Speak up for Telegraph!
Pulitzer Prize–winner Michael Chabon’s just-released novel, Telegraph Avenue, has once again put the spotlight on the novel’s namesake, that 4½-mile commercial stretch that runs from the south side of U.C. Berkeley’s campus to downtown Oakland, famous for 1960s protests and riots, home to the homeless, former home of Cody’s Books, and still a popular student hangout.
But for years, Telegraph Avenue, has been slowly losing its luster and its customers. Gutted by both fires and a changing marketplace, the street is struggling to find relevance, despite its historic status as the soul of Berkeley. Dear to the heart of alumni, residents, and students, the street represents a “once great” place, creating both lamentations for its decline and passionate hope for its rebirth. In Chabon’s novel, set in 2004, a small independent record store on Telegraph is threatened by a businessman’s plans to construct a mega-music store just a few blocks down. In 2012, with the former shell of Tower Records just off Telegraph now occupied by student eateries, that kind of possibility seems remote.
Yet there is still hope—and opportunity. As Berkeley Design Advocates volunteers, we organized a design charette for Telegraph Avenue. We invited a diverse group of “design activists”—professionals with backgrounds in transit, urban design, architecture, landscape architecture, and urban economics; small business stakeholders; and public employees—to reimagine Telegraph Avenue between Parker Street and Bancroft Avenue.
The first day started with a walking tour of the district, followed by presentations regarding the economic, cultural, and physical context. The second day focused on design, presentations, and public comments. The following three months focused on creating a collaborative vision, a path of action, and documentation that will empower both politicians and citizens to make the necessary changes to revitalize the district.
In its current state, the sidewalks are narrow, and the car comes first. The diverse homeless population has varying needs. People’s Park is more of a liability to Telegraph’s perception of safety than it is an attraction or amenity. The retail market has also evolved, leaving the once-premier book and music stores either vacant or just hanging on. The environment at night is not inviting. Aggressive panhandling, crime, and lack of light and entertainment compel people to avoid Telegraph. The negative qualities dominate the positive, devaluing the street and decreasing support for its commercial and cultural health.
Fortunately, there is much good to build on. Telegraph Avenue has remarkable assets, a world-class university, demand for housing, a number of wonderful historic buildings, multiple choices in transit, and a seminal historic legacy. Additionally, in the larger urban context, Telegraph reaches all the way to Oakland, spanning diverse cultural and economic centers along the way, creating a larger destination for the entire Bay Area. At its core, the good far exceeds the bad.
From an urban perspective, there are many immediate opportunities. Telegraph’s unusual narrowness creates an intense definition of the public street. Sidewalks and traffic organization could be redesigned for people to linger and enjoy it. The intersection at Haste offers three vacant properties (two lots, one large store), creating an opportunity for new office buildings, housing, or entertainment venues, which would not only remove blight, but also open a door for our generation to add its architectural legacy to the street. Additionally, if the neglected pedestrian realm is redesigned into a stunning public space, it will catalyze the necessary support and investment to address the longer-term challenges facing the street.
These obvious assets and liabilities require guidance in their leverage and resolution. The report we produced earmarks both short- and long-term actions that will create a Telegraph more welcoming to all of Berkeley. Many minor renovations could have a tremendous impact, largely concerning the pedestrian experience, and not surprisingly, there are many extremely challenging cultural challenges that will require compassion, courage, and a long-term dedication to resolve.
The fate of Telegraph Avenue is in our hands, and the street could use our help. It was once the defining experience and place for the city. Berkeley is governed by a strong public voice, and it is time to speak up for Telegraph. As for the fate of the struggling record store on Chabon’s fictional version of Telegraph—well, you can find that out in only 480 pages.
For more information or to join the Berkeley Design Advocates, please contact Ryan Call, member of Berkeley Design Advocates’ Steering Committee and Senior Associate at ELS, through ELS’s website, Twitter or Facebook.