A fork in the road: Envisioning a Berkeley with safe open-air dining

Illustration of a group of people in open-air dining, wearing masks
Armaan Mumtaz/Staff

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With shelter-in-place orders currently restricting our options, why not bring Berkeley’s ambiance and culture to us? I’m not talking about donning a VR headset or flipping through old photos. I mean opening up city streets for cafe seating — including with the Safe Open Air Dining measure passed by Berkeley City Council, the waiving of permit fees in Albany and the state approval for Alameda County to allow outdoor seating during the most recent restrictions issued by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

These measures enable restaurants to safely serve customers outside while ensuring safe social distancing during the pandemic. Some restaurants are seeing revenues drop as much as 90% due to COVID-19. I know how slim the margins are for local businesses. My great-grandfather owned a restaurant after he immigrated from China, and my grandfather ran a small business delivering fresh bean sprouts and tofu to neighborhood restaurants out of his battered slate-gray truck for several decades.

I know that a slow day can mean missing a doctor’s appointment or a rent payment. This measure will provide critical help for restaurants to pay their bills while continuing to safely serve our community. Not only that, but it’s also an opportunity to build upon and improve our city.

Convenience, community and liveliness will be brought to the East Bay with safe open-air dining. Berkeley is already on the right track with the two-block pedestrian-only conversion of Shattuck Avenue and Addison Street, the expansion of the sidewalks around the Downtown Berkeley BART station and Sunday Streets Berkeley giving people the run of the streets for a day.

Oakland has rolled out its Slow Streets program to 10% of its roads, and Berkeley is starting its Healthy Streets initiative, prioritizing some streets for pedestrians and bikes for social distancing, albeit temporarily. If we combine people-centric streets with outdoor dining, who needs Rome or Paris? Just imagine the joy of finding a seat at Cheese Board after standing in the sun on a Saturday afternoon. It’s time for our community to reclaim the streets for people, cafe seating and slow streets.

As exciting and critical as the Safe Open Air Dining initiative is for our community, it may not happen. Although these measures are gaining traction across the East Bay, cities do not have the funds to pay for outdoor tables, chairs and parklets. Let’s design a better East Bay with its people at its center, and with safe open-air dining as the first step.

As a Berkeley planning commissioner, I spent countless nights talking to our diverse community about how to create better spaces for our city, such as the Adeline Corridor by the Ashby BART station. Designing a pedestrian- and bike-only plaza that seamlessly connects with local businesses, such as with cafe seating, is a good idea, as it preserves a space for the Berkeley Flea Market to live and grow, as well as drives traffic to local establishments and public spaces that are simultaneously safe, entertaining and consistently utilized.

Another important consideration is the preservation of community art spaces. When I studied at UC Berkeley, one of my favorite sights was students dancing on the steps of Sproul Hall for all to see. Not only was it entertaining and culturally edifying, but it also added an unexpected burst of life and vitality to my otherwise quotidian routine and connected me with my neighbors.

Let’s build upon the success of live music at the Downtown Berkeley BART Station. Outdoor art spaces are even more important now — given COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement — as spaces where we can come up with and express solutions together. Why not create more community art spaces for the Adeline Corridor, in the El Cerrito BART parking lot and in the redevelopment plan for People’s Park? Think local art installations on repurposed mediums and murals on parklets; the possibilities are endless. With our arts community suffering just as much as our restaurants are, creating forward-thinking art spaces will contribute to the vitality and community of the East Bay.

Moreover, activism is currently top of mind, and Berkeley has a particularly rich history of it. We should prioritize the creation of large plazas that can be used as hubs for activism, dialogue and ideas. Public spaces that create space for dialogue, convening and healing provide the foundation for our community and the civic engagement that makes American democracy strong.

Our world will be forever altered by COVID-19, and we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to design a better city in its wake. Although the Safe Open Air Dining initiative is primarily intended to help local restaurants make ends meet, it is also a step toward building a more forward-thinking city. Reinvesting in public spaces and public transit means improving the public good.

These ideas are all possible, but only with your help. We must support advocacy efforts to ensure outdoor seating can continue, and we need to help restaurants get the tables and chairs they need. Restaurants in our community cannot afford to wait long before they shut permanently.

That urgency is why I created A Fork in the Road, an organization raising money for outdoor seating in collaboration with Councilmembers Sophie Hahn and Rigel Robinson’s offices, the Sierra Club and other partners. A Fork in the Road provides outdoor tables and chairs for our local restaurants, with a priority for small businesses and minority-owned businesses. Take that $100 you had earmarked for your summer vacation and donate it today. The community spaces you’ll help create will make our community better than any vacation destination you’d planned to visit this summer.

Ben Fong is a former Berkeley planning commissioner and diplomat in former president Barack Obama’s administration. He is a director at micromobility company Spin and candidate for the AC Transit Board of Directors Ward 1 (www.benfortransit.com).