Couplet controversy

City Council OKs preliminary plans to modify downtown

City Staff says the First and Second Street Couplet project will improve the circulation of vehicular traffic in downtown Chico, as well as make pedestrian and bicycle travel safer.

City Staff says the First and Second Street Couplet project will improve the circulation of vehicular traffic in downtown Chico, as well as make pedestrian and bicycle travel safer.


The First and Second Street Couplet Project. Cutesy name. Controversial plan.

That appeared to be the consensus on Tuesday (Feb. 16), as the Chico City Council considered moving forward with a plan to transform First Street into a one-way westbound route from East Second to Salem streets and make Second Street one-way eastbound from Broadway to Flume streets. The changes to downtown’s landscape were proposed to mitigate traffic congestion, promote bicycling, provide additional parking, and enhance safety for pedestrians and cyclists.

But a wide cross-section of Chico appeared to have serious concerns about the plan.

“Really, what this thing is, is a very expensive white elephant,” said Councilman Larry Wahl, who after listening to a staff report and the testimony of several apprehensive residents offered that he didn’t think the area is problematic at all.

Earlier in the meeting, Fritz McKinley, the city’s director of building and development services, emphasized that the couplet is also designed to reduce the amount of pollution-causing idling traffic and improve circulation of traffic on Second Street by forcing traffic to use the currently underutilized First Street. He explained that by retrofitting traffic signals with sensors that would recognize vehicle and pedestrian traffic and thus shorten idling time, the project addresses emissions. Currently, the stoplights are on timers.

In addition to the one-way streets, the couplet project includes plans to construct diagonal parking on Second, First and Flume streets and a roundabout at the intersection of East Second, Flume and First streets, along with a circular feature—though not a roundabout—at the northeast pedestrian entrance to Chico State University at West First and Salem streets.

Class 2 bike lanes would run down both First and Second, and several intersections would include bulbing designed for pedestrian safety. And Wall Street would be reconstructed into a two-way street.

McKinley noted the city has been holding public workshops—about a dozen of them—since May 2008 to get input on the project from various stakeholders, primarily business owners in the vicinity.

Still, a majority of the 15 people who spoke about the issue during the meeting had reservations. Representing Celestino’s Pizza at Salem and First streets, co-owner Enzo Perri said he was worried that the business would lose some traffic due to the adjacent circular feature between the pizza parlor and the campus. He added, however, that the potential loss would be worth it if the restaurant would be granted more sidewalk space. Other business owners voiced similar concerns.

Aside from the support of the Downtown Chico Business Association’s Board of Directors, Barbara Mundy, owner of Mundy & Co. Fine Jewelers on Second Street, was the only unequivocal supporter of the plan.

“I think it will be good for downtown Chico,” she said. “I think it will make people happy and get them downtown to check things out.”

City staff anticipate that a majority of the funding for the nearly $1.3 million project would be covered by a grant from the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program. Additional funding in the amount of about $282,000 is expected from Chico State. McKinley confirmed that the university was bound by certain mitigation measures when building the Wildcat Recreation Center, including installing a stoplight at the corner of West Second and Cherry streets. That improvement is no longer needed, so the institution has agreed to partner with the city on the project.

Councilwoman Mary Flynn said she viewed the plan as a real opportunity for the city.

“If we wait to have all of our ducks lined up … we’re going to wait forever,” she said.

In the end, the panel voted 5-1, with Wahl dissenting, to move forward with the project. (Mayor Ann Schwab, co-owner of Campus Bicycles on Main Street, recused herself from the proceedings.) McKinley said the city will continue to meet with local stakeholders in the coming months and was optimistic about starting construction as early as summertime.

In other downtown news, the council unanimously approved the concept, advanced by Tres Hombres owner Michael Thomas, to construct a dining area on the sidewalk on the Broadway side of the popular Mexican restaurant. The estimated $250,000 expansion would take some substantial public improvements, including the widening of the sidewalk and a permanent fence. The plan would eliminate motorcycle parking and up to three parking spaces, and their accompanying meters.

The council directed staff to come up with a policy to permit outdoor alcoholic beverage service in the public right-of-way, which is currently prohibited. City Manager Dave Burkland indicated a draft policy likely would come back to the council in late March or April. A fire gutted the restaurant in December, and Thomas plans to reopen the business in June.