University Avenue re-do plan is at a crossroads
By Ken Williams | Editor
City engineer Jayne Straughn got more than an earful from residents, business leaders and members of the North Park Planning Committee (NPPC) on Sept. 20, when she updated the community on the ambitious plan to make University Avenue friendlier to pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and bus drivers.
In the works since 2001 and finally approved by the City Council on July 27, 2015, the University Avenue Mobility Project (UAMP) is expected to take a year of construction, from December 2017 to December 2018. Straughn said the design phase of the project is about 60 percent done with a deadline of June 2017. Then the project will go out for bid, and the contract should be awarded in November 2017.
San Diego Uptown News published an in-depth article about the project, titled “Transforming University Avenue in North Park,” on Aug. 14, 2015. Read it online at bit.ly/1fBE8GG. The article explained the key elements of the $5.8 million project:
- Transit-only lanes, to be shared by bicyclists and buses
- Raised medians with left-turn pockets to improve traffic flow
- Enhanced pedestrian crossings for safety
- Transit-stop consolidation
- Traffic calming
- More traffic signals
New traffic signals will be added at Arnold Avenue and Oregon Street, but the one at Ohio Street will be removed.
The conversions of two lanes of traffic to transit-only will require the removal of 91 parking spaces along University Avenue. This has caused some concern among local business owners; but the city has been busy converting parking on nearby access streets to angled parking, to create a net gain of three parking spaces. And there is a concerted effort to encourage motorists to utilize the parking garage on 29th Street, just south of University and across the street from the Observatory North Park.
With North Park’s goal of becoming a pedestrian-friendly community, residents and NPPC members have also pushed for more enhanced crosswalks along University. They will be added at the intersections of Iowa, Ohio and Kansas streets.
Additionally, the crosswalk at Pershing Avenue and University — which is on top of a knoll on a hilly stretch of University and currently marked with a flashing light — will be removed. A new enhanced crosswalk will be added one block east at Idaho Street, near The Mission restaurant, Pizza Hut and Breakfast Republic.
Also, existing crosswalks will be restriped at Florida, Mississippi, Texas, Arnold, Oregon, Utah, 30th, Grim, Illinois and 32nd.
Saying no to subtractions
What got everyone into an uproar were two last-minute deletions announced by engineers with the city’s Public Works Department:
- No landscaping or irrigation system for the 1.2-mile-long raised median on University Avenue from Boundary Street on the east side to Florida Street on the west end
- No curb extensions or pop-outs to enhance pedestrian crossings
Considered “vital” to the project, both items were approved last year by the NPPC, a group of local volunteers who act as advisers to the city’s Planning Department. They even added that language to the North Park Community Plan Update, which they approved. The update is scheduled to get a final vote by the City Council on Oct. 25.
Landscaping or pavers?
Straughn said the city of San Diego does not maintain landscaping on street medians, so that task must be done by community organizations such as a Maintenance Assessment District. She said she had emailed Angela Landsberg, head of North Park Main Street (NPMS), on Sept. 20 to see if that group would be willing to sign a maintenance agreement that would allow city engineers to go ahead and install an irrigation system during construction.
San Diego Uptown News reported last year [bit.ly/1fBE8GG] that NPMS was forming a Property Based Improvement District (PBID) to cover the cost of landscaping and maintenance of the median. Property owners within that improvement district – comprising more than 500 homeowners or property and business owners – would have to vote in favor of taxing themselves.
At the meeting Sept. 20, Landsberg said it has been difficult tracking down all the property owners, especially those who live out of town or are only listed as a business entity.
“Our concern is that the median be landscaped,” she said. “We formed a maintenance district. But we don’t have maintenance district in place at this time. We’re trying to work with the city – pavers would be so ugly.”
Straughn said the irrigation system would not be installed unless there is a maintenance district agreement, a statement that did not go over well with anyone in the audience. She said that agreement would have to be in place by the time the project is advertised out to bid next year.
Landsberg did not like the change.
“I think we can all agree that North Park doesn’t need an ugly slab of concrete running down the middle of University Avenue,” she said.
Business leaders including Matt Gordon of Urban Solace, who also sits on the NPMS, urged the city to work with the community to make sure the irrigation system would be in place so the PBID would be able to landscape the median when it has collected enough money to pay for the greenery.
Steve Blasingame, who is in the process of converting the old Claire de Lune property into a Mexican restaurant called Tamarindo, joined the chorus of support for beautifying the median.
But Straughn reminded everyone that “this is not a beautification project,” she said. “It’s about reducing accidents along a dangerous stretch of University Avenue.”
No curb extensions?
If the project is about reducing accidents, then why did city engineers eliminate the curb extensions? Those are crucial safety features for pedestrians, giving them a shorter distance to cross the busy street, and the project is all about making University Avenue safer for pedestrians and bicyclists.
Straughn said University Avenue is only 52 feet wide, calling it a “small road width” for such a major east-west thoroughfare. Parts of University, near the intersection with 30th Street, are wider in North Park’s “downtown” area.
She said the “small road width” posed another safety problem: Fire trucks could not turn off University onto streets with curb extensions, also known as bulb-outs or pop-outs.
Dionné Carlson, with the planning committee, advised Straughn that many progressive cities have dealt with this issue by constructing curb extensions in a way that allow emergency vehicles to make turns without any problems.
“Sloped curb extensions allow firetrucks to make those turns,” she said. Carlson also warned Straughn that the curb extensions are part of the Environmental Impact Report for the project. “If you remove them,” she said, “you have a problem.”
Straughn was told to go Downtown to Fifth Avenue and Market Street to see an example of a slopped curb extension already in use in San Diego.
Committee vice chair René Vidales, who was chairing the meeting for Vicki Granowitz, pointed out the two deleted items put the city in violation of the final EIR resolution for the project as well as a 2014 lawsuit settlement with the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, a state agency that sued the city over violating Municipal Storm Water Permit requirements. Vidales also said the removal of curb extensions from the UAMP is in direct conflict with the city’s Vision Zero pledge to eliminate pedestrian traffic deaths.
After getting blistering feedback at the meeting, Straughn promised to take all the comments back to city staff to see if the issues could be resolved.
—Ken Williams is editor of Uptown News and can be reached at email@example.com or at 619-961-1952. Follow him on Twitter at @KenSanDiego, Instagram at @KenSD or Facebook at KenWilliamsSanDiego.