Down on the street

The road through Land Park is paved with unintended consequences

Rush-hour traffic on Freeport Boulevard 21st Street.

Rush-hour traffic on Freeport Boulevard 21st Street.

Photo By Anne Stokes

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Every backyard grease monkey knows the law. But if the recently completed Freeport Boulevard/21st Street conversion is any indication, the city of Sacramento is either unfamiliar with the rule or chooses to ignore its wisdom. Whether that’s a good or bad thing depends on which side of the street you stand on. Literally.

The street in question is Freeport Boulevard. It begins at Florin Road, 5 miles south from the city center, as a four-lane divided expressway that narrows into a boulevard proper at Executive Airport. From there, it passes by supermarkets, scores of small businesses, Sacramento City College and McClatchy High School before coming to a fork in the road at Taylor’s Market.

One prong of the fork diverts northbound traffic down 21st Street, three one-way northbound lanes that shoot straight across Broadway into the heart of Midtown. The other prong, still called Freeport Boulevard, funnels 19th Street’s three lanes of one-way southbound traffic from Midtown through the tree-shrouded eastern edge of the Land Park neighborhood. At least, that’s the way it used to be, before the conversion.

For decades, this 5-mile stretch of roadway has served as a major thoroughfare for drivers commuting between south Sacramento and the city, or shopping at the various businesses along the way. For almost as long, Land Park residents have complained about motorists blasting through their neighborhood at high speed. The $3.4 million conversion project, completed in February, seeks to solve the complaints of the latter at the expense of the former. According to residents and business owners interviewed for this story, it’s a smashing success. Which is to say it has both pleased and pissed people off.

“So far, it’s been really cool,” said Joanne Sedlack, who lives on the 2500 block of Freeport, a half-block south from where 19th Street intersects Broadway and becomes Freeport Boulevard. “People have slowed down quite a bit.”

The city shaved 19th Street from three one-way southbound lanes into two one-way lanes with a bicycle path on either side. Once the street crosses Broadway, it narrows to two single lanes of opposing traffic. The theory is that motorists drive slower on two-way streets than one-way streets because they fear head-on collisions. Since the roadway has been restricted from two southbound lanes to one, there’s no longer a lane for faster cars to pass the slower ones, leading to daily rush-hour traffic jams in front of Sedlack’s house.

“The only thing I would complain about is that it’s a real slow line,” she said as a parade of vehicles crept by. She wonders what it will be like in the summer, when air pollution worsens. Still, even though she now has to go around the block to park in front of her house and look both ways before crossing the street, she said the change is worth it because she feels safer walking her rat terriers.

Chris Skarda, an administrative law judge who lives just up the street from Sedlack, concurred that the change has made the neighborhood safer for pedestrians.

“I don’t feel as nervous walking my 3-year-old down the sidewalk,” he said. Whether he feels safe bicycling with daughter in tow on Freeport remains to be seen. The bicycle lane has been reduced to a narrow, precarious strip that lies halfway in the gutter.

Walt and Glenda Combs, owners of the Country Bear, located on 21st Street.

Photo By Anne Stokes

Skarda was intimately familiar with both the pros and cons of the conversion project. He’s aware that it severs a major artery leading from the city to predominantly low-income south Sacramento. He points out there’s no good reason why many south Sacramento residents can’t take the light rail or Highway 99. Asked if he was familiar with the gridlocked traffic on Highway 99 during rush hour, he replied, “Roads aren’t made just for rush hour.”

True enough. That’s just when most people use them, as Walt Combs can attest. For more than 20 years, Combs has owned and operated California Upholstering Co. on 21st Street (fronted by wife Glenda’s teddy bear store, The Country Bear), just north across the railroad tracks from Taylor’s. While much of the work he does is conducted outside the shop, he also does thriving business with customers who bring their old sofas and chairs in via automobile. At least that’s what they did before the city trimmed 21st Street’s three northbound lanes into two, one headed north and the other south, right in front of his store. Now, where formerly there was no southbound traffic, the cars back up from the railroad tracks to Second Avenue, cutting off Combs’ customers from his parking lot.

“Since they did the change a month ago, our business is down 50 percent,” he said. “Once our commercial contracts run out, we’ll probably have to move. We’ll know in another month. If it wasn’t for our contract work, we’d be hurting.”

Combs took ample advantage of the city’s request for public input on the project, to no avail. “I don’t think the city council has ever driven down this street,” he insisted. “I went down to the city council. They said, ‘Tough luck.’ They had no vision. I tried to tell them, but they didn’t listen. They used to have three lanes. Now they have one. Where the hell do they think 35,000 cars are going to go?” City of Sacramento Department of Transportation spokeswoman Linda Tucker says the actual figure is 11,000 cars per day.

Next door at Patrick’s Barber Shop, the feeling is mutual. In fact, owner Patrick McCormack, who lives in the back of the shop, is still so irate about the conversion, he refused to speak about it on the record, and instead pointed to an interview he’d given to the Viewpoint, the Sierra Curtis Neighborhood Association’s community newspaper.

“I hate it,” McCormack told the paper. “From 3:30 to 7:30 p.m., it’s one massive defection from the city. I still have anger that the city spent millions of dollars on this. It was a waste of money. … I’ve lived here for 28 years and never had this. I think they took something away from me that I had for 28 years. It’s supposed to be safer but I see a thousand infractions a day. They took away my tranquility.”

Indeed, with the exception of the folks a few more doors down at College Cyclery, who claim the long line of irritable motorists has been good for the bicycle business, tranquility seems to be in short supply along this side of 21st Street. McCormack now spends the afternoons of his golden years huffing exhaust fumes. A fistfight over a traffic altercation recently broke out in front of Combs’ shop. Scott Williamson, who runs a wholesale mortgage office next to Combs and McCormack, said his son got hit by another motorist while trying to pull out of the driveway. He’s no fan of the conversion.

“It does slow the traffic down, but you could do that just by writing tickets,” Williamson said. “I think it was a waste of money.”

Danny Johnson, owner of Taylor’s, may be on the other side of the railroad tracks from Combs, McCormack and Williamson, but when it comes to the money the city shelled out for the project, he’s on the same side of the street.

“It hasn’t been bad [for business],” he said. “But I wasn’t pleased the city has paid millions of dollars to do it. It was a total waste of city dollars.”

Freeport Boulevard/21st Street conversion project area.


Johnson’s corner at the Freeport Boulevard/21st Street fork overlooks what has become one of the most confusing and potentially dangerous intersections in Sacramento. Heading north on Freeport Boulevard toward the railroad tracks, drivers are confronted with a bewildering array of crossing gates, traffic lights and signage. Speeding, southbound cars careen toward them from at least two directions: from the sharp corner where Freeport Boulevard exits Land Park and over the hump of the rail crossing. The ability to turn left off Freeport to the new two-way section passing through Land Park has been added to the mix, creating yet another hazard. Throw in a flotilla of pork-chop shaped concrete islands to channel the flow, traffic signals that are seemingly set to random and three fairly busy pedestrian crosswalks thanks to the light-rail station and McClatchy High School, and you have the makings of a first-class clusterfuck.

“The light is terrible,” Johnson said, referring to the new stoplight that’s been added between Vallejo Street, where there was already a signal, and the rail crossing less than a half-block away. “It’s a serious weakness in the system.” The new signal and crossing gate coming south from 21st is even worse, taking up to seven minutes to change and occasionally trapping motorists and buses on the train tracks. For pedestrians, crossing the street has become an exercise in courage, if not foolhardiness.

“That’s a definite suicide lane,” Johnson said. “There’s been some near misses.”

Anyone desiring to see a near miss need merely travel a half-mile north from the treacherous intersection, to the corner of X and 21st Streets, where every half-hour on the hour, the southbound No. 62 bus either runs over Michelle Swanberg’s curb or into the new oncoming lane of northbound traffic.

Swanberg, who owns and operates the eponymous antique and novelty shop on the corner, said she’s always been in favor of the conversion. She lives in the neighborhood, and she’s seen the cars rocketing down 21st Street like it was the Indy 500. She thought the change would be good for business. Now, after her curb has been run over countless times, she’s not so sure. Once, the bus driver cut into the oncoming lane and ordered the cars blocking his way to back up so he could make the corner. But the traffic was backed up so far down the street, the cars couldn’t budge. So the bus driver was forced to back out on W Street, an extremely risky maneuver.

Swanberg called Regional Transit three times to complain. The fourth time, after none of the previous calls were acted upon, she filed an official complaint.

“I’ve asked them to come out and take a look, because I think it’s dangerous,” she said.

Yet directly across the street from Swanberg’s, Antique Company owner Steve Sylvester is fairly jumping for joy.

“It’s fabulous,” he said when asked about the conversion. “It’s the best thing that could have happened to us. We’ve got double the traffic, more people looking into our windows. We get in a whole new crowd.”

That’s the way it goes with the Freeport Boulevard/21st Street conversion. One side of the street loves it; the other side hates it. There’s no turning back now, said spokeswoman Tucker. “We understand adjustments will be necessary here and there,” she said. “We are monitoring the project for one year, through February 2009, so we can make changes as needed.”

Until then, it’s probably wisest to recall another rule that applies to such endeavors. Murphy’s Law states that if there’s more than one possible outcome of a job or task, and one of those outcomes will result in disaster or an undesirable consequence, then somebody will do it that way.

In the city of Sacramento, count on it.