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Push on to reclaim Santa Rosa’s southern gateway

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.

Judy Kennedy with her dog Brooks is pushing to have Santa Rosa Ave. to be narrowed down to one lane each direction through her neighborhood. (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)

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 kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com.





7 Responses to “Push on to reclaim Santa Rosa’s southern gateway”

  1. john bly says:

    The real essence of this story is are we really ready to take traffic lanes out of our roadways yet? I think not.

  2. Kay Tokerud says:

    Four street plans have already been developed for this 1/2 mile stretch of Santa Rosa Avenue. Valuable city resources have been wasted planning for changes to this area for years. A precise street plan was already accepted and approved as documented in the Santa Rosa Downtown Station Area Plan. Why on earth is the City still redesigning it over and over again?

    The Station Area Plan calls for 4 lanes, 2 in each direction for about 75% of the distance and 2 lanes, one in each direction for about 2 blocks around Sebastopol Avenue. What the two block choke point is for is hard to comprehend. But this is what was approved in 2007.

    The one problem over there worth addressing is that it is difficult to cross the street at Sebastopol Road because there’s no traffic signal to stop traffic. If traffic was stopped there, it would reduce the speeding and connect the two sides of the street for pedestrians. A signal should be installed.

    The PD article failed to mention that there are a number of very popular restaurants and other successful businesses along that stretch that serve the adjacent neighborhoods and employees of City Hall. Most of the existing businesses have survived the city’s 3 rezonings of that area, being declared blighted, being designated an ‘opportunity site’, and being included in the Station Area Plan, all of which have been designed for redevelopment of the area.

    Implementing the Station Area Plan’s ‘vision’ would require demolishing existing buildings so that a ‘Smartgrowth’ project could be built there. The fact that the businesses have survived all this is an indication that they are truly needed and worthwhile businesses and they produce sales taxes for the city.

    The City should just leave this area alone so they can utilize their properties without fear of redevelopment. A previous commenter pointed out the lack of sewer capacity that cannot support any new development along Santa Rosa Avenue. It will be years before the expensive sewer upgrades at Todd Road can be made. The City is wasting our tax dollars doing repetetive planning exercises for a project that cannot be built in the near future.

    Even if one of the 3 new plans is adopted the street will probably not be rebuilt anytime soon. There’s no money for it. If the City’s planners have nothing better to do than to constantly develop new plans for that small area, then maybe some of the planners should be let go. The City should just put in one traffic signal at Sebastopol to slow traffic and help people safely cross the street.

    Deal with the real issues here instead of creating problems that don’t exist.

  3. ludacris says:

    Bear,
    Your remarks are interesting but totally irrelevant to this story. This area is just south of downtown Santa Rosa, as in north of the Highway 12 overpass to Sonoma Ave. Friedman’s and the city’s southern boundary have nothing to do with it.
    L.

  4. beana babygirl says:

    In this economy, I don’t see changing the area. There are already many empty merchant buildings available for rent down the street. To make major changes would put an economic burden on the existing businesses that have occupied this area, that are already bring in tax revenue. I don’t see that a change would be beneficial to the surrounding neighborhoods, Maybe a safer speed would slow santa rosa ave. down a bit.

  5. bear says:

    Blame escaped Supervisor Tim Smith, who years ago put this area in the “urban boundary” with no consideration of anything but Friedman’s hardware store.

    Friedman’s pulls in lots of sales tax dollars and political contributions, but is not worth the resulting neglect of this entire neighborhood.

    The essence of this article is that real
    people live here. And neither the County or the City give a damn. I guess the hookers have to work somewhere?

    The underlying issue is that the City has no sewer capacity to turn this into strip commercial, pay off the folks who would be damaged by this choice and merge the urban growth lines so that RP and Santa Rosa would be one giant urban shithole.

    Tim Smith could have changed this and created an open space buffer between the two cities. He didn’t freaking care about this. He served the commercial community and did nothing to to serve the larger community. In cooperation with the City.

    Thanks Tim. Hi to Suzanne.

  6. Judy says:

    It’s not the number of vehicles traveling on Santa Rosa Ave, it’s the SPEED. A “road diet” of one travel lane each way and a center left-turn lane/median can be very successful in a situation with 22,000 vehicles daily, decreasing speeds by at least 5 miles per hour. Petaluma Hill Road was put on a “road diet” about 3 yrs ago, and the speeds have decreased significantly along with number of vehicular “incidents.” It’s quite a pleasant road now with everyone behaving themselves. The neighborhoods on either side of Santa Rosa Ave are not trying to “get rid of traffic” — just please let’s slow it down and make this blvd safer for cyclists and pedestrians.

  7. Jonny Boy says:

    So as I understand it, the problem is the four lanes themselves. The City Planner’s office proposes one lane south and two lanes northbound. This would not seem to alleviate much of the traffic issues for the Burbank neighborhood. Why not route southbound traffic west on Sonoma and south on A Street, rejoining Santa Rosa Avenue at the Highway 12 overpass and reduce Santa Rosa Avenue between Maple Street and Sonoma Avenue to two lanes northbound? This would greatly reduce traffic for the Burbank neighborhood without substantially slowing response times for the fire department.