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Envisioning a New Lower Sproul

24 November 2008 No Comment

By Casey Miner —

Students lined up to enter a carnival on Lower Sproul Thursday afternoon, milling around, socializing, and investigating the inflatable tents and games arrayed around the plaza. To an unschooled passerby, the scene might look totally normal. To Nadesan Permaul, it’s all too rare.

Permaul is the head of the ASUC, Berkeley’s student union, and a key player in helping the university redesign Lower Sproul Plaza into a place more friendly to public gatherings.

Thursday's carnival on Lower Sproul. Photos by Casey Miner.

Thursday's carnival at Lower Sproul. Photos by Casey Miner.

Speaking recently from his office overlooking the plaza, Permaul pointed and gestured toward different corners and facades, drawing in the air the kinds of vistas he envisions. Down below, the concrete plaza was mostly empty. A few students passed through en route to other parts of campus; several homeless people lay prone on the benches.

“We have turned this into a kind of urban wasteland,” said Permaul. “It looks like it’s abandoned. All of the offices open inward. None of them open outward, none of them invite activity out into the plaza.”

He paused.

“There’s nothing here. That has to change.”

Part of the problem, said Permaul, was that the space had been designed for a different era. When the university built Lower Sproul in 1960, he said, it was responding to the demands of a smaller student body whose needs differ greatly from those of the current students.

Back then, said Permaul, campus was less developed. A 1947 report entitled “Students at Berkeley” highlighted the need for a public gathering space, and by 1964, he said, Lower Sproul was “burgeoning with activity.” No-frills pubs like the Bear’s Lair added to the fraternal atmosphere.

Students now, he said, have higher expectations for both indoor and outdoor space. They tend to come from more well-to-do families, and the restaurants that currently occupy the space underneath the bookstore don’t attract them.

“They’re not accustomed to spending money in locations that seem dingy, small town, unattractive,” said Permaul.

That’s why he thinks that national brands like Panda Express Chinese food and Tully’s coffee will appeal to students, as well as to their families and the community. His proposals have been controversial on a campus that prides itself on an independent streak.

At Thursday’s carnival, sponsored by cartoon network Adult Swim, students welcomed the prospect of a redesigned outdoor space, though they had mixed feelings about national chains.

“Right now it’s not really the place I’d hang out — I just walk past it,” said second-year student Katherine Pham, 29. “They should make it more visually appealing. A paint job, a statue somewhere, more artwork. I think artwork would definitely liven things up.”

Pham said she didn’t think the campus needed a Panda Express, not because it’s a chain but because she thinks there are already plenty of Asian restaurants in the area. A Kentucky Fried Chicken or other fried-chicken restaurant, she said, would be more to her liking.

Fourth-year student Mohammed Al-Shawaf, 21, said he found Lower Sproul to be cold. “There’s a lot of pavement. If you wanted to hang out, maybe you could hang out in a bench, but the benches are dirty. There’s open space, but not really anyplace to sit down. There’s no green anywhere.”

Al-Shawah said that if he were to redesign the plaza, he would prioritize more green space and seating. Now, he said, students only use the plaza in transit.

“It’s not really a place to hang out.”

The carnival, however, seemed to suggest the space’s potential. Sitting on a bench outside the festivities, university staff member Erin Weldon, 28, said she liked that people could come and gather at Sproul.

“You might want to open up the buildings so you can see more,” she said. “But I like that it’s a place where people do fun things.”

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