Outer Balboa St. project a disaster, neighbors complain

by Thomas K. Pendergast

Eight years in the making, the Balboa Streetscape Improvement Project will be completed this month, yet some residents in the Outer Richmond District have already turned their noses up and their thumbs down at the final result.

The SF Department of Public Works says planning for the $3.2 million project began in 2006 and was 80 percent funded by a federal grant. Local money from Proposition K sales tax funds contributed the rest.

The project, which runs along Balboa Street from 34th to 39th avenues, installed two "gateway elements" at 34th and 39th avenues to "accent" the commercial corridor, also curb ramps and bulb outs, widened sidewalks at bus stops, embedded plant boxes along sidewalks on both sides of the street, repaved the road, put in angled parking spaces and new parking meters, plus it replaced an aging sewer pipe.

The project kicked off in 2006, according to DPW officials, with a meeting between city officials and local citizens, where the consensus was that safety along this section of the street needed improvement with traffic-calming measures, like the bulb-outs, to discourage cars from speeding through the busy commercial corridor.

In a packed meeting with about 40 people last month at the Cabrillo Playground Clubhouse, a solid majority of those attending were against the project, prompting a heated exchange between city officials and local residents. Only one person expressed full support for the plan.

"The project was badly done. You took the federal dollars and you needed to put concrete somewhere. You put it out here without a whole lot of thought," said Sheryl Cowan, who describes herself as a long-time resident. "What you're going to leave us with is not an improvement for our neighborhood. We now have congestion on our blocks, confusion."

Another resident, Jean Barish, questioned if the angled parking could be used by disabled people, who might require wheel­chairs to get around.

The DPW project manager, Mike Rieger, responded that the angled parking was not meant for people using Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) placards, so those people would probably not want to use those spaces.

There is one parking space reserved for motorists with ADA placards along the five-blocks impacted by the project.

Rieger said the department's ADA coordinator reviewed the project and signed off on it.

Perrin Belway said her family has lived in the same house in the neighborhood for four generations and she was at the 2006 meeting. She also said she feels it was held "just to appease people."

She criticized the new parking meter pay stations on the north side of Balboa.

"If you're running into Simple Pleasures in the morning, where most of the business is, you have to go up the block, pay at the station and then go to the business," said Belway. "That's a problem. That's not ease of traffic for the patrons where (businesses) get their money from. It is a major inconvenience for them because if your stall is down on 35th and the parking meter is in the middle of the block, you have to run up, get your stall, put your money in, run back up to where you're going, run back to the car. … Why would you go there now?"

Perhaps the most controversial element in the design is the new planter boxes embedded in the middle of the sidewalk on both sides of the street. After initial concern that the planters blocked the sidewalk too much, especially in the angled parking zones, the department determined that they could make improvements and identified 12 locations where they could cut through the center of those planters to provide greater access from the parking place to the sidewalk.

But this was hardly enough for many in the audience.

"I don't want to come off as a tree-hater because I'm not. I just think that there are a couple of issues here," said local resident Renee Richards. "One is usability, user friendliness. These are not user friendly. They may be in theory fine on the landscaper's design table but if anybody were to come and spend several hours on any given day you'll see women with children and strollers trying to get out of these cars. And they go out into traffic … very unsafe. You'll see people stepping around and negotiating these planters, also very unsafe."

Measurements at the site reveal that the three-foot-wide planters are a little more than three feet away from the curb, and nine feet away from the edge of the buildings. Between each pass-through area is free space of about four-to-five feet, except where the pay stations occupy part of some pass-throughs.

Local resident Richard Matthews said the new pass-throughs are spaced randomly and do not match up with where the angled car parking spots are striped, so a person would have to walk to the center of the parked car to get to the pass-through.

Someone else expressed concern that the pass-throughs will be used for putting out recycling and trash cans on trash day, thus blocking them for pedestrians.

The DPW will maintain the plants and clean out any trash in them for three years, but it is unclear if maintenance obligations would then be transferred to the property owners after that time.

Some wondered who was liable should a person trip over the planters and get injured, the City or the individual property owner of the nearest business?

The planters were raised slightly above ground level as an ADA issue so that people who are visually impaired will not walk into them and they can find the edge of the pedestrian walkway, according to DPW representatives.

There are a variety of plants in the planters, but perhaps the dominant species is a Cordyline Australis hybrid.

Local resident Jim Leritz said he is an urban designer and he does not consider the plants to be "real trees."

"I don't think I've ever worked on a streetscape where there were no trees planned for the street," said Leritz. "I've seen streets that have no trees but I've never seen one redesigned with no street trees on either side."

The landscape architect for the project, Martha Ketterer, responded that "canopy trees" require pruning to keep them from encroaching on the sidewalk but these will not.

"These are hybrid species that will get to be about 12, 15 feet max," she said.

Someone asked if it was possible to put in different trees, but since Caltrans, the state agency that must approve the project, had already approved these plants the answer was "no."

Someone claimed the hearings in 2006 and 2007 were only for show, and the City just appeased the locals with the meetings but did not really listen to their concerns about the bulb outs and trees.

Ketterer denied the charge.

"I was there and I made presentations at the original meetings and we actually held four community meetings … and we took a consensus of votes, and we had the drawings that have the stickers and the votes on them," she said. "It's unfortunate that there's this lag time between then and now. And we had a great, large number of consensus at those meetings."

Local resident Devi Joseph, however, did not think enough community outreach had been done to get more people to the meetings.

"This is my problem with this whole thing all along," said Joseph. "I live on this block. I never received any notice about a community meeting. If you had widened the distribution of the notices you might have found out, you might have had a very different consensus."

Ode Touye, a local property owner and television producer, echoed Joseph's sentiment.

"A lot of people feel here that (when) you guys are throwing these meetings, you don't want people to show up," he said. "You want to pass stuff for yourself. That's what they feel. It doesn't help when you put one of your little flyers at one of the bus stops, you put two of them there, and two over there and nothing else throughout the construction area."