Mayor Tells Muni to Move J-Line Ramp
By Denise Minor
After a raucous Jan. 29 meeting between city officials and 400 upper Noe Valley merchants and residents, followed by two weeks of behind-the-scenes negotiations, Mayor Willie Brown has ordered Muni to move one of its proposed Church Street handicapped-access ramps for the J-Church streetcar line.
"The mayor was impressed by the fact that the businesses in that area near 30th Street would be unduly burdened by two handicapped ramps," said Brown's press secretary, P.J. Johnston. "At least one of them will be moved." (Muni planners had originally put both inbound and outbound ramps on Church between 29th and 30th streets. Brown halted construction on the project just prior to the meeting.)
Noe Valley Democratic Club President Dave Monks believes Brown was also impressed by the 400 angry people at the meeting at St. Paul's Church.
"I call this the Church Street Rebellion," said Monks. "Muni came in here with extremist proposals, and the merchants said, `No, you're not going to ruin our businesses by eliminating most of the parking. Go back to the drawing board.'"
At press time, it appeared that various departments were working on very different drawing boards, with at least three city offices offering three stories.
On Feb. 18 Brown's press office maintained that the outbound ramp, or "key stop," scheduled to be built between Day and 30th streets, would move two blocks north to the front of St. Paul's Church between 29th and Valley streets. But later that day, Brown's press secretary said the St. Paul's solution was now up in the air.
City May Put It to a Vote
At Muni, Deputy Director for Capital Projects Peg Divine said the same day that the community would be offered the chance to vote on where to put the outbound ramp. Meanwhile, the block-long inbound ramp would stay where it was between Day and 29th streets in front of Mikeytom Market.
"We will present three alternatives to the community for them to vote on in a public meeting," said Divine. "Right now we are preparing artists' drawings of the three alternatives, because it can be very difficult to visualize."
Divine anticipated that the drawings would be ready by Feb. 28 and that the public meeting would be scheduled for sometime in early March.
The three alternatives are:
1. Move the outbound ramp just north of Day Street (near Hungry Joe's cafe).
2. Keep the outbound ramp where it is scheduled to go (between Day and 30th), but reduce its size by eliminating the island that enables the blind and people with walkers to board separately.
3. Move the outbound ramp to straddle the Church and 29th streets intersection. There would be a short safety island north of 29th Street and a 30-foot-long ramp south of 29th Street.
At the March meeting, Muni will also present diagrams to explain why putting the ramps on 30th Street -- the solution preferred by almost all the merchants and neighbors -- would not be feasible.
But Dean Goodwin, special assistant to the mayor, said the city was still considering all the options. He planned to hold a meeting in early March among the merchants, representatives of St. Paul's, disabled activists, and the Upper Noe Neighbors, a residents' group.
"We are going to go over the pros and cons of everything that has been present-ed. And we want to make it clear why Muni has been reluctant to pursue the 30th Street option," said Goodwin. "It may be the best for the merchants, but it is not the best for the disabled community. These are federally mandated ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] ramps. They must meet certain criteria," he said.
Nevertheless, Goodwin confirmed that the city planned to hold a community meeting, where those in attendance can vote among a limited number of options.
Disabled Group Says No Changes
But all of the scrambling to change the ramps might be for naught if the disabled community has its way. Bruce Oka, chair-person of the Muni Accessibility Advisory Committee (MAAC), said his organization would fight any change to the ramps.
"By whose authority does the mayor think he can stop construction on this?" said Oka. "It has been approved by all the necessary commissions, the Board of Supervisors, and the federal government."
"MAAC is, has been, and always will be against changing the key stops project. We have already looked at all the proposals that the mayor is now considering and they are either too dangerous or too inconvenient for the disabled community," Oka continued.
The committee is not yet considering taking the city to court over the issue, but Oka believes it is a good possibility if Brown does not allow Muni to resume construction soon. "We're talking about federal legislation being circumvented by what the mayor is being asked to do by 20 merchants and some neighborhood residents," he said.
Construction on the ramps began in January despite a two-year battle by the Outer Church Street Merchants, who have complained that the loss of metered parking and yellow loading zones would have a devastating impact on their businesses.
But it was not until construction began and residents saw trees and sidewalks torn up in the area that the outcry from the neighborhood became loud enough to reach the mayor's ears.
"When those trees came down on Church Street, the neighborhood went through the roof. It took that to galvanize everyone," said Tom Maravilla, owner of Mikeytom Market.
Supervisor Leland Yee, a Noe Valley resident, received a number of phone calls from constituents and said he urged Mayor Brown to call a meeting to at least hear what the neighbors had to say.
Hundreds Show Up to Protest
As it turned out, they had plenty to say. More than 400 people packed St. Paul's auditorium, most of them to voice their opposition to the plan. Disabled activists were also there to chastise the community for what they saw as selfish interference with their rights to have access to transit.
"It was two of the worst hours of my life," said John Katz, Muni project engineer for the J-line ramps. "I was very disturbed by it. Some people there mischaracterized our attempts to accommodate the community on this matter."
He said his office had listened to the Church Street merchants' complaints in numerous hearings and had spent months considering other options.
"Most anything we do would be worse overall for the community than the way the structures are now proposed," he said. "Because of the slope of the street, the drive-ways and other things, moving the key stops will just impact different sections of the street, and often in a worse way."
San Francisco has been mandated by the federal government to make its transit system more accessible to people with disabilities and has been given funds through the Americans with Disabilities Act to do so. "One of the problems is that we have old-fashioned dimensions to our streets. If we want to make this a transit-friendly city, we have to sacrifice some amenities," Katz said. "That's the policy. We're not supposed to develop our system around people being in automobiles."
But Eva Skoufis, owner of the Coin-Op Laundry on Church Street, believes the ramps are being designed around what's most convenient for Muni.
"They say that the current proposal is what's best for the disabled, but it's not true. They would have to get out and go uphill to the transfer points and the senior center," she said. "Thirtieth Street is much more logical.
"The ones being helped are the ones getting money from the federal government, and that is Muni," said Skoufis.
Current Plan Pinches Sidewalks
After the meeting, Monks approached Mark Rudnicki, a Church Street resident and Muni project engineer for key stops on the M-line, to help mediate a solution. As a neighbor of the proposed J-Church key stops and an engineer who has designed similar ramps, he understands both sides of the issue.
"I've lived here for 10 years, and it seems strange to me that neither Muni nor the neighbors asked for my help until now," he said.
He said he had a personal investment in seeing that the ramps didn't hurt the commercial strip. "I eat at Hungry Joe's every Saturday that I'm in town," said Rudnicki. "I have one kid attending St. Paul's, and two more will be there in the next few years. I care about that area."
Rudnicki is also worried that the current construction plans would reduce the size of the sidewalks too much.
"As it stands, at the pinch point the sidewalks would be reduced to 6 feet, 6 inches. Now Muni may say that meets the requirements, but I believe it's too narrow," he said. "I have three kids, and I know how kids are. I would worry about them walking there."
"But I also see Muni's side. They're in construction," he continued. "You can't reinvent the wheel. It's time-consuming and expensive."
Rudnicki met with merchants, Dave Monks, and the Upper Noe Neighbors to come up with some proposals to present to the city. "I thought that I might be able to help make this a win-win situation. But I see now that it's not that easy," he said.
"The only way to reach an agreement here is for everybody to compromise -- the merchants, Muni, the church, and the handicapped community."
Rudnicki offered an alternative design for the inbound ramp in front of Mikeytom's that would eliminate the low-level part of its platform. "That restores a lot of parking. It makes it more reasonable."
As for the outbound key stop, he reluctantly recommended that the city consider a lift and platform at the site of the original proposal or in front of St. Paul's. The lift would have to be protected from traffic, however, because cars often crash into them and make them inoperable. "These could be considered only if the wheelchair community would accept a lift."
Disabled activists often reject lifts, Rudnicki said, because they break down, are rarely maintained, and take extra take time to work. "The lift isn't operational until the car arrives. Then it takes from one and a half to two minutes to operate."
As for the 30th Street option, Rudnicki thought it was a long shot. "They would have to relocate the switchback and split the tracks," he said. "The cost of this is $250,000 to $500,000 now. That cost would double or triple on 30th Street."
Neighbors Big on `Bulbs'
The Upper Noe Neighbors have also weighed in with their ideas. "The mayor's office said that if we came up with our recommendations by Friday [Feb. 14], they would be considered," said the group's co-chair Janice Gendreau. "We turned those in to Dean Goodwin."
Their first recommendation was that the city consider a 30th Street key stop which would include a ramp and what is known as a bulb -- a piece of sidewalk that bulges out from the pavement. It would be located at the current stop for the 24-Divisadero bus line.
"The back end of the bulb would be a ramp," said Gendreau. "The disadvantage would be that the cars behind the buses would have to wait."
The other problem with this idea is that the stop would be just past the last stop for some J-Church runs. The disabled would have no access to the seven commuter-hour runs per day that go only to 30th Street and then turn back to head into the city center.
The second recommendation by the Upper Noe Neighbors would be to put a similar bulb construction in front of St. Paul's Church. "This would cut traffic to one lane in front of the church, and would widen the sidewalk to create a pedestrian plaza there," said Gendreau.
At one point, Muni had proposed putting the outbound ramp in front of St. Paul's, but the uproar from the parishioners caused the city to move the ramp back to the business strip.
Sister Maureen O'Brien of St. Paul's said the church objected mainly to the sidewalk reduction Muni was proposing. "They were going to cut the sidewalks back to very narrow. The main concern of the parents of our school children was one of safety," she said.
The other problem with Muni's proposal was that it would make unloading and loading in front of the church very difficult. "We have weddings and funerals here," she said.
But from what she had seen of the Neigh- bors' proposal, it would be acceptable, mainly because it would make the sidewalk even wider. However, O'Brien, who heads up St. Paul's Capital Campaign, said she could not endorse anything until she had seen an official proposal and consulted with other church administrators.
As for the merchants, they were still keeping their fingers crossed for 30th Street. "We're still pushing for both of the ramps to go in on 30th Street near the senior center," said Maravilla.
"Before, Muni would never admit that it could be done. At least now it is clear that the stops could be put there, although it would be more expensive," he said.
Monks concurs. "If they had admitted two years ago that the ramps could go in on 30th Street but that it was just too expensive, we would have had all this time to raise money to put them there."
Maravilla believes that the main reason Muni has been resisting changing to 30th Street is to quell revolts in other neighborhoods. "Other neighborhoods that aren't happy with their key stops are watching closely," he said. "Muni is saying, `If we do this for you, we'll have to do it for everyone.'
"Well, that's not our problem. It's theirs," he said.
Upper Noe `Throwing a Tantrum'
Oka, of the Accessibility Advisory Committee, thinks Maravilla is right -- caving in would be a problem for Muni. "We're already seeing the backlash from this. We're hearing from other neighborhoods, such as the merchants on 24th Street [the other key stop in Noe Valley] and those on Ocean Avenue," he said.
"They want to know why the mayor will look at this neighborhood and not theirs."
Oka believes it is because Noe Valley knows how to throw a fit. "It's like a child throwing a tantrum and holding its breath until it turns blue in the face," he said.
"That meeting I attended on January 29 was the meanest, rudest gathering I have ever witnessed in all my years of work with civil rights issues. Some of us weren't even allowed to finish what we were saying without being booed by the opposition.
"I hope that the hostility I saw there was not indicative of how the neighborhood really is. We all have to live with each other."
Monks responded that the anger expressed at the meeting was not directed against the disabled, but against city officials who were refusing to budge an inch to accommodate the small businesses.
"That meeting showed that this is real-ly a tight neighborhood. It's like a family, where everyone knows each other," said Monks. "I know the disabled community is unhappy with us. But this project will have a dramatic effect on the character of our beautiful neighborhood. If the ramps are put in as is, 21 parking places will be lost, the sidewalks will be sliced, and the business district will be divided in half, lit- erally, by these concrete and steel barriers.
"The merchants and residents have spent a lot of time trying to come up with a compromise to make the ramps work for our neighborhood. I just hope in its rush to build ramps, Muni doesn't end up pushing the small neighborhoods over a cliff."
The next meeting of the Upper Noe Neighbors will be held March 27, 7:30 p.m., at Upper Noe Recreation Center.
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