Complex and controversial

Council agrees to hold special meeting on Esplanade study

Members of the public check out renderings of proposed changes to Chico’s iconic boulevard.

Members of the public check out renderings of proposed changes to Chico’s iconic boulevard.

Photo by Robert Speer

The word “complex” was heard several times Tuesday (April 5) as the Chico City Council discussed a plan to improve safety and efficiency on The Esplanade. (For a detailed portrait of the plan, see “Changes to the boulevard,” cover story, March 31.)

As quickly became clear, there are many constituencies—historic-preservation groups, bicyclists, people with disabilities, school administrators and everyday motorists—who are concerned about the future of the iconic boulevard. They were out in force Tuesday night.

It was just as clear that the plan is so complex that it would have been impossible for council members to determine its final shape at Tuesday’s meeting, even after discussing it for two hours and hearing from about two dozen citizens.

A special meeting devoted just to the plan will be held later this month, date to be determined. At that time, the council will go over its numerous recommendations one by one and decide which to include in a final draft and which to abandon in favor of other options.

The goal is to agree on a final plan in time to submit it for funding in June.

Presenting the latest iteration of the study were Brendan Ottoboni, the city’s public works director-engineering, and Steve Weinberger, of the Santa Rosa-based traffic-engineering consulting firm W-Trans.

The bedrock issue, Ottoboni said, is that The Esplanade is out of compliance with federal and state bicycle and pedestrian safety regulations.

A combination of driver confusion, the lack of bicycle facilities (bike lanes, markings and signage), unclear connections and other factors has led to high bicycle accident rates, he said. And the lack of countdown pedestrian signals, island refuges and ADA-appropriate curb ramps has made it unsafe for pedestrians and the disabled, who simply can’t cross the street in the time allotted.

Acknowledging that the plan presented “a complex set of recommendations for a complex corridor,” Weinberger outlined what he and city staff believed was the best way to solve the corridor’s many problems.

To make the plan work, however, would require switching from the current timed signals, which enable motorists going 28 mph to hit green lights all the way, to an on-demand detection system that could incorporate new left-turn signals and pedestrian push buttons.

Councilman Andrew Coolidge asked what would happen if the timed speed were lowered to, say, 26 or 25 mph. And Mayor Mark Sorensen said, “It’s hard not to envision complete gridlock at peak hours.”

Weinberger insisted that the issue of vehicle delay had been evaluated, and it had been determined that driving the length of The Esplanade would take only 20-30 seconds longer under the proposed system.

To make The Esplanade safer for pedestrians, he said, the plan would add countdown signal heads and push-button activation at all signalized intersections, create refuge islands at all intersections and consistently mark all pedestrian crosswalks. New curb ramps at crosswalks, sidewalk repairs and improved trail connection to the 11th Avenue trail bridge over Lindo Channel would benefit disabled people.

The plan recommends a new two-way bike path along the old railroad right of way, among other improvements. It also calls for turning Oleander Avenue into a bike route and removing most north-south stop signs. A traffic signal would go in at First Avenue and Oleander, and traffic congestion at Memorial Way and Oleander would be relieved by a roundabout.

Two other roundabouts are proposed for The Esplanade—one at Memorial Way, the other at First Avenue. Neither is likely to be approved. A left-turn lane on the south-bound Esplanade will suffice for the former, and the latter is controversial and expensive. The only alternative to it, however, is to update signal timing, an approach that is unlikely to solve that intersection’s serious problems.

As it turned out, the element of the plan that is designed to solve congestion problems around Chico High School turned out to be the most controversial, in particular the idea of turning Lincoln Avenue into a two-way street, with a turnaround at Magnolia.

Residents of the Mansion Park neighborhood complained that they hadn’t been notified of the design, and that it wouldn’t work. “It will change our quality of life,” said Caithlin Wood. But everyone acknowledged that congestion at drop-off and pick-up times was creating unsafe conditions.

Otherwise, though, most of the plan’s recommendations received strong support, notably those meeting ADA standards, improving pedestrian safety and giving bicyclists a separate bike path. Charles Withuhn urged council members not to remove any trees along the corridor, while Dianne Wilkinson, a former director of the Chico Museum, asked that they respect the boulevard’s historical value. “Roundabouts are not historic,” she stated bluntly.

Still, a number of people favored the roundabouts, saying they would improve traffic flow, save gas and reduce pollution. “Roundabouts level the playing field for everyone,” as bicyclist Karen Goodwin put it.