By Ken Williams | Editor
University Avenue through North Park is about to change dramatically now that the City Council has given the green light to transform the busy east-west thoroughfare into a street that will be friendlier to cars, buses, bicyclists and pedestrians.
The construction work — expected to begin in late 2016 or early 2017 — will stretch from Florida Street on the west end to Boundary Street on the east side, just before the Interstate 805 overpass.
The City Council on July 27 approved $5.8 million for the University Avenue Mobility Plan, which has been discussed since 2002 and gone through a slew of public meetings.
“By improving traffic flow for vehicles, buses and bikes, and by adding sidewalk and crosswalk upgrades for pedestrians, the project will result in better transportation options throughout the core of North Park,” Councilmember Todd Gloria told San Diego Uptown News.
Key elements of the project include adding transit-only lanes; raised medians with left-turn pockets; enhanced pedestrian crossings and curb extensions/pop-outs; more traffic signals; and the repurposing parking spaces to accommodate the upgrades.
“These are designed to improve traffic flow by decreasing conflicts between merging buses and turning vehicles. Further, medians act as pedestrian refuges, allowing for a safe place to stop while crossing University Avenue,” Gloria said.
“The project will maximize safety for people who walk, bike, drive and take the bus — all modes — within the existing right of way. This is always a careful balance and the [plan] gets it right,” said Kathleen Ferrier, the director of advocacy for Circulate San Diego, which has a motto “to create excellent mobility choices and vibrant, healthy neighborhoods.”
“Further, the project is a mile-long corridor, not just an intersection or a couple of blocks, so it will have a major impact. This is the wave of the future. We need to see more projects like this in the city,” she said.
“The project will also greatly enhance safety for people who walk and bicycle along the corridor. Research by Circulate San Diego shows that University Avenue, in the last 15 years, alone has been home to almost 20 percent of collisions with people who walk. The corridor is in desperate need of more crossings to enhance safety for people walking,” Ferrier said.
“The new crosswalk at Alabama and University is a good example. The project will build several more of these types of crosswalks along the entire mile-long stretch while also constructing ‘bulb-outs’ to shorten the crossing distance. For a busy corridor like University Avenue, this goes a long way for pedestrian safety,” she said.
Rene Agustin Vidales, vice chair of the North Park Planning Committee, concurs that the project will provide immense value to the community.
“All of these features are meant to work together to improve mobility,” he said. “For example, pedestrians should be able to find more safe places to cross University Avenue through enhanced crosswalks where they would be able to push a button and flashing beacons would be activated,” Vidales said. “Other existing pedestrian crossings will be re-striped to be more visible. The city has recently adopted high visibility (continental) striping in crosswalks, but this is only available on recently resurfaced streets; however the Mobility Plan proposes resurfacing, therefore all crosswalks will have the continental striping.”
Gloria expects pedestrians and bicyclists will benefit from the upgraded street.
“Even with the traffic flow improvements coming with the project, University Avenue will still be a busy street, and that can be intimidating and sometimes even unpleasant for pedestrians. Curb extensions at multiple intersections will make pedestrians more visible to drivers, and decrease the crossing time. Changes to crosswalks will provide further comfort and safety for pedestrians and encourage activity throughout the community,” Gloria said.
“Another example is the raised medians with left-turn pockets, as well as the traffic-signal modifications that would allow for protected left turns; these would substantially reduce conflicts between automobiles making left turns and pedestrians,” said Vidales, a civil engineer,.
A review of the project shows that the plan calls for the removal of the traffic signal at Ohio Street and the addition of traffic signals at Arnold and Oregon streets.
The plan will also remove 91 parking spaces along University to create a transit-only westbound lane from Boundary to Florida streets. And to more than make up for the lost parking spaces, parallel parking spaces will be converted into angled parking on Alabama, Louisiana, Arizona, Oregon, Ohio, Illinois and Iowa streets, on the north side of University to Lincoln Avenue. That will result in 94 new parking spaces on those streets, a net gain of three parking spaces.
In the heart of the North Park business district — busy nightly with people flocking to restaurants, craft breweries, boutiques and the Observatory North Park — a transit-only eastbound lane will be established from Utah to Boundary 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.
New enhanced crosswalks will be added at Iowa, Ohio and Kansas streets. The one at Kansas Street is sorely needed as some patrons of Observatory North Park have been observed jaywalking to cross University to get to the north side of the street.
Also, existing crosswalks will be restriped at Florida, Mississippi, Texas, Arnold, Oregon, Utah, 30th, Grim, Illinois and 32nd.
Vidales sees all this as a benefit to pedestrians and bicyclists.
“Pedestrians will feel safer and will benefit from four additional enhanced crosswalks. … The new and modified existing traffic signals would also benefit pedestrians,” Vidales said.
“Bicyclists will benefit from being able to use the transit-only lanes, in addition from benefiting from future projects yet to be implemented, such as the SANDAG Mid-City Bike Corridor project, currently in design.”
Ferrier echoed that line of thinking.
“Even if this space is shared with bus traffic, it is an improvement over what bicyclists have to experience biking on the corridor today. It’s plain scary merging with traffic in this business corridor. By creating more safety for people who walk and bike, the corridor will benefit as more people will frequent the businesses walking and biking,” she said.
Raised medians — possibly with landscaping — will enhance University Avenue, with left-turn lanes being carved out to keep traffic flowing smoothly.
“The cost of maintaining landscaping in the right-of-way is something the city is not willing to take at this point, therefore landscaping is not part of the project; however provisions for building a raised median that would allow for pavers to be removed for future installation of landscaping are being made. In addition, stubs for future irrigation lines are also supposed to be provided,” Vidales said.
However, there is a solution in the works.
“North Park Main Street is in the process of forming a Property Based Improvement District (PBID), which is a similar mechanism to a Maintenance Assessment District but only includes property owners of businesses. A PBID would cover the cost of any landscaping along University Avenue. If the PBID is able to be formed on time, then there is a chance landscaping will be included in the project,” Vidales said.
“Beautification efforts will include new and relocated bus shelters with seating, signage and trash receptacles. Any new improvements like a raised median, pavement resurfacing and re-striping would also enhance the look of the corridor.”
Gloria confirmed that beautification efforts are not included in the project.
“The designs for the raised medians throughout the full stretch of University Avenue have not been finalized. City staff will continue to work with the business community and residents to ensure the beautification efforts are appropriate for the neighborhood character,” Gloria said. “As community members continue to work toward the formation of a Property and Business Improvement District, the medians and any other beautification elements could be included in their maintenance plans, which could translate into additional features.”
For some North Park residents, the project timeline has been a long one.
“I live in North Park and participated in the process to create [this project],” said Kathleen Ferrier, who since then has become the director of advocacy for Circulate San Diego, which has a motto “to create excellent mobility choices and vibrant, healthy neighborhoods.”
“I remember quite clearly that I attended meetings before I had children, and my kids are now 9 and 11, if that’s any indicator how long the community has been waiting to implement this plan!”
For more details on the project, go to tinyurl.com/olh6wsy.
—Ken Williams is editor of Uptown News and Mission Valley News and can be reached at email@example.com or at 619-961-1952.