Downtown Renovations Attempt to Create Improved Cultural District





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Beneath the dingy exterior of Downtown Berkeley, a revival is taking place.

The building that once housed the city library currently stands like a large hulking skeleton on the southwest corner of Shattuck Avenue and Kittredge Street. The library was displaced to a temporary site so the old building could be completely renovated and enlarged.

Besides the Berkeley Repertory Theater on Addison Street, the region of town lacks an eclectic range of entertainment. The area seems to be home only to movie theaters.

Superficially, the area may look as if it needs cosmetic assistance. But, within the next few years, city planning officials hope to turn Downtown Berkeley around and transform it into a bustling center filled with entertainment, culture and fine dining.

In what officials hope to be the near future, the Downtown area will become host to a new $30 million library twice the size of its predecessor, as well as a new Addison Street Arts District, where visitors can see a show, view art gallery exhibits and absorb live music, all along with a cup of cappuccino.

City officials hope that the creation of the Addison Street Arts District - a new concentration of cultural and entertainment venues that promises to be a prominent East Bay epicenter of artistic expression - will grant Berkeley boasting rights to high-quality, hip hangouts.

The Addison Arts District will pull an assortment of local Berkeley culture into a small area.

Plans include a "poetry sidewalk," where people can walk over poems by professors such as UC Berkeley English Professor and Poet Laureate Robert Hass that will be embedded in the pavement.

"It's not enough to have movies and food," says Susie Falk, a spokesperson for Berkeley Repertory Theater. "People also want culture in their entertainment center."

Among the institutions that plan to migrate to the area is the Aurora Theater, which is currently located on Durant Avenue.

Freight and Salvage Coffee House also has plans to relocate to a location across the street from the Berkeley Repertory Theater, where it plans to supply live music nightly by a variety of folk musicians.

"In our new home, we will welcome back many of our favorite musicians who have stopped performing for us because their audiences have outgrown our current confines," says Steve Baker, executive director of the coffee house.

Downtown already furnishes pleasure seekers with a wide variety of restaurants, especially a vast selection of Asian cuisines.

Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Cambodian and Indian food are abundant in the Downtown area that stretches along Shattuck Avenue from Durant Avenue to Hearst Street and is bounded on the east and west by Oxford Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way.

With the rejuvenation of Downtown Berkeley through the development of the Arts District, restaurants might attract a larger clientele, especially on the weekends, says one restaurant manager.

The restaurants may also become more of a prelude to an evening of Downtown entertainment rather than being the main attraction.

"Many long time customers and also people going to the theater come and eat here," says Pahman Shayesteh, manager at the Santa Fe Bistro on Center Street.

As one of the earlier projects, Center Street has also experienced an immense amount of development recently.

Funded by a grant of $1 million from the federal government, this gateway between the Berkeley BART station and the UC Berkeley campus now has wider sidewalks and new streetlights and trees.

"We are also looking to open up Strawberry Creek along Center Street in the Downtown area," says City Councilmember Dona Spring, who represents the Central Berkeley district.

The creek, which currently runs underground after leaving the west edge of the campus, would be opened up from Oxford Street to Shattuck Avenue and also from Milvia Street to Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Spring says.

'It's not enough to have movies and food. People also want culture in their entertainment center.' Susie Falk, spokesperson for Berkeley Repertory Theater.

This opening would creating "a wonderful ambiance," she adds, anticipating that the project will be completed within the next 10 years.

The Berkeley Repertory Theater also plans on expanding to accommodate a larger audience. The theater currently seats 400, but a larger stage is being constructed in a nearby building which will hold an audience of 600.

The theater, which won the prestigious Tony Award for Best Regional Theater in 1997, has had to rent out alternate locales in the past so that it could show plays that required a larger stage.

When the new site opens in March 2001, the theater plans to continue to use the smaller stage in addition to the new one.

While these beautification projects will occupy Downtown for years to come, progress ensues with a small degree of annoyance to residents in the area.

Pinakin Bhise, a fifth-year history major at UC Berkeley, has lived on Center Street since fall 1996, before the improvements began.

"It's the loudest street in the world," says Bhise, describing the sounds of jack hammering that sometimes wake him at 5:30 in the morning.

Bhise says he has become accustomed to the sounds of the Downtown area.

The sounds of buses left running for 15 minutes at 3 a.m. outside his window, people walking by at all hours and the routine sound of police and fire engine sirens are all familiar to him now.

Despite the noise, Bhise says he continues to view the Downtown area as an amazing place to live.

"Everything is right here," Bhise says. "The BART and the bank are right here. It's convenient, close to campus, movies, restaurants, bars, and even (San Francisco) are right here because of the BART."

And for people searching for a good time in Downtown Berkeley, the theater, live music, and galleries of the Arts District will multiply and diversify their entertainment options.

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