Safe and beautiful streets

"One of the greatest pains to human nature is the pain of a new idea".

-- Walter Bagehot

by Gary Piro

arlier this month, the Carlsbad City Council was presented with some new ideas by their Streets and Sidewalk Committee. This committee and a similar tree committee were established on October 19 by the Council in response to a hearing requested by Citizens for the Preservation of Olde Carlsbad (C.P.O.C.) to keep their "narrow, tree-lined streets."

Carlsbad, along with much of the rest of the country, is discovering that the streets, which were created in the 30s and 40s, are much safer and more livable than the so-called modernized improvements which we have been constructing for the last 30 years.

What had been occurring in Carlsbad was an aggressive policy of replacing old, meandering streets with these standard residential "stenciled" streets, regardless of existing homes and development patterns. The committees have recommended that residents be allowed to decide what level of improvements are constructed on their block, provided they meet certain criteria for safety, fire service and durability. The proposed changes aren't "rocket science" and involve such simple concepts as allowing a sidewalk to meander to save a tree or narrowing a street by limiting parking. Getting an agency to allow flexibility in street design, however is very difficult, but as Emerson once said, "difficulties exist to be surmounted."

To understand how controversial this issue was, consider that there were over 100 speakers and several hundred attendees at the three hearings on this matter last year. This was more response than the Legoland development and the city Multiple Species Plan combined. There was only one speaker in favor of the street widening and he didn't even live in Carlsbad. Councilperson Julie Nygard stated, "If we've learned one thing on this matter, we've learned that one size does not fit all." Mayor Bud Lewis said, "This issue has been coming for a long time."

In fairness to the council, the current road policy was in response to a 1988 hearing, where some citizens wanted the city to install sidewalks on all of its streets for pedestrian safety. Unfortunately, these citizens didn't realize that the sidewalk construction brought with it the "standardized" street, with widened driving lanes, additional paved parking and widened parkways. This created a whole list of other problems to the community, such as tree removal, increased urban runoff and visual blight.

Ironically, this program decreased pedestrian safety, since the wider roads induced drivers to speed. The street committee received traffic statistics for the past 5 years in the "Olde" Carlsbad area, which showed that every single traffic related injury was on a street that had curbs and sidewalks. This data is consistent with studies cited in Streets and the Shaping of Towns and Cities, showing that personal injuries increase by 50% when streets are widened along with curbs and sidewalk.

The committee also recommended that no improvements or dedication be required as a condition of a home remodel. This corrects an injustice that has been occurring in Carlsbad, whereby owners of homes that were legally constructed in compliance with all ordinances and regulations in the past can not "revitalize" their property without giving up a significant portion of their front yard for city right-of-way.

To understand this situation, consider the case of Chris, who was one of the 46 speakers at the September 28 city council hearing. Chris, her husband and their two children moved to a 1,000 square-foot house on Wilson Street in 1989. Like many others on her street, she would like to remodel and add-on to her house to accommodate her growing children. Unfortunately, the existing ordinance requires Chris and the other residents on her street to pay to widen the roads in front of their homes, should they wish to apply for a permit. This street widening cost is not only cost prohibitive (costing as much as 40% of the home remodel costs), but if done would remove these resident's entire front yards and mature trees. In several instances, the road widening would make it impossible for the residents to get into their driveway. One of Chris's neighbors has been unable to remodel for 15 years, since to do so would require that he give the city the right to remove his garage and one bedroom of his existing home.

Therefore, Chris and her neighbors, can't improve their property and the city does not realize the increased property tax revenues from improved properties. This is very "penny-wise" and "pound-foolish" of the city.

As E.L. Simpson once said, "Getting an idea should be like sitting down on a pin; it should make you jump up and do something." Let's hope the city jumps up and makes the necessary changes to these archaic ordinances.

Gary Piro is a civil engineer and former San Diego County Planning Commissioner and can be reached via email at: