Grape Street Plaza, Revisted

In my most recent post, I detailed what I saw as the problems with Fern Street. In short, Fern Street has unsafe, confusing intersections that aren’t friendly to pedestrians, a lack of urban plazas and wide sidewalks, and a design that pushes drivers onto Fern Street to drive through the neighborhood when 30th Street, immediately to the west, is better designed for car traffic. I proposed some solutions with the goal of solving all these problems at once by replacing roadway with urban plazas and parks to nudge cars over to 30th Street. This would result in less through-traffic on Fern Street (while still allowing access for locals and the shops) with the added bonus of creating a walkable urban center of our neighborhood.

I was excited to see that our local council member, Chris Ward, listened to the community and asked for funding to create a part of this project, an expanded Grape Street Square, in his budget priority memo:

This is great news. But as I’ve discussed this project with the community and thought about it some more, I think the design that has been floating around isn’t quite right. As you may remember, the idea is to close Grape Street between Fern and 30th Street to expand the existing Grape Street Square. I’ve highlighted the block in this (rough) sketch in green, with sidewalk expansions in blue:

There are two problems I see with this design. First, I’ve been told the owner of the property to the north, The Bottle House, does not support the plan and wants to keep the existing parking. This makes any change very difficult, if not impossible. Even if we could persuade the owner, however, I see another problem. One of the issues we were trying to solve was that the existing street design pushes too much traffic onto Fern Street. It would be better if we could get a lot of the cars over to 30th Street, which is wider. But if we close Grape Street on that block, we make it literally impossible for cars to get from Fern Street over to 30th Street. It undermines one of our main goals. Additionally, Grape Street Square as it currently exists is somewhat dead a lot of the time. The Big Kitchen is there and there are some tables, but none of the businesses really activate the space. The local businesses there are great, but they aren’t the type to flow out onto the square. If we want a lively urban square with enough traffic to avoid it being taken over by homeless people, we need restaurants and shops to face the plaza and really use it.

So how can we fix this? We keep the same idea but shift the shape of the plaza to create a design nudge to keep cars off of Fern Street. It turns out Grape Street is a natural dividing line between different types of buildings on Fern Street: south of Grape, the existing design and zoning switches to residential with a few small shops. If we can block cars from going south on Fern, we can transform the street into a quiet residential haven. That’s a benefit for our current residents on that street.

We also have a new, vibrant business right on that corner, Fernside. If we can pull that bar and restaurant outside, we can add some energy to the space. So let’s close the southbound lane of Fern Street at Grape Street to create a new plaza with room for an outdoor patio at Fernside. We can keep the northbound lane open to avoid cars being trapped in a dead end. If we also expand the sidewalk on the other side, the great Italian restaurant Piacere Mio can also have an expanded patio. To keep cars from coming over to Fern Street from the west, we can also close the south (eastbound) lane of Grape Street to expand the existing plaza. Altogether, it would look like this:

The result would be a massive expansion of the current square with the added bonus of helping two great local businesses create great outdoor patios we all can enjoy while supporting our local businesses. It would also simplify the intersection by avoiding too many turning possibilities. Think about how cars would operate with that design and how much simpler it would be.

Ideally, we can also convince the owner of the Target lot to shift the proposed new building to the south end of the lot to face the street here. With the right design, this could be a vibrant new village corner to serve as the heart of our neighborhood. The end result would (1) enhance the residential nature of Fern Street south of Grape, (2) expand opportunities for our local businesses to create engaging outdoor spaces, (3) make the entire area more walkable, and (4) actually be possible to pull off.

I’m sure there are some people that will be concerned about the effect on traffic and accessibility. I totally get that. So why don’t we just try it out with some paint and moveable planters and benches? Let’s move fast and get something in place for summer. It would be relatively cheap to implement and if it’s a flop, we can take it all down and go back to the way things were. If it’s good but not great, we can tweak the design. And if it’s a success, we can start the planning process with the City to put in a permanent solution. Rather than committing to a years-long project planning process before we know what the result will be, let’s be flexible and experiment.

I think this option would be a superior design that is within the realm of possibility. Let’s give it a shot.

Fixing Fern Street: Pavement to Plazas, Pedestrian Safety, and Returning the Heart of Our Community to the Locals

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:

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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:

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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 rightsideclub@gmail.com 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!

 

Welcome to the Right Side Club!

Welcome to something new!  The first question I should address: what is the Right Side Club?

The short answer is the Right Side Club is a new grassroots experiment to improve the quality of life in the neighborhoods immediately to the east of Balboa Park, aka the Right Side.  North Park, South Park, SoNo, Altadena, Burlingame, Golden Hill, Brooklyn Heights, T32: there’s a lot of different names, but we really aren’t so different. And we aren’t focusing on a precisely defined geographic area: if you live near here, you can be one of us.

There’s plenty of people who claim they are interested in quality of life and “community character,” but we hope to be a bit different.  We recognize the Right Side is a dynamic urban neighborhood faced with change, and we embrace that change. Our goal is to support the change needed to make our neighborhood into the best place to live in San Diego for everyone who wants to live here.

To do this, we need to recognize that the old way of doing things won’t always work in the future: we love our historic single family homes, but also recognize that adding density to allow more people to live in our neighborhood is a good thing and will help support new businesses and restaurants.  We admit to owning a car, but want a walkable, livable neighborhood that welcomes bikes, scooters, busses, and any other alternative means of getting around.  We love our longtime residents, but welcome the hipsters and the kids and anyone else that wants to join us.

Why embrace change? Because there is a better way to live than driving everywhere and excluding people with the hope of preserving the status quo. Anyone who has experienced the charm of an old-world European city or strolled a bustling main street in a major city knows that we can do better than parking lots and freeways.

Perhaps most importantly, change is inevitable. We cannot hope to preserve the status quo and live in an attractive neighborhood. If we don’t build more housing in our popular neighborhood, flippers will buy up our old homes and duplexes and sell them to the highest bidder, driving up prices and driving out our families, artists, and elderly residents on fixed incomes. Too many people who have become our neighbors have been forced to leave when the rent goes up or the new baby is born.

At the same time, as more people start to live here, getting around by car will get even more difficult. If we don’t want to be jammed with traffic and enter into death matches over parking spaces, we have to make it easier and safer to walk, bike, or scooter around town. This has the added benefit of being more fun! We enjoy some of the finest weather in the world, we should be outside enjoying it as much as we can. It helps that Uber and Lyft and the shared bikes and scooters making it easier and cheaper to get around. We also need to push to make our public transportation more dependable and nicer to use. We realize not everyone wants to, or is able to, bike and walk and bus. And that’s fine.  All we are asking is for the choice to get around how we want to in a safe, enjoyable way.

It’s normal to be apprehensive about change, but past experience has shown that the fear is often unfounded. It wasn’t so long ago that the naysayers were claiming that the new South Park Target would ruin the neighborhood, but they now happily shop there with the rest of us. Rather than opposing all change, we can participate in the process to ensure that the change benefits both the current residents and future residents we will someday call neighbors.

Our neighborhood should be the best in San Diego. To make our neighborhood as successful as it can be, we need to work together to push the City to support our needs. As individuals alone, it’s far too easy for the city to ignore us and either maintain the status quo or listen to more organized groups. Too often the city assumes we are resistant to change and doesn’t seek our input before making decisions or deciding the leave things as they are.

Change is hard and the burden will be on us to push for that change. Too often a few voices in opposition are able to claim they represent everyone and fight for the status quo. We recognize the challenge, but we are willing to try things out to see what succeeds even if we fail sometimes.

The good news is that the city is starting to embrace change. There is some funding for needed infrastructure for neighborhoods that accompanies the change. If we can convince the city that we won’t frustrate attempts to create a new city, perhaps we can attract the needed funding.  Moreover, by accepting change, we can get ahead of it instead becoming solely reactive, forced into poor choices in the future.

This is not a professional organization. We don’t know what will work or how to get there. Some may call us naive. But the only way to find out is to get started trying. Interested in joining? Here’s what you can do.

  1. Sign up as a supporter.
  2. Add this website to your bookmarks.
  3. Share with your family and neighbors.