By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Judy Kennedy steps out the front door of her craftsman bungalow and with her dog Brooks in tow heads west on Oak Street, a narrow street of modest, tidy homes typical of the historic Burbank Gardens neighborhood.
Before long, she reaches a crosswalk at Santa Rosa Avenue, and her peaceful suburban neighborhood seems a world away.
Cars, trucks and buses zip up and down the four-lane thoroughfare. A head shop, tattoo parlor and auto garage fill one corner, a travel trailer lot that has had prostitution problems sits on another.
“You can’t even step off the curb here a lot of times because the cars are just flying,” Kennedy said before stepping into the crosswalk.
Drivers traveling more than 40 mph jam on their brakes, and Kennedy shoots them a grumpy glare that says, “You’d better stop.”
Safely across the street, she passes a used-car lot beside a vacant storefront that once housed a pet-grooming business. Sidewalks are uneven. Street trees are dead. A chain-link fence surrounds a weed-covered vacant lot.
“This is the gateway to the downtown,” Kennedy said on a tour of the one-third mile stretch of Santa Rosa Avenue between Sonoma Avenue and the Highway 12 overpass. “Hell, we could throw a rock and hit City Hall from here.”
Residents such as Kennedy have been pushing the city for years to revamp this stretch of Old Redwood Highway with an eye toward reclaiming it as their neighborhood’s Main Street.
They’d like it to have bicycle lanes, wider sidewalks, flashing crosswalks and street trees that provide shade and eye appeal. They’d appreciate benches where pedestrians can rest and on-street parking to make it easy for drivers to patronize local businesses.
In short, they want a village center just south of the city center.
There’s just one problem. To make room for all those new features, something’s got to give, something cities aren’t accustomed to giving up.
The four travel lanes, two north and two south, would be reduced under a plan supported by neighbors to one travel lane in each direction with a turn lane and median strip in the center.
This controversial option, called a “road diet,” hit a speed bump last summer when, late in the planning process, a parade of various city department heads objected. The fire chief worried about emergency crews stuck in traffic, the deputy transit director warned about bus delays, and the traffic engineer said cars might just zip through quiet neighborhoods instead.
A standoff ensued and an annoyed City Council urged everyone to work it out.
That task fell largely to city planner Lisa Kranz, who came up with a somewhat unusual compromise. The revised Santa Rosa Avenue Corridor Plan now calls for one southbound travel lane and two northbound travel lanes, with a center lane alternating between turning lanes and a narrower median strip.
The plan preserves most of the other features, including the bicycle lanes and better crosswalks and street trees, but sacrifices some sidewalk width and parking spaces to make room for the extra northbound travel lane.
“I think people felt it was a reasonable compromise and that the community vision had been captured to a great degree,” Kranz told the Planning Commission in November.
But Kennedy and other residents disliked the new plan. They said it ignored the will of the neighbors, bowed to pressure by city department heads, treated different sides of the street inequitably and eliminated needed parking.
Laura Fennell, a board member of the Burbank Gardens Neighborhood Association, said the compromise plan risked disenfranchising the neighbors who worked so hard with city staff and consultants to craft the original “road-diet” plan.
“People really thought that their ideas and their hopes and dreams were going to be listened to,” Fennell told the commission.
While the Fire Department’s concerns were addressed by making the southbound travel lane and bicycle lane wide enough for cars to get out of the way of fire engines, bus officials still fretted about delays. And City Traffic Engineer Rob Sprinkle warned about major backups should the two-lane plan be pursued.
“It’s like pouring water into a funnel. At some point it’s going to overflow,” Sprinkle said.
To the surprise of many, the Planning Commission unanimously recommended against the compromise plan.
Commissioner Shaun Faber said he couldn’t support something that seemed to bring “suburban solutions” when good urban design was needed.
“Unfortunately, I think the City of Santa Rosa needs to make a decision about what it wants to be,” Faber said. “Firetrucks snake through San Francisco. God knows how, but they do.”
If private developers were building the street, the city would have no problem requiring them to install all the latest pedestrian and bicycle amenities, Faber said. But when it comes to changing itself, the city balks.
“We’re sending mixed signals,” Faber said. “Santa Rosa is getting a little taste of its own medicine.”
The revised plan, with the thumbs down from the Planning Commission, heads back to the City Council on Tuesday. Kranz is recommending its approval, but the neighbors plan to continue pressing for their original vision.
Kennedy, who works from home, downplays the traffic concerns. It’s only during rush hour that the two-lane plan creates traffic backups, she said.
“We’re only talking about 90 minutes in the morning and 90 minutes in the afternoon. Hello!” Kennedy said.
Taxpayers just spent tens of millions of dollars widening Highway 101, and drivers trying to get through the downtown fast will quickly find other routes, she said.
She believes that slowing down the traffic through the area and making it as pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly as possible will draw developers to an area that one day could be a huge economic boost to the city.
“It’s the perfect plan to start the transition off auto dependency,” she said, “and create a fully realized citizen-approved village center and gateway to downtown Santa Rosa.”
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or firstname.lastname@example.org.