Storm before the calm

Midtowners debate what makes great neighborhoods

Nancy Finch sits on her front stairway with her two sons Nicholas and Graham Drees.

Nancy Finch sits on her front stairway with her two sons Nicholas and Graham Drees.

Photo by Larry Dalton

Every weekday afternoon, the street outside Nancy Finch’s home becomes a highway. Cars come barreling out of Downtown, down N street and toward the freeway, a good deal faster than the posted 30 mph speed limit.

At 4 p.m., as the afternoon commute begins to ramp up, Finch keeps one wary eye on her two sons, a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old, as they run up and down the sidewalk.

“It can be very scary, very stressful,” to try and corral two small, rowdy boys across the street.

That’s why Finch and many of her neighbors in the south Midtown area are pushing for new traffic-calming measures that would quell the five o’clock highway.

“We want to make our neighborhood more livable,” she explained. “The basis is to slow down traffic and give pedestrians a chance.”

At 2 p.m. on another weekday, Finch’s neighbor, Rick Castro, stands in the same spot and shrugs: “You see, there are no cars right now. It’s pretty calm.”

Indeed, in the middle of the day, there are long stretches of silence in between the volleys of three or four cars that pass by. Castro acknowledges that the vehicles are moving at a good clip. But it’s nothing that a lower speed limit and a traffic cop couldn’t fix, he said.

Both Castro and Finch have already cast their ballots on the city’s South Midtown Area Revitalization and Transportation (SMART) Plan. The ballots are due November 26.

The SMART plan covers the area bordered by L and Q streets and 15th through 28th streets and includes a series of pedestrian-friendly improvements—high visibility crosswalks, pedestrian islands and one traffic circle—intended to slow traffic and reduce the risk of car crashes without the use of stop signs.

The plan is intended to lessen the impact of cars traveling in and out of Downtown on Midtown streets and to make it more appealing to walk or ride bikes around the neighborhood. Proponents hope to make south Midtown safer, as well as to give it more of a neighborhood feel.

The issue comes on the heels of a contentious traffic-calming experiment in north Midtown. There, the use of so-called half-street closures to divert traffic off certain streets sparked a rancorous debate, at times marked by pitched rhetoric, personal attacks and even the occasional piece of hate mail sent between neighbors.

As traffic calming creeps south, the debate has been less heated, bordering on polite, and lacking the Midtown melodrama that accompanied the northern project. It is ironic, considering many of the streets in the south Midtown plan would actually affect more drivers than the north plan did.

But the SMART plan is a somewhat softer approach. Gone are the half-street closures, which critics of the north plan panned for turning some streets into nearly car-less cul-de-sacs while dumping more traffic onto other nearby streets.

The most significant, and most controversial, part of the SMART plan is the reduction of four one-way streets from three lanes to two lanes. L, N, P and Q streets would each lose one lane in favor of parking on both sides of the street and designated bike lanes. The whole project will cost about $500,000, according to city officials.

John Isaac likes the idea. Isaac owns a used bookstore on L Street, a stretch that can be treacherous for pedestrians, especially those with a physical disability. Isaac has used a wheelchair to get around since the ’80s, the result of a stroke.

“I want to be able to cross the street without having to worry about getting mowed down by some state worker in his Volvo speeding out of town,” explained Isaac.

Isaac also likes the idea of slower traffic because drivers are more likely to pull over and look into small shops like his.

Yet some, like Rick Castro, believe that reducing the number of lanes on N Street will do nothing but increase congestion. Take away one lane of traffic, he said, and what will be accomplished is increased traffic in the other two lanes by 50 percent.

He’d rather see speed limits reduced from 30 to 25 miles per hour, and have increased police presence to slow traffic coming in and out of Midtown. He maintains that could be done for far less money than the half-million-dollar price tag on the SMART plan.

Even though Castro opposes the plan, he expects it to pass easily, in part he says, because the city government is backing the plan even though it is officially neutral. In fact, it’s not at all clear that the measure will pass.

For that matter, it’s not clear that many in south Midtown are even paying attention. Residents in the proposed project area have until Monday to return ballots, and vote yes or no on whether to send a traffic-calming proposal to the Sacramento City Council.

Every resident, business and property owner in the plan area is being asked to return ballots that they should have already received by mail, by November 26.

At least 25 percent of residents in the plan area must cast ballots. Of that number, a simple majority must vote yes in order to pass the plan on to City Council for review and approval or rejection. As of last Friday, very few of those ballots, only 10 to 15 percent, according to city officials, had been returned.

The SMART plan is loosely linked to a more ambitious project: conversion of a number of one-way streets in the central city to two-way streets, which will be taken up next spring.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Sacramento, like many cities across the nation, converted neighborhood streets to one-way, in an attempt to move commuters in and out of the city quickly.

In the 1990s, “livability” and “walkability” became buzzwords, and, among other ideas, traffic calming became a popular response to the predominance of the automobile in the urban landscape.

Still, many Midtown residents aren’t convinced that traffic calming, as trendy as it has become, will solve anything. Worse, said Castro, it would drain Midtown of its urban feel.

“I think of it as the suburbanization of Midtown,” said Castro.

Another N Street resident, Chuck Edelman, agreed.

“I don’t begrudge people trying to get home from work,” said Edelman, who has two small children of his own.

“If I wanted to be where there were no cars, I’d live on a cul-de-sac out in the suburbs. I don’t think a neighborhood has to be asleep to be livable,” he added.

And so, the disagreement over traffic calming comes down to different ideas about what makes for good neighborhoods, and specifically, what makes Midtown, well, Midtown.

John Isaac has his own philosophy. “This is the most beautiful area in the city, and people just come zipping through,” he explained.

He sees traffic calming as a sign that Sacramento’s urban core is coming into its own, as in older, more established cities: “Every great city I’ve ever seen gives consideration to its neighborhoods. And one of the things that makes a neighborhood is slow cars.”