Mean Streets

Midtown traffic calming continues to pit neighbor against neighbor

When Georgine Hodgkinson and her husband, Eric Norton, decided it was time to buy a new house, they knew the suburbs weren’t for them. They had their hearts set on Midtown, like many young professionals who are attracted by the energy of the central city and the lifestyle it affords.

So when they heard two years ago of openings at Metro Square, the much-touted upscale urban housing development in the heart of Midtown, they jumped at the chance.

They spent days walking around the neighborhood, trying to pick the perfect location in the new project to make their home. Safety was a concern. Georgine was pregnant at the time with their daughter, Abigail, and it seemed as though I Street had the least traffic in the mornings and would be the safest spot to start their family.

They guessed wrong.

Within a few months of moving in, the number of cars whizzing past their driveway nearly doubled.

They say it was because of the controversial Midtown “traffic-calming” plan, particularly the half-street closures that shunted through-traffic from G and H streets onto I Street and right past their front door.

The couple had been aware of the traffic-calming plan before they moved in and thought it was a good idea.

“Traffic calming sounded really great,” Hodgkinson said. “I guess we didn’t really know what it would mean.”

One of her Metro Square neighbors and a close friend, Robin Dahlgren, moved in to Metro Square about the same time. But she and her husband, Mike Cappelluti, guessed right. A half-street closure at 27th Street cut traffic by their front door on H Street almost in half. Too bad for her friend, she says, but she likes the diverters right where they are.

Georgine and her friend Robin belong to the same book club. Their husbands work at the same consulting firm, and both couples often share dinner and conversation. But traffic calming has at times become a taboo subject.

“If nobody’s had any wine, we’re pretty civil,” explains Eric Norton. But there are times, he added, that it’s just best to change the subject.

“I really don’t think anybody can be swayed on this. If you got more traffic, you hate it. If you got less, you love it,” said Dahlgren.

And so, Metro Square has become a sort of microcosm for the battle over traffic calming. That battle may end up being resolved at the ballot box, if the City Council decides next week to allow Midtown residents to vote on getting rid of the half-street closures.

Officially called the Neighborhood Preservation and Transportation Plan (NPTP), traffic calming was intended to ease the burden for all Midtown residents who had to deal with ever-increasing flows of commuter traffic in and out of downtown, by drivers who treat Midtown streets like little freeways connecting downtown to East Sacramento or the farther-flung suburbs.

The plan includes traffic circles in the middle of some streets to slow traffic, stop signs and pedestrian islands, as well as 11 half-street closures. While other parts of the plan have gotten plenty of complaints, it is the half-street closures that have caused the most arguments.

The project has been so controversial that the City Council is considering asking area residents and homeowners to vote on whether to keep them or yank them out. The council will meet at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 21, to consider the issue.

“In my six years on the City Council, I’ve never seen anything this contentious,” said City Councilmember Robbie Waters.

Waters, who has never been a fan of the half-street closures, surprised his fellow councilmembers by making a motion to put removal of the barriers to a vote of the area residents.

That notion has predictably angered supporters of the plan, who say it has done exactly what was intended.

The overall volume and speed of traffic in the project area is down, and injuries and property damage that result from accidents on the heavily traveled east-west lettered streets have dropped dramatically since the plan was implemented, they say.

But opponents such as Hodgkinson and Norton say all the plan has accomplished is to shift the traffic problem to different people. While D, E, G and H streets are considerably more tranquil, C, I and K streets have absorbed much of that traffic.

“Why is our street being punished? It doesn’t seem right to protect some streets at the expense of their neighbors,” said Hodgkinson.

Dale Kooyman, who spent years working for the plan, said that opponents are exhibiting a special sort of NIMBYism.

“We ask people all the time to take their fair share of any number of things, affordable housing, social services and, yes, traffic,” said Kooyman, who lives at 21st and H streets. He added that traffic calming has actually meant more traffic on his corner as well. Yet while a few people may be inconvenienced, the existing plan is best for the larger community.

Neighbor George Bramson agrees, and he gives the diverters partial credit for the recent resurgence of interest in people moving back into the central city.

“The question is, will the city abandon its 12-year commitment to this very progressive, award-winning project?” Bramson said. “The diverters are a very important part of that success.”

Both sides in the traffic-calming battle claim the other side is a vocal minority acting out of self-interest. Perhaps putting the plan to a vote is the only way to tell for sure.

“It’s pretty evident there is no consensus on this,” said Hodgkinson. “But if it turns out that we’re the minority, that’s fine. But we should get to vote on it.”