After Rocky Start, Pedestrian-Friendly Improvement Continues in North Park

By Kathleen Ferrier and Andy Hamilton

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If you’ve driven, biked or walked down University Avenue in North Park lately, you might have seen construction at the Alabama Street intersection, near the historic Georgia Street Bridge. After a somewhat rocky start publicized by new Mayor Bob Filner’s emergency press conference (blogged about by our partner Great Streets San Diego), the City is forging ahead with construction of a ‘Bike and Pedestrian Safety Project’ at the western entry into North Park.   The project is so much more than that, as we explain below.

Halt the Proceedings!

The City began construction somewhat hastily without notifying adjacent business owners and residents. Immediately, the project’s disruption was felt from traffic back-ups, reduced retail sales, and a temporarily shuttered bus stop.  After complaints began pouring in, Mayor Filner suddenly ordered a halt to construction five days before Christmas.  WalkSanDiego, bike advocates, and North Park leaders went into hyper-alarm mode.  Was the mayor already caving in to NIMBY’s (Not In My Back Yard) at the first sign of trouble?  What about those campaign promises around neighborhood improvements and active transportation?

The Big Picture

Indeed, who would have thought a project in the works for over 10 years and funded since 2006 would be controversial? After all, this intersection was part of a multi-year, multi-phased, studied-to-death redesign of University Avenue (the University Avenue Mobility Plan or UAMP) to make it slower, safer, and more user-friendly for walkers, cyclists, transit users, and drivers.  North_Park_Univ.drawing.CitySD.jpgThBirdRock_Roundabouts4.jpge total 1.2-mile project (estimated at $10-$12 million) includes landscaped medians, corner pop-outs, an abundance of new snazzy crosswalks, and even blue-colored lanes dedicated to busses, bikes, and right-turning vehicles (see rendering).  In short, a very cool design that will transform this once proud avenue.  The project enjoys wide community support, since it was designed with the community itself and originated within the North Park Main Street business organization.

Alabama First

The Alabama intersection was singled out from the rest of UAMP for immediate implementation in 2006.  Yes, we’re talking six years ago.  Ironically, the project was approved for a $750,000 SANDAG grant on an “emergency” basis following a fatal pedestrian collision, which we might have predicted given the conditions there.  This location pairs a senior housing complex on one side of University with a well-used bus stop on the other, and no good way to cross without walking uphill to a signalized intersection.  Like most of us, seniors are loath to walk uphill to reach much of anything, let alone go far out of their way to cross the street.  

The project, scheduled for completion in March, remedies this condition with a new median with a pedestrian refuge, a crosswalk with flashing lights embedded in the pavement, a flashing pedestrian sign, and new corner pedestrian ramps.  Immediately following Mayor Filner’s alarming press conference, citizen leaders and North Park Main Street stepped up to the plate to help negotiate a solution that ultimately led to construction resuming. Measures they agreed on include:

  • Installation of 5 green 15-minute parking spaces adjacent to impacted businesses
  • Relocation of the MTS bus stops outside the construction zone
  • The City will evaluate four additional green parking spaces on Alabama north of University
  • The City will evaluate converting parallel parking to angled spaces on Alabama north of University, creating additional spaces.

Eye Opening Data

WalkSanDiego applauds these efforts by North Park leaders, local businesses, and City staff to reach a solution to improve walkability.  In lieu of mud-slinging, local residents leaned on their expert knowledge of the community to create a compromise supportive of business needs and reflective of the 10+ years of planning for this corridor.  The impacted businesses compromised for the good of the community rather than digging in their heels.  In essence, all players saw the opportunity to be positive and productive.  And what better place to use this attitude and muscle than along University Avenue, where the Police Department reports no fewer than 113 pedestrian collisions*  between January 2006 and March 2012.  Mayor Filner showed he will listen to residents’ concerns, and then facilitate moving ahead with modifications that make a project work better for everyone. 

Delay Kills

We also need to acknowledge that the City’s history of studying traffic projects ad nauseum to make sure not a single driver will be inconvenienced make dust-ups like this one almost inevitable.   Residents involved in decade-long planning projects lose their steam and move on to other issues.  Likely, most of the impacted businesses and residents weren’t around when the original plans were cemented.  All the goodwill built up around a transformative project like the UAMP naturally erodes over time.  One possible result: projects long forgotten by the community can be halted by those immediately impacted.  Projects halted can be projects cancelled, and future unknown lives that would have been preserved can be tragically lost. Delay kills. 

What the City has sorely lacked till now is strong leadership to break bureaucratic logjams.  Councilman Todd Gloria did his part, and now the Filner administration has demonstrated its willingness to act, and to act quickly. We are optimistic that the days of ‘paralysis by analysis’ are behind us.  And in the case of Alabama Street, the project will move forward because cooler heads prevailed.  Let’s keep this in mind for the next implosion, because when you mess with people’s streets, you have to know more of these are headed our way.

*Number of pedestrian traffic accidents reported in 6-year time period along approximate 3.5-mile corridor (between 1000 University Avenue and 5400 University Avenue)