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» Fire Departments Are Standing in the Way of Good Street Design

Left: The widening of Cesar Chavez Street began in 1940. Note the original width of the street at the top of the photo.  Right: As seen in 1946, Cesar Chavez Street west of Guerrero (at the top of the image) was not widened.

The San Francisco Fire Department has recently fought streetscape improvements (sfgate, 01.05.14) and other efforts to make roads safer and more walkable. Even more problematic, the fire department has insisted that in new developments in San Francisco – and we have quite a few of them planned – all roads, including residential side streets, be 30 percent wider than the code minimum of 20 feet of street clearance (typically two 10-foot lanes).

This type of expansion, in addition to narrowing sidewalks, would result in neighborhood side streets either having 13-foot freeway-size lanes, or having cement barriers in the middle of the street. Either option is the exact opposite of good urban design and neighborhood walkability and livability. Worse, either option would go back to an ugly past we are actively trying to fix.

In San Francisco, we are attempting to ensure strong fire safety while also promoting compact, walkable, well-designed streets. We are looking at the size and turning radius of fire trucks to see if our fire department is purchasing the best equipment for our city, as opposed to insisting that our city be re-designed for large fire trucks. I recently authored an amendment to our fire code to clarify that pedestrian bulb-outs are permissible, and I’m moving forward with additional legislation to ensure that our fire code is not an obstacle to improving the safety and livability of our streets.

read more: Scott Wiener, SF board of supervisors. on citylab, 20.05.14.

» You're Not an Environmentalist If You're Also a NIMBY

In the intense mid-decade battle over a condo project at Telegraph and 51st Street, a group of anti-dense-development activists who called themselves Standing Together for Accountable Neighborhood Development (STAND) sought to block the project and demanded height limits of 48 feet in the Upper Telegraph neighborhood. They were opposed by a pro-dense-development group, known as Urbanists for a Livable Temescal Rockridge Area (ULTRA), which backed the 68-unit project and advocated for taller buildings, up to 75 feet in the area. Ultimately, the city approved the condo project, but it has yet to break ground because of the housing crisis.

At its July 7 meeting, the Oakland City Council likely will approve a plan to allow an unlimited number of tall buildings throughout much of downtown. The proposal follows months of debate that — as in Berkeley — centered on high-rises. Most developers have advocated for as many skyscrapers as possible in the downtown core.

But the city’s proposal could end up backfiring. Mike Pyatok, an accomplished Oakland architect who designs buildings for developers throughout the West, explained that rezoning most of the downtown for tall buildings will artificially raise property values, thereby inhibiting development. Erecting tall buildings is already a costly endeavor, so developers need to acquire land as cheaply as possible to make it work. But if the downtown is rezoned for tall buildings, property owners are going to demand more money for their land, Pyatok explained, noting that property values usually increase when land is rezoned for high rises.

read more: eastbayexpress, 01.07.09.

» Is Berkeley falling behind in the race for safe streets?

milvia bike blvd. flickr/paytonc

Now, in 2014, San Francisco and Oakland have leapt ahead of Berkeley in designing safe streets, taking on major national leadership roles within NACTO in the process. San Francisco has aggressively implemented its bicycle plan and prioritized pedestrian safety through its WalkFirst program. Oakland can’t build bike lanes fast enough [sfgate, 27.04.14.] and is completely rethinking Telegraph Ave [gjel, 24.04.14.] to improve safety and comfort for people who walk, bike, and take transit. Even El Cerrito has joined the complete streets party as it plans to reshape San Pablo Avenue, the city’s main thoroughfare.

Meanwhile, Berkeley has seemingly stalled… Berkeley has not aggressively targeted unsafe street designs to improve pedestrian safety. It has seen a number of terrible incidents, most often related to the number of poorly marked and unprotected crosswalks on busy streets. Most recently, Joseph Luft, a 98-year-old psychology professor at San Francisco State, was killed crossing Sacramento Street at Bancroft Way [berkeleyside, 05.04.14], a busy intersection that features a crosswalk but no traffic signal. 

Safe designs for bicyclists have also lagged behind. Between 2005 and 2010, Berkeley had 819 bike crashes. Issues of bicycle safety were brought to the forefront when Schlomo Bentin, a neuropsychologist, was killed while riding on Bancroft Way by UC Berkeley [baycitizen]. Approximately 25% of pedestrian collisions and 20% of bicycle collisions occur adjacent to UC Berkeley [safeTREC], an area in which most of the streets are again designed to move large volumes of automobiles quickly despite the fact that only 25% of the university’s commuters drive to work.

Why has Berkeley fallen behind Oakland, San Francisco, El Cerrito, and other Bay Area cities? Part of the explanation probably relates to what makes Berkeley, well, Berkeley. There is a subculture of misplaced environmentalism [ebx, 01.04.09] in Berkeley that strives to preserve the good old days and save the city from changes by newcomers or outsiders. What this amounts to is a strong sense of NIMBYism from a vocal segment of the population—a minority of perhaps 15-25 percent that has a disproportionate effect on city policies. This culture seems to trickle down to the city’s traffic engineering decisions: maintaining the status quo is welcomed until somebody (like the Malcolm X Elementary parents) sufficiently lobby for change.

Berkeley hasn’t seemed to acknowledge that it had real, serious problems when it comes to street safety—problems that run contrary to the very principals of environmentalism, social justice, and public health for which the city has traditionally been a leader. Embracing a status quo in which seniors, children, students, transit riders, low income residents, and other groups are exposed to greater risk of injury or death and are forced to deal with subpar facilities is not what Berkeley stands for.

read more: gjel attorneys, 05.05.14.

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