1950s Drawings for a New Berkeley Civic Center

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I visited the Berkeley Public Library the other day looking for planning drawings, to see what kind of ideas or visions had been put forth for downtown Berkeley over the years.

Berkeley’s downtown seems to have evolved piecemeal since Francis Shattuck started building it in the 1870s… and on balance, that’s probably a good thing. It’s one of the few California downtowns that wasn’t razed in the urban renewal frenzy, and has retained lots of old buildings with character.

Having said that, no one seems very happy with today’s downtown. Mostly my trip to the library reinforced this – I found many thick planning reports that illustrated the competing priorities under thoughtful discussion for decades. How to balance environmental, civic, and community needs, economic development and equity, traffic and parking, etc.

I’d hoped to uncover some big design ideas from the past – however outlandish or impractical – that were presented with substance and flair. Big ideas can sometimes inspire a community to do something great… like New York City’s High Line.

But I didn’t find much. The only plan I found remotely worth reproducing was the one below from 1957, and it addresses only the area around the Old City Hall, not the rest of downtown. It was never built… probably good, because it would have destroyed a whole residential block, plus the Old City Hall.

The drawings, however, do have a confidence to them – they’re making a big proposal, and aren’t shy about it. This was the postwar city planning era, the heyday of Robert Moses, and also the year that BART design began. The plan’s architect, Milton T. Pflueger, was the younger brother of the renowned Timothy Pflueger, who designed many of San Francisco’s great art deco buildings and also the spectacular Paramount Theater in Oakland.

Thanks to the Berkeley Public Library for letting me access this document, which lives in their history room. All photos taken by phone… no pages were harmed.

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The plan’s goal was to expand capacity to support more city employees and service a larger population as the city grew. Here’s the needs forecast, showing city payroll growing from 348 in 1957 to 545 by 1980 (in the 1950s, the population of Berkeley was about 110,000, same as it is today… by 2013, Berkeley had 1,460 employees).

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Here’s the existing site in 1957 (click for larger image):

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Here’s “Stage 1,” where a courts building would have been added.

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Here’s “Stage 2,” which would have 1) added a new city hall to supplement the old one 2) rerouted Allston Way to create more space for this building; and 3) acquired almost a full block for the city as a buffer zone for this complex.

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Here’s “Stage 3,” which would have demolished the old city hall, replaced it with a new building, and acquired even more land for parking.

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And finally “Stage 4,” which would have added an additional whole city block and building, plus parking, to complete the proposed complex.

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Finally, here’s the cost of the proposed project, with the numbers in brackets in the left hand column being the cost of acquiring the land. The whole project would have cost about $3.5 million ($30 million in todays inflation-adjusted dollars) including about $800,000 ($7 million in todays dollars) to acquire a block and a half of residential property.

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I’m sure some folks around town still remember this proposal and how and why it died. But it doesn’t matter – what does matter is that 60 years later, this is still a part of the downtown that people are talking about – as is the adjacent MLK park, the Shattuck street corridor, University Ave, etc.

There are lots of smart and creative people in Berkeley. It may be that the right thing to do downtown – and the wisdom of the crowd – is piecemeal development, or no development at all.

But it sure would be interesting, in addition to the usual profit-motivated one-off proposals from developers, to see some holistic and creative proposals from top creative minds who’d been given a mandate to think big. Without those, you never get to think about, in a tangible way, what could be.