Noe Valley Voice April 2009

Road to Redesign of Cesar Chavez a Bit Bumpy

By Corrie M. Anders

A major redesign proposed for a rough-and-ready stretch of Cesar Chavez Street is starting to create a stir in Noe Valley--both among ardent supporters as well as among critics who worry the changes will snarl commute-hour traffic.

The traffic-calming plan centers on a one-mile section of Cesar Chavez Street that runs from Potrero Avenue near the 101 freeway to Guerrero Street on the eastern edge of Noe Valley.

The key feature would reduce three lanes of traffic to two lanes in each direction along the thoroughfare, which is the principal route feeding commuters between the freeway and several residential neighborhoods.

On one side of the issue are advocates like Castro Street resident David Wilbur, who complains that Cesar Chavez is like a racetrack with motorists "playing Mario Andretti with each other."

On the other side are skeptics like Nancy McGee, who regularly takes Cesar Chavez as the quickest connection between her 23rd Street home and her workplace.

"Anything that screws up the commute would be a nightmare," she said.

Aimed at Making Street Safer

This spring, the proposal, which several neighborhood groups in the Mission and in Bernal Heights have already endorsed, was wending its way through the city's Planning Department. Intended to make the busy street safer for motorists and pedestrians--and more hospitable to merchants, students, cyclists, and residents--the plan would also:

* Increase the number of left-turn "pocket" lanes in both directions.

* Prohibit left turns at intersections without the pocket lanes.

* Add 5-feet-wide bicycle lanes in both directions.

* Create a 14-foot, Dolores Street-style median strip that would allow for a double row of trees and green landscaping.

* Widen sidewalks at certain intersections from the current 10 feet to 18 feet, to provide a larger space for pedestrians waiting to cross the street.

A grassroots coalition of neighbors, merchants, parents, and transportation advocates known as CC Puede ("Cesar Chavez, Yes We Can!") starting lobbying for the project about three years ago.

Following a yearlong series of community workshops, the ad hoc group endorsed a final draft measure in February. However, the proposal is just starting to attract widespread attention in Noe Valley.

City planner Andres Power said construction could start sometime next year if the Board of Supervisors and the Metropolitan Transit Authority approved the plan. Both agencies must first hold public hearings, however.

A Few Minutes' Delay

Power said the proposed changes could have either positive or negative impacts on local residents, depending on their situation.

"For people who walk down Cesar Chavez from Noe Valley or who ride bikes, it's going to be a significant improvement," he said, especially for those trekking to the Mission District for restaurants or shopping.

"Those people who drive" during commute rush hours--from 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. and again from 4:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.--will take slightly longer to reach their destination, Power said.

"But it's not a significant delay," he said. "We're shooting for a few minutes' delay--a couple of minutes."

There would be no discernible slowdown during the rest of the day, when "the street functions way below [traffic] capacity," he said.

According to Power, a reconfigured Cesar Chavez Street with dedicated left-turn lanes also would curtail a major source of driver frustration and accidents.

Power said drivers often find themselves stuck in inside lanes behind motorists waiting for oncoming traffic to clear so they can make a left turn.

Impatient drivers regularly "dart over to the next lane to avoid them, and that's a pretty dangerous thing to do," he said. "We'll no longer have that problem" with a left-turn pocket system.

Power noted that the combination of a wider median strip and eight extra feet of sidewalk at intersections would make it easier for school children, seniors, and other pedestrians to cross the broad street. They would only have to walk 60 feet in the crosswalk instead of the current 80 feet, and could stop on the median in the middle of the road if needed.

Tired of Speed Demons

The chance to improve the Cesar Chavez commute corridor has galvanized backers such as Wilbur, who is a member of CC Puede, and Gillian Gillett, a co-chair of the grassroots organization.

"I might have to spend an extra minute or two in traffic, but it's a really small tradeoff for all the improvements and beautifications on that street," Wilbur said.

Wilbur said he had used Cesar Chavez Street for more than 20 years, driving from his home near Castro and 22nd streets to the South Bay, where he works as a tax accountant.

"It just feels like Cesar Chavez isn't working," he said. "We sort of race in and out of lanes when someone is turning left [and race] each other from Dolores Street to the 101 on-ramp."

Wilbur, a cycling enthusiast, said adding bike lanes to a less frantic street would induce him to occasionally pedal to the 22nd Street Caltrain Station on Potrero Hill and commute by train.

"It frustrates me that on nice days I [can't] get on my bike and fly down Cesar Chavez and get on the train," he said, adding, "It's not safe."

'Kind of a No Man's Land'

Gillett lives on Guerrero Street just off Cesar Chavez Street. Hers is a chaotic intersection, where the six lanes of Cesar Chavez squeeze down to two lanes as the roadway enters Noe Valley. In addition, two lanes of Cesar Chavez traffic turn south on Guerrero Street heading toward Interstate Highway 280.

"There's no there there in the way Cesar Chavez works now. It's a place that people actively avoid," says Gillett, a parent of two young children and a neighborhood resident for 12 years.

Gillett recently took a Voice reporter on a walk down Cesar Chavez from Guerrero to Mission Street--past the drab Salvation Army buildings, the used-car lots, and the "orphan" parcels of land.

"We don't get a lot of foot-related traffic," she said. "There are house break-ins and abandoned cars. Because people avoid the street, it makes it a kind of no man's land. That has a deleterious effect on Noe Valley.

"So making the traffic flow better and making it much easier to walk and cross will invite pedestrian activity, will invite stores to open up, and encourage development of housing and commerce," Gillett said. "The more you make it walkable, the more people will walk to public transit."

More Backups Envisioned

A number of residents applauded the plan's good intentions, but were adamantly against any changes that would slow traffic along the artery.

"I wish it were a nicer experience to go down Cesar Chavez," said McGee, the chief operating officer for a health care consulting firm located near the San Francisco Airport.

"I'm totally for making it prettier, but I'm not for eliminating any lanes. I need to get to 101 to get to my job and a lot of people from Noe Valley are kind of in the same position."

Even with the current three lanes available, McGee said a bus picking up passengers or a stopped garbage truck could jam up traffic.

"So imagine a garbage truck with two lanes of traffic," she said. "It would make it a total snarl."

Hill Street resident Kathryn Bowsher said eliminating lanes might have the unintended consequence of creating long backups on Valencia, Guerrero, and other nearby streets, as drivers sought alternative routes.

"I'm just very, very leery," said Bowsher, a health care consultant who's lived in Noe Valley for a decade. "It's not that I don't buy into the goals. They're laudable. But I think there are a lot of things you can do to make Cesar Chavez more pleasant without taking out a lane of traffic."

She suggested that more efficient timing of traffic signals, crossing guards who can override traffic lights, and more left-turn pockets would improve traffic flow along the thoroughfare.

Traffic Studies Ahead

In late March, city planners were working to refine the design and conduct a traffic engineering analysis. Power said the city hoped to complete construction documents by the end of the year. Interested persons can view the plans at www.sfgov .org/site/uploadedfiles/planning/City_Design_Group/CDG_mission_cesarchavez.htm. To comment on the proposal, write or contact Power at 415-558-6384. Information about CC Puede can be found at its website at