by Mary Flaherty, Berkeleyside

berkeleyside-logoBerkeley expects to get $12.7 million in grant funding for changes to BART Plaza, Shattuck Avenue and Hearst Street that should make life easier for people using the Downtown BART station and buses, biking to campus and even just driving through the center of town.

On Thursday, May 23 the Alameda County Transportation Commission (ACTC) voted unanimously on an initial approval of the city’s grant proposals for the three transit projects. Construction could begin in 2015, said Matt Nichols, principal transportation planner for the city.

BART Plaza in downtown Berkeley will be redesigned under new plans. (Keoki Seu)
BART Plaza in downtown Berkeley will be redesigned under new plans. (Keoki Seu)

Although the draft approval is just one step toward getting the money, with more approvals still needed, this step was most likely was the biggest hurdle, said those involved. The unanimous vote helps, too.

“I’m pretty optimistic,” said council member Laurie Capitelli, who is also Berkeley’s representative to the ACTC.

The design process, with public input, will start this fall, said Nichols.

Renovation of BART Plaza

The biggest budget project is for renovation of the Downtown Berkeley BART Plaza, to create better flow of pedestrians and better links between BART and buses, and to open up the plaza space, Nichols said.

Berkeley expects to get $7.4 from the ACTC for this project. Additional funds come from the city, UC Berkeley and BART. The whole project should cost $10.5 million.

Initial designs call for the following:

The main rotunda at the BART station will most likely be replaced. A new sign at street level will provide real-time departure and arrival information. Signage in general, will be improved to help pedestrians find their way. Also, BART’s other five downtown entrances will get rain canopies and be locked at night at street level, keeping people out of the stairwells.

The bus shelter along Shattuck Avenue would be enlarged two to three times.

The BART plaza will retain its triangular footprint, but be re-organized. Benches, trees, bike parking and lighting will be replaced and moved. Handicapped ramps on curbs will be upgraded. There will also be better soil for the trees, storm water run-off improvements, and opportunities for public art, and performance space.

The Downtown Berkeley Association has been pushing for these changes for years, said executive director John Caner.

“We see the renovation of BART Plaza as key to the revitalization of downtown,” Caner said. “This is really important for bringing people and new investment to downtown.”

“If you look at that rotunda, it’s an old, dated design,” he said. “The opportunity is to make that into a showpiece entrance.”

Straightening out Shattuck

The second project “straightens out” Shattuck Avenue in the two-block area where it currently splits into two one-way roads, between University Avenue and Center Street. (A detailed plan of the Shattuck reconfiguration can be see in this large pdf.)

The primary reason for the change is that the intersection of Shattuck and University, with so many cars making turns, is the most dangerous in the city, with 2.5 pedestrian accidents per year, Nichols said.

The project will turn the western arm of Shattuck, between University and Center, into a two-way street, so that northbound traffic can proceed straight through downtown without the turns.

The eastern arm of Shattuck Avenue (currently the northbound lanes), would remain, but one lane of traffic would be removed and diagonal parking installed, roughly doubling the number of spaces.

More than 800 new housing units are planned for downtown Berkeley. (Tracey Taylor)
More than 800 new housing units are planned for downtown Berkeley. (Tracey Taylor)

The DBA’s Caner said his group would like to see the eastern arm of Shattuck revitalized, with more foot traffic and shopping. Eventually, that passage would link the planned Acheson Commons development to the north with BART.

This project will receive $2.3 million from the ACTC. The city and UC Berkeley are also contributing, for a total budget of $3.7 million.

Bike and Pedestrian Improvements on Hearst

The final project, called the Hearst Avenue Complete Streets Improvements, creates a bike lane and pedestrian safety features on Hearst Avenue, starting at Shattuck Avenue and proceeding uphill, along the UC Berkeley campus to the northeast corner at Gayley Road and La Loma Avenue.

The ACTC grant is for $2.1 million. The city and partners will pitch in for a total budget of $3.5 million.

Between Shattuck and Oxford Street, Hearst Avenue will lose a lane of traffic (but gain turn pockets), and get an eastbound (uphill) bike lane and a median strip, which makes crossing safer for pedestrians.

Along the campus, from Oxford up to Euclid Avenue (North Gate), parking on the uphill lane will be eliminated and a bike lane and sidewalk will be added. The downhill side will not get a bike lane, just “share-the-road” arrows. The split-level divider along Hearst will remain in place.

At Le Roy Avenue, near the top of campus, a traffic signal will be installed to making crossing between campus buildings on either side of Hearst safer. And at several other intersections flashing lights – pedestrian beacons – will be installed at crosswalks for greater safety.

Dave Campbell, Advocacy Director with the East Bay Bicycle Coalition, said he has been pushing for this Hearst Avenue for 15 years, and is happy plans are moving forward.

“The city has designed a modern, innovative bikeway for Hearst. It’s the type of bikeway that many other progressive American cities are starting to design and build,” he said.

Along campus, a physical divider will separate bikes from cars. “It will be the first physically protected bikeway in Berkeley,” he said.

The city worked closely with the East Bay Bicycle Coalition, as well as with BART, UC Berkeley, AC Transit, Lawrence Berkeley Lab and the DBA to plan and design these projects, said Nichols.

But, he said there is still plenty of time of public input, when the design and environmental review process start this fall.

This year’s grant process marks the first time that the transportation commission has factored the link between transportation, housing and jobs into the ranking system, Nichols said. The Berkeley projects were highly ranked (numbers 1, 3 and 7 of of 69) in part because the projects tie together BART and buses, with an area that’s seen a big increase in housing and jobs in recent years.

According to Nichols, more than 1,050 new housing units have been built within a quarter mile of the downtown BART station since 2000, and 25% of them are affordable. In addition, more than 800 new housing units downtown are either under construction, approved, or in the pipeline.

Furthermore, downtown Berkeley has more than 9,000 jobs, as well as 1,200 Civic Center employees, 5,300 city college students, and 3,400 high school students.

UC Berkeley, one block away, has 36,000 students and 21,000 employees, and Lawrence Berkeley Lab (accessed by shuttle from downtown), has 4,000 employees, and 3,000 guest researchers.

According to Nichols, Berkeley’s 2012 Downtown Area Plan and the amount of new development were major factor in Berkeley’s projects being ranked so highly.

Council member Capitelli agreed. “I think we’ve worked very hard on the downtown plan,” he said. “We’re being rewarded for our hard work.”

Overall, the Transportation Commission gave $65.2 million in funding for transportation projects throughout Alameda County. Funding sources included Federal One Bay Area Grant (OBAG), Measure B and Vehicle Registration Fee funds.

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