For downtown Berkeley makeover, ‘great bones’ are a good start

Since January, downtown Berkeley has been undergoing a deep cleaning — less trash, graffiti and (if you’re really paying attention) sidewalk gum stains, more banners, street-level plantings, overhead flower baskets, freshly painted hydrants and artistically decorated utility boxes.


New banners invite downtown Berkeley visitors to 'Taste, Create, Experience.'

The makeover is the work of the Downtown Berkeley Association (DBA), which on Tuesday, April 3, welcomed more than 300 guests to a morning event to launch its revitalization campaign, “It Starts Here.”

“Clean and attractive, safe and welcoming, prosperous and vibrant” are the goals of the new campaign, said the business association’s CEO, John Caner. Downtown Berkeley businesses and property owners recently agreed to heftier self-imposed property taxes to augment City of Berkeley services in the district’s expanded boundaries.

“Like many beautiful women,” downtown Berkeley “has great bones,” said board president Susan Medak, referring to the many institutions that have deep roots in the heart of Berkeley — from UC Berkeley and Berkeley City College to BART, the YMCA and arts organizations like Berkeley Repertory Theatre, which she manages. “Now the task is to put great meat on those bones,” she said, of the long-range goal to attract new businesses, residents, visitors and shoppers.

Shankar Shastry, dean of UC Berkeley’s College of Engineering, said that “it starts here” is a phrase that “deeply resonates” for the university. The city of Berkeley “is a small town but able to influence the world,” he said. “Berkeley has always been a place which has led the way.”

Shastry cited the campus’s Skydeck startup incubator and the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life as vital additions to the downtown Berkeley scene. A third is the Energy Biosciences Institute, whose mission, he said, is nothing less than to develop a new generation of biofuels for transportation and industry, needed “for reindustrializing the United States.”

“We hope to create an ecosystem to attract venture capital and new businesses” — some of which, once born, will hopefully stay in Berkeley, he said.

A newly expanded team of 16 ambassadors — up from five — was introduced. Recognizable by lime-green shirts and yellow jackets, the team’s mission is cleaning and hospitality. It will staff a welcome kiosk set to launch soon near the BART station.

Attendee Manjul Batra, a downtown Berkeley businesswoman since 1970, said that while the reborn DBA has meant a hike in her annual business assessment, she hopes that the downtown area, which has seen “weak traffic” in recent years, will be kept cleaner “and get more anchor tenants” as a result of the revitalization campaign.

The newly expanded downtown Berkeley business district encompasses 25 blocks, bounded by Delaware Street to the north, Oxford and Fulton streets to the east, Martin Luther King Jr. Way to the west and Dwight Way to the south.