, since these were "Brown Act" proceedings. In the status of "member of the public" though I was a sworn DAPAC member, I was allocated only three minutes to speak. I presented a dense distillation of the DBA's three years of work on this issue and provided hardcopies to the subcommittee. Though I was limited to three minutes a hostile committee member repeatedlly interrupted me with rude noices. This unsavory behavior played poorly and led to permission by the subcommittee for Jaime Rusin and John Roberts to appear, agenda-ed, with a longer presentation at a subsequent meeting. John and Jamie showed the routing possibilities which far exceeded those exhibited by AC to which the DAPAC had limited their consideration. The subcommittee got the point. The ultimate conseqeunce was that DAPAC did not take a position on BRT - the best outcome we could have hoped. And it submitted a list of good, tough questions, many of those raised by DBA.
I befriended a subfaction of DAPAC who held positions I found comprehendable. A couple of breakfast meetings with them were the best-spent time of my DAPAC tenure. Key amid this faction is Jim Samuels who I found the most sober-minded as well as design-cognizant and perhaps courageous person on the commmission. By my ongoing contact with commissioners I acquired "heads-up" reconannaisance to bring to to Mark, Deborah and the DBA board. Because of the DBA's relative impotence the only access the DBA was permitted were three minutes speeches at the mike during the "paper shuffling" pre-agenda part of the meeting. And DAPAC commissioners ultimately complained they grew tired of seeing and hearing Deborah and Mark. Scarcely any other DBA board members could be induced to appear.
In the end, the DAPAC recommendations contained a bit more of DBA than they would have minus this minor level of invovlement. But DAPAC seated no stakeholders of downtown. Its final product thoroughly reflects this fact.
|Contents of accompanying sample letter file|
|Design Committee, minutes on BRT, your comments please Feb 10, 2004
Minutes of the meeting following that at which Jim Cunradi appeared. Includes a list of recommendations on BRT by the Design Committee. These look as relevant as ever.
|BRT draft letter 2/10/04
Draft of a proposed letter to mayor and city council urging that the city hire a temporary planner/route engineer. Bruce wrote this first draft to get the task rolling. This probably was never sent.
|Re: Proposal for Design Subcommittee's "product" 7/11/2005
Early draft of Bruce's "downtown visioning", contained in an attachment by Dorit.
|FW: Can we talk about DAP & visioning? How about Friday afternoon? 9/27/2005
Response from city staff to Deborah's proposal to meet and talk about downtown visioning.
|Re: Response/"Marching orders" from Mark, Raudel 10/17/2005
Draft of a letter to be signed by DBA president Raudel Wilson to mayor and city council urging that DBA be seated on DAPAC. I do not think this letter was ever sent.
|Jamie's center street sketch session 10/20/2006
About Jamie's proposed sketch session to author alternatives for center street in anticipation of DBA's appearance before DAPAC's Center Street subcommittee.
|Center Street Modelled Schematic Alternatives / Meeting Thursday 10/25/2006
Introduction to the 3D modeled alternative scenarios for a creek excavation in Center Street.
|Center Street Agenda & Consensus Points 10/26/2006 from Matt Taecker
Agenda for the October 26 meeting of the DAPAC Center Street subcommittee.
|ConsensusPts-CenterStr-61005.doc (attachment 10/26/06)
"Consensus Points" for the October 26 meeting of the DAPAC Center Street subcommittee.
|Design Co, Tues, Nov 14, 8:30am, DBA Office 11/6/2006
Design Committee's response to the City's TRANSIT ZONE URBAN DESIGN PLAN. We were asked by the city to comment. So the design committee dedicated time to its review and formally recorded comments, typed and polished by Deborah. Because almost none of the work has been done these comments remain of interest.
Compendium of DBA's thinking and positions regarding BRT, prepared by B. Wicinas for DAPAC "BRT Subcommittee"
|DEIS response jnr dft2 062607.doc June 26, 2007|
This is the DBA board's formal response to the BRT DEIR, addressed to Jim Cunradi of AC transit.