Urban Tactilism on Telegraph

Photo: Henry DeMarco

Photo: Henry DeMarco

On a weekday morning, Telegraph Ave is flooded with pedestrians jostling and meandering their way to campus. Buses rumble down the street while bikes weave through the action. At first glance, one might presume that this bustle of people could only mean that the Telegraph corridor (between Bancroft Way and Dwight Way) is a successful city street. With so much foot traffic, what else does it need? Berkeley city planners, designers, and business owners disagree. Although there is heavy commuter activity, the street does not provide opportunities for people to rest or hang out. According to these stakeholders, the deficiency has made the street impersonal, unsafe, and difficult for local businesses.

Beyond the rush of commuters, many see the opportunity for Telegraph to be a weekend destination for shoppers and families with outdoor seating, musical elements, and art. Public and private organizations are working to design spaces for these activities, while critics argue that these changes are superficial, and that they have the potential to exclude and even displace the homeless population on Telegraph Ave.

Telegraph has long been legendary as a center of art, free speech, and community inclusion. According to Professor of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning Achva Stein, the district was defined by “everything being on the street.” Doris Moskowitz, owner of Moe’s Books, explains that the vendors on the street comprised an “alternative economy” of handmade goods. Some of the original characteristics of Telegraph are still present, like the independent music stores, book sellers, and cafés, but others are not. The city of Berkeley as well as private interests are turning to public art and urban design in an attempt to make Telegraph a “cultural destination” that “celebrates [its] extraordinary diversity and historical significance” as well as “technological and social innovation,” according to the city’s Telegraph Public Art Plan.

Photo: Henry DeMarco

Photo: Henry DeMarco

Today, many people fear that Telegraph has lost its status as a gathering place and has become focused on shopping errands and fast dining. However, the main complaint that the Telegraph Business Improvement District (TBID) receives about experiences on Telegraph Ave are aesthetic. TBID is an organization of businesses located on Telegraph Avenue that work together to create an environment that benefits Telegraph’s businesses. TBID’s research incorporates public meetings, collaboration with Berkeley Design Advocates and the UC Berkeley architects, and hearing opinions from street vendors, merchants, and city planners. The City of Berkeley has also held public meetings that allow attendees to express their interests and concerns.  City of Berkeley District 7 Councilman Kriss Worthington found that at these meetings, “certain people were very excited about the art in storefronts” because it is inexpensive and “could be done speedily.” Worthington also notes that TBID’s plan “has a lot less public input,” and many of the proposed projects will draw from private funds, such as a proposed earth-toned chemical stain for the sidewalks.  

The City of Berkeley and TBID have published plans for altering the public environment of the street, proposing a combination of artistic, infrastructural, and transportation elements. Both plans rely on the low-budget, outreach-oriented practices of tactical urbanism, or low-cost and temporary projects, to quickly produce changes to the street. Along with the city’s preliminary report on Public Art, the city has also approved an implementation plan, which focuses on specific projects from both the city’s and TBID’s plans and identifies sources of funding.

Professor Achva Stein of the UC Berkeley Landscape Architecture Department argues that the changes needed for Telegraph should be social rather than designed. While the City of Berkeley’s Public Art Plan and TBID’s Public Realm Plan imply that public art can harness the existing creative energy of Telegraph and is therefore a continuation of the existing atmosphere, others disagree. Professor Stein argues that “in order to put public art you need to have safe places to walk for all ages,” and that rather than placing objects in the street with the hopes of sparking interaction, planning should focus on ways to work with business owners and community members to “get everybody together” on the street. She explains that interventions as simple as the addition of chairs on the street or the limitation of cars can be extremely effective in increasing a sense of community.

Photo: Henry DeMarco

Photo: Henry DeMarco

The differing priorities for Telegraph require both compromise and collaboration. For example, the TBID, the University, and the city look to benefit from making Telegraph more accessible for bikes and transit for residents and visitors. Thus, bike racks, increased transit, and decreased automobile traffic serve multiple interests. All three parties also hope that increased public art on Telegraph will engage businesses, pedestrians, and visitors with the University and the larger community. The Berkeley Police Department also presents a funding opportunity for the city, suggesting  “natural surveillance” and “maintenance” over conspicuous security measures that make the space feel unfriendly and unwelcoming.

In conjunction with this, Housing Commission Chair Matthew Lewis is working with City Council to resolve an “unintentional conflict” within zoning law, allowing for the construction of tall buildings between Bancroft Way and Dwight Way on Telegraph. While this may not directly alter the public realm, it would likely add more pedestrians and activity to the street if high-density development followed this change in zoning.

Through The Green Initiative Fund (TGIF), a UC-Berkeley sponsored grant program for sustainability projects on campus, the university is involved in an initiative called Telegraph Green, which encourages businesses on Telegraph and their patrons to use reusable utensils and to-go containers. Jennifer McDougall, Principal Planner of UC Berkeley Real Estate, hopes that this project will serve both the environment and the atmosphere of Telegraph. By having people create less waste and take care of the street, it might result in “taking more ownership of it” and help “reduce trash in the area.” McDougall explains that the university views Telegraph in terms of its Long Range Development Plan, which aims to shape the major corridors where students live and commute. She says the university’s top priorities are to improve public transportation along Telegraph, promote a variety of nighttime and daytime activities, and integrate curriculum with the district. As far as the university’s contribution to public art on Telegraph, McDougall envisions a thorough design process in order to ensure that “the art that goes up on Telegraph is meaningful art and not just plop art.”

Collaboration with the Chancellor’s Community Partnership Fund and the Berkeley Police Department would result in funding for projects such as a resident artist program and street lighting improvements. However, these organizations have distinct priorities from those of the TBID and the city, such as student engagement in Berkeley and crime prevention through Environmental Design, as outlined in a 2006 police report. UC Berkeley’s Long Range Development Plan identifies Telegraph from Bancroft through to North Oakland as a “Housing Zone” for students and staff, so it is especially interested in changes to the street. The city may also apply for grants for its projects, utilize City of Berkeley Berkeley Public Works and county funds for infrastructure projects, and approach local businesses about potential funding for projects to be located just outside store property. Worthington points out that while these efforts are exciting, he is concerned about funding. He explains that projects where the money is already set aside, such as the AC Transit Parklet collaboration and other less expensive projects like the storefront art initiative, would be the first to be implemented.

Photo: Henry DeMarco

Photo: Henry DeMarco

Moskowitz believes the first step of improving Telegraph depends upon Berkeley “admit[ting] that it needs development [and] that it needs housing.” She explains that business owners like herself and the overall neighborhood “want congestion.” She is most interested in TBID’s plan of using the Dwight Triangle Plaza “as a place for remembering our history.” As for the various other proposed improvements for Telegraph: “The more stuff happening, the better.”

These proposals and their opposition represent different perspectives and visions of what Telegraph should be, shaped by varying personal relationships to the street itself. Renee Chow, Professor of Architecture and Urban Design and Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies in the College of Environmental Design, studies urban design and how we form associations with certain spaces. In her work, she explores the relationship between “figure” and “field” elements. Figures are landmarks, elements designed to draw attention, while fields are overarching aesthetics of certain areas, or “distinguishing elements...that...occur often enough that we begin to associate these elements or themes with the location.” She explains that while “some would like to assign meaning to certain forms or kinds of spaces, one cannot assume that all will read the same thing.” What does this mean for Telegraph? For students, Telegraph might be defined by its retail and fast dining options, while for older residents may read the same setting as lacking in the entertainment options of the past. These impressions of Telegraph matter in making design changes because, according to Professor Chow, “the addition of new items should not only provide something that may have been missing but also intensify or repair some ongoing continuity in the location.”

Other changes proposed for the public realm have proven to be much more divisive. A Public Conduct Amendment approved late last fall criminalizes leaving one’s belongings on city planters, along with other activities associated with Berkeley’s homeless population. TBID supported the amendment, citing issues that businesses owners had with cleaning the sidewalks outside of their storefronts. Baker of the TBID explains the intention of the amendment “is not to prevent an individual from using their First Amendment rights to panhandle but instead to improve “everyone’s access to the sidewalks--which are community property.” He notes that Telegraph “can be so congested that it intimidates others who want to use the sidewalk” and says that his business “regularly get[s] complaints about the situation.” He believes the Amendment to be beneficial because “for a pedestrian environment to thrive, the common space needs to be accessible and welcoming to all.”

Photo: Henry DeMarco

Photo: Henry DeMarco

McDougall explains that while the University does not support these legal measures, it seeks to create a “a culture of change” in which “the entire community more or less agree that...we’re not willing to accept [certain activities] on the sidewalk.” The council meeting sparked widespread protest, with residents and student activists taking to the podium to criticize the proposal, calling it “inhumane” and unrepresentative of Berkeley’s population.

Others, including Miguel Carrera, Housing Justice Organizer of the Coalition for Homeless in San Francisco, oppose legal and physical interventions to the street environment for their potential to displace homeless people. Carrera argues that the criminalization of the homeless population in San Francisc has taken shape because it is “eas[ier] to...pay the police” rather than provide affordable housing. He also cites the power imbalance between businesses and the homeless population. Businesses, which provide revenue for the city, sway the city towards their proposals and ideas, often at the cost of the homeless population, which has less financial power. He emphasizes that changes to street design are superficial, when the real issues are connected to inequality and lack of affordable housing. He acknowledges that [the government] “want[s] to beautify the city” but asks: “when do they want to beautify the life of homeless people?”

Worthington seems unconcerned that the Amendment will alter the existing situation on Telegraph, noting the fact that while San Francisco has criminalized sitting on the sidewalk, and this law is rarely enforced. He notes that “it’s sort of sad that [Berkeley City Council is] willing to vote to criminalize [the homeless] but not actually solve the problem,” citing the difficulty of passing affordable housing measures in city council. However, Worthington feels that the outrage in response to the Amendment is “just political posturing in order to rile up a certain part of Berkeley” Washington maintains that while the Amendment “gets a lot of publicity, [it won’t] really...change the situation very much.”

Photo: Henry DeMarco

Photo: Henry DeMarco

Much of the discussion of Telegraph is framed using phrases like “change,” “improvement,” and “addition.” To Professor Chow, the most effective interventions that can be made to a space are the ones that “take advantage of previously unseen opportunities” and “highlight [and] intensify the field” of a place. This raises an important question: What types of elements and values already exist on Telegraph that could be added to? This question could guide future discussion of Telegraph and produce more socially inclusive proposals. While the process may be long, the city has plans to complete several projects to improve Telegraph, including parklets funded by AC Transit. The Public Art Plan also suggests decorative bike racks, a “monumental artwork” on Dwight and Telegraph, more beautiful trash bins, and regular events held on Telegraph. As for the Public Realm Plan, an earth-toned chemical stain for the sidewalk is soon to be piloted, while there are plans to create an Art Plaza on Durant, increased outdoor seating on the street, an extension of the sidewalks, bike lanes leading to Telegraph from Bancroft, and more street trees.

CampusRaine Robichaud