There’s no doubt that the heart of our community belongs on Fern Street and the surrounding blocks. Although this area is already great, I recently found this great article detailing how vibrant of a shopping district it used to be, serving all of those within walking distance: three grocery stores, a soda fountain, bakery, hardware store, cleaners, bars, cafes, a nursery, a library branch, and a number of other assorted businesses and shops. Those few blocks were a vibrant heart of our neighborhood not so long ago. It would be great to get back to times like that.
A weird quirk of a street, Fern Street seems like it arose out of happenstance rather than design. To the north and south, it turns into 30th Street, which also runs parallel to Fern Street immediately to the west. Unfortunately, incremental changes over our community’s history has gradually led to Fern Street becoming a thoroughfare despite an original design that suggests there was never any intention it would become so. At its worst, Fern Street is dangerous, with narrow, broken sidewalks and cars zooming through to get to destinations elsewhere. Although the tree canopy can be stunning and the local businesses are great, Fern Street is sometimes not the most pleasant place to walk.
Most recently, it became the site of a tragic collision when a driver hit a valued member of our community, Vicki Granowitz, at the intersection of Grape and Fern. This wasn’t the first injury to occur here; any local can tell you about the many near misses and actual collisions over the years. The intersection is so poorly designed, it’s even annoying to drive through the area.
If we want a walkable community, safety is paramount. But it’s also not the only concern. A recent survey of local residents found that the overwhelming majority was most concerned about the lack of public spaces and with the level of traffic. It’s natural to look at these problems as isolated concerns, but what is we could find a holistic solution that addresses all three at the same time?
When I look at Fern Street, I see three major problems.
First, the quirky design history of mismatched grids and divergent street names leads to some bad, dangerous intersections. The foremost example is Fern and Grape, where driver zig and then zag just to go straight. Pedestrians and cyclists are left to chance and just hope to not be hit.
Second, we have too much space devoted to roads and not enough to public spaces. Despite the concerns about traffic, the actual volume of cars is not incredibly high when considering the entire street grid. Although Fern is over capacity given its design, the surrounding streets can seem like ghost towns. In an area deprived of parks, the allocation of public space is out of whack.
Third, Fern Street was not conceived to be the major roadway through our neighborhood. When first built, the streetcar system followed 30th Street and was “forced” to leave Fern Street because of the direction of the tracks. This ensured traffic went on 30th to allow Fern could be a quiet area close by. With the demise of the streetcar and the rise of the automobile, the natural path is to leave 30th from both the north and south and continue on Fern. In that sense, the design of the streets designates Fern as the major street, not the decision of drivers or city planners. People don’t choose to crowd onto Fern; Fern chooses the drivers. The result is a glut of cars where they shouldn’t be.
These three problems overlap in ways, creating specific and generalized issues. They contribute to each other, but also need to be addressed concurrently to clean up our streets. These are problems that have long been identified by locals and a lot of related ideas on how to solve them have been percolating online. I think by considering all the options that have been proposed and putting them all together, we can craft a three-part solution. Ready to dive in?
SOLUTION #1: Fix the Intersections, Including Grape and Fern.
We’ll talk about broader, general fixes, but let’s start with a focus on the specific problem at hand. The first is that too many of our intersections are challenging to cross on foot. In the pictures below, I’ve added some blue areas at each corner where I would propose extending the sidewalk. These are known as curb extensions or cub bulbs and serve to put pedestrians in a more prominent location and make the crossing distance shorter. They can be painted at first with posts on the perimeter to demarcate the pedestrian realm from the street realm. Seattle is really good at these, they look like this:
We can start with the temporary (but artsy) solution and implement permanent fixes over time.
More specifically, we really need to redesign the intersection at Grape and Fern. In addition to curb extensions, the first step would be to close Grape Street to the west, which will be discussed more below. The second step would be to close the driveway into the Target parking lot immediately to the north of the intersection. There is another driveway immediately to the east and the location of the western driveway in the middle of the intersection is confusing. Beyond that, it should be designed as two intersections, with two stop signs, instead of one mutant intersection. I imagine something like this:
Square everything off, let pedestrians walk across a shorter distance, and make drivers stop and look. It won’t prevent every dangerous crossing, but it should be a marked improvement. The blue curb extensions are located where there is already a red curb, they wouldn’t impact parking spots at all. They simply give the road space that would be used for parked cars but for the red curbs back to the pedestrians.
There are some smaller fixes that will help too. South of Grape Street, one side of the parking was removed on Fern Street to make it easier for cars to travel faster. Really! There was a revitalization plan developed in 1987 that was concerned that Fern was too narrow between Cedar and Fir to accommodate two travel lanes plus two parallel parking lanes, so one of the parking lanes was removed. The plan wasn’t wrong that the road was too narrow, but now the car lanes are too wide, allowing cars to fly through the neighborhood. The city could add diagonal parking to address the loss of parking elsewhere and also slow down cars a bit in this section. This would ensure drivers aren’t approaching the intersection after running a drag race. There might even be some need for additional stop signs and crosswalks. I’m sure a closer look will reveal little tweaks to make the area more inviting and safer.
SOLUTION #2: Convert Pavement to Plazas and Parks
As mentioned, we really have an excess of pavement and not enough public plazas and parks. Without seizing private property and razing historic structures, our best bet to add such areas in our central neighborhood is to rededicate some roadway.
The first plaza location would be on Grape Street, between 30th and Fern. This is a proposal that has come up over the years. The only access issue would be for liquor store, The Bottle House, on the north side, but public commenters have suggested the new owners (who also own the lot where Target is across the street) are supportive of the idea and want to redevelop the lot to complement a new plaza. Even if the owner doesn’t support closing the street, we could close the south (eastbound) lane and the east end of the street, creating a cul de sac. The new street plaza would extend the existing Grape Street Plaza, like this in green:
This new plaza would become the public heart of our community. A place for neighbors to gather, kids to play, and a continued location for holiday celebrations. It would also serve to greatly simplify the horrible intersection just to the east.
The second proposed plaza is discussed more in depth below, on the west half of 30th Street between Juniper and Ivy. I would call this Burlingame Station, after the historic reference to this area as the Burlingame Shopping District and the historic streetcar station. But hey, names and marketing aren’t my speciality, we can open it up to other ideas.
Our City Council District, District Three, has seen a number of street closures recently to create plazas, first with the Piazza della Familigia in Little Italy and then the proposed Normal Street Promenade in Hillcrest. Why should our neighborhood not get in on the fun? The city has a process in the municipal code for closing streets, which allows residents to petition for a closure and focuses on whether the closure would cause problems for public travel, would benefit the public, and would be consistent with existing land use plans.
It’s hard to see any real problem for traffic, the robust street grid will allow traffic to be redirected evenly among the adjoining streets. The public benefit is obvious. And luckily, the existing Golden Hill Community Plan practically begs for the first plaza in its list of policy goals:
The first likely objection would be that plazas like these must cost a lot of money. Not necessarily! First, it certainly is cheaper than spending money to pay for attorney fees and damages after someone gets hurt. Second, there is an emerging trend of converting streets to plazas with temporary solutions including paint, street furniture, and moveable planters. Here are some great examples. And some more.
This requires a relatively low amount of money: we could (1) raise money with donations and perhaps a local restaurant and beer event or two, (2) engage with our local artists via a design competition for the street painting design; (3) work together to implement the design, and (4) then seek funding and a design for a permanent solution.
If the plazas fail and cause headaches, they are easy to remove. If there are minor problems, we can tweak the designs easily. But if they are successful, it makes it easier to secure support and funding for permanent solutions.
SOLUTION #3: Move Cars Off Fern Street and Onto 30th Street
This is the broadest solution, and probably the most controversial. A look at the city’s traffic counts for our neighborhood helps reveal a central problem: most of the cars on Fern Street are merely continuing through from 30th Street and only pass through. In other words, the traffic for the most part, about 3,500-5,000 cars in each direction each day, doesn’t originate from within, but rather is just passing by on the way to somewhere else. Coming from the south, about 4,000 cars a day come up 30th Street from near the 94 freeway and continue onto Fern when the name changes at A Street. From the north, about 5,000 cars a day come down 30th Street over Switzer Canyon. About two-thirds of those cars follow the straight line and continue onto Fern Street south of Juniper. The other third make the turn to head over to 30th Street.
The traffic counts suggest that drivers are mindlessly driving onto Fern Street simply because people tend to continue in a straight line rather than in an effort consciously avoid 30th Street, which is wider, straighter, and generally more conducive to through travel. As I mentioned, the streetcar tracks used to force streetcar traffic to follow 30th. What if we could do that with cars?
We can’t just close Fern Street to cars; there are way too many driveways for homes and businesses. We would cut off access to residents, shoppers, and emergency vehicles. Not good!
But we could “nudge” people off Fern and onto 30th by diverting traffic at the north and south end. How? First, at the north end, I would propose creating a new public plaza by closing the southbound lane of Fern between Juniper and Ivy. Like this marked in green:
The green area would be a new public plaza, devoted to lounging, strolling, bands, and perhaps food trucks at times. There are no driveways on that side to interfere with. And the blue areas are extended curbs to make crossing easier (discussed above). With this design, a driver coming south on 30th Street over Switzer Canyon would be forced to slide over to continue on 30th Street rather than Fern Street. If the driver really wants or needs to get to Fern, they could just circle back around in one block. But the majority of the through traffic would just find it more natural (and probably faster) to continue all the way down 30th Street, which is better designed for heavier traffic.
On the south end, there’s not so much of a natural place to divert traffic by closing an entire block. But the City’s Street Design Manual recognizes something called a semi-diverter (page 3-19) that only closes one half of a street. If we put one at Beech Street, where the bus route shifts, it would look like this, marked in green at the northeast corner of Beech and Fern:
Again, the purpose would be to shift cars over to 30th Street and create a little pocket park. Here’s a prettier rendering, courtesy of NACTO, a transportation design guideline association:
This would divert cars over to 30th Street while still allowing pedestrians, bikes, and emergency vehicles through. Again, a driver could easily circle back around if they needed to get onto Fern. For a slight inconvenience, we would likely be able to remove thousands of cars a day from Fern for the benefit of pedestrians and residents alike.
Can We Actually Make This Happen?
Yes, we can! The main thing we need is community support. I started a petition, let’s sign that so we can show our community leaders there is a strong demand for change.
Too much time has been wasted in the past quibbling with the traffic engineers about what should happen. Rather than wasting time individually fighting with the city bureaucracy, we need to act collectively. We, the community, need to demand a radical solution and make it happen. Over the past several years, community members have contacted city staff and gotten nowhere. If we start with the engineers, the process will be narrowly focused on conservative approaches. But this isn’t just a safety issue, it’s also a matter of creating public spaces and enhancing the livability of our neighborhood. Traffic engineers don’t directly deal with those concerns.
But if we work together, we can send a clear signal that we demand real solutions. If we are going to make this happen, we need a clear directive from the top, including Mayor Kevin Faulconer and Councilmember Chris Ward. With their support, city staff will find a way to facilitate these projects.
We’ll also need support from our local community leaders, including the Golden Hill Community Planning Group and the South Park Business Group. If you have contacts at City Hall or in our local groups, contact them, ask for support, and direct them to this page.
And this is only my individual attempt to cobble together the various solutions crafted by the community online over the past few years. Maybe some parts make sense and others should be thrown away. We should be flexible on the design and work with everyone to refine this admittedly rough plan to make it perfect. Have an idea? Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or comment below.
If there is enough support as shown by the petition, we can organize the next steps with a community meeting. Please sign the petition, share online and with anyone you know that supports fixing these problems, and get in touch!
Thanks for reading!