A roundabout route
Neighbors back an unusual approach to increasing traffic flow on Manzanita Avenue through Bidwell Park
The first time the concept of a “roundabout” came before the Chico City Council, the traffic-controlling device was dismissed as little more than a big, expensive flowerpot that sat in the middle of an intersection. Not only that, it originated in Europe, where they drive on the wrong side of the road, for God’s sake.
That was last century. Now the roundabout could be the saving grace for those hoping to minimize the impact resulting from improving Manzanita Avenue through Bidwell Park to accommodate the ever-increasing traffic. The city is considering five alternatives, ranging from doing almost nothing, to widening it to three lanes (including a middle turn lane), to blowing it out to four lanes.
But that last option would also mean the loss of as many as 100 trees, including 200-year-old sycamores, according to the neighbors who live along or near Manzanita Avenue.
The issue is so controversial that, at its last meeting in February, the only decision the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission could make was to take more time to consider the matter, although one commissioner, Don Kidd, said it might be time to “bite the bullet” and opt for the four-lane alternative. On April 29 the matter will once again come before the commission, though Park Director Dennis Beardsley says even then the commission may well choose to turn the matter over to the City Council, which has scheduled to hear it on May 7.
In the meantime, neighbors have formed two groups of opposition—Manzanita Avenue by the Park (MAP) and Residents Outraged About Roads (ROAR)—and recently tied yellow ribbons and signs to the targeted trees. The two groups are working to get the city to adopt the roundabout option, which they say would save trees and money—as much as $8 million.
Now known as Plan B, the roundabout option would in theory maintain a constant traffic flow and decrease the need to widen the road. Roundabouts have been used successfully in Europe and back East for a number of years. They allow traffic to pass through intersections by yielding rather than coming to a complete stop, as mandated by traffic lights and stop signs. Roundabouts also cut the levels of exhaust emitted by cars at a stop.
Plan B was added to the draft environmental impact report at a cost of $28,000 by request of City Manager Tom Lando after concerned citizens lobbied for its inclusion. Proponents say it will cost only $750,000, compared to an estimated $3.7 to $9.3 million for the other options.
Dan Cook, a retired civil engineer, actually designed the roundabout that was added as Plan B. At a recent neighborhood group get-together, Cook’s wife Nel said her husband was partially to blame for the increased traffic now traveling along Manzanita. In his capacity as civil engineer, Cook designed the sewer grid that now serves the new housing developments in southeast Chico, the source for much of the traffic.
So far city staff has indicated Cook’s roundabout and two-lane roadway (plus bike lanes) does not meet the carrying capacity needed for build-out of the area. Cook has charged that the city resistance is a “knee-jerk reaction” to something new and innovative.
“The idea that traffic lights will improve the [traffic] flow is really nonsense,” Cook said.
But local architects L. John Anderson and Tom DiGiovanni, proponents of roundabouts, say Cook’s plan needs only a little tweaking to get it right. Those two architects designed and built Doe Mill Ridge Estates, an example of new-urban architecture, and say the Chico building community needs to get out of its rut and open itself to new ideas.
Besides Anderson and DiGiovanni, the roundabout idea is supported by a wide array of locals, including Barbara Vlamis, executive director of the Butte Environmental Council, and Ed McLaughlin, general manager of the Chico Velo Cycling Club, who wrote a letter to the Park Commission urging the city to break from the status quo.
“There is a pop definition of neurosis that defines the ailment as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result,” McLaughlin writes. “This applies to most of the widening proposals you have received regarding this project.”
The neighbors have said they are willing to force a referendum should the city try to push through an alternative they do not like. In the past, any perceived threat to Chico’s Bidwell Park has met with widespread resistance by voters. In the late 1960s, opposition to constructing Highway 99 through the park forced the state to construct an expensive overpass, and more recently a housing development called Bidwell Ranch that even opponents agreed was of a positive design failed to gain community support simply because its location was too close to the park.