Commentary: Caltrans Pulls the Rug Out From a Block of Cesar Chavez

The new plan for this block of Cesar Chavez, which includes an additional lane on the north side rather than a parking lane on the south side. Image: SF Dept. of Public Works.

Snowballs are piling up in hell. I’m about to defend car parking.

The rug has been pulled out from under those living on the nastiest block on Cesar Chavez between Hampshire and York, closest to the 101 highway ramps. With only a belated chance to weigh in on changes to the design that never underwent the public scrutiny of the rest of the plan, a decision to add a one-block westbound traffic lane and remove a parking lane on the south side to make room for a curbside bike lane was made at the behest of Caltrans (which is providing $5 million for the project).

Since 1997, the southernmost lane on that block has been a part-time bike lane, part-time parking lane — a compromise that never satisfied anyone. Through the recent five-year redesign process, the plan shifted to include a full-time bike lane next to a full-time parking lane. Residents who had opposed the bike lane back in the 90s applauded that plan.

Although the change was originally scheduled at an SFMTA engineering hearing on January 6 along with several other improvements on the street, it was postponed until February 17 because the legally required postings were not done on the affected block. However, several residents never got the message. They learned about the January hearing only the night before and hastily took off work to testify. I went to City Hall, too, to testify in their support while wearing full cyclist regalia.

Why should I care about these car parking spaces? Several reasons, in addition to the lousy hearing notification:

  • The change is a bait and switch. Neighbors saw one design and were now being subjected to another, with no chance for input.
  • It discredits the whole project’s planning  process. Our organization, CC Puede, always took care to involve affected neighbors in the discussion and work toward some consensus, even in the face of often pretty heated disagreement. No one who initiated the process or who lives in the affected block was consulted.
  • Physically, the block in question has a narrow sidewalk, and parked cars would act as a buffer for pedestrians and residents. Several homes on that block have been hit by cars.
  • Public transportation for that block is not good and may get worse. Now, the nearest bus is the #27-Bryant, and that may move two more blocks to Folsom Street under a proposal in the Transit Effectiveness Project. Walking to the #9-San Bruno involves the hair-raising navigation of the Hairball.

The reason for the change is even more infuriating. Last night, city engineers held a community meeting to explain the change and listen to neighbors vent their frustration. They said that Caltrans, which had zero presence at any of the meetings, demanded that the original plan, which included two vehicle travel lanes in each direction (down from the existing three), be changed to keep the third westbound lane to prevent cars piling up on the freeway sometime in the next 25 years. Even during the construction now clogging Cesar Chavez, such pileups have failed to materialize. And even if they did, why should the potential temporary inconvenience of drivers passing through our neighborhoods take precedence over the safety of the people actually living there?

I appreciate the irony of getting on my high horse about traffic to defend parking. I hope the day will come when the residents of the affected block, who do seem to have garages in almost all of the buildings, won’t feel, as one resident said she did, trapped in their homes because they’re afraid to lose their parking space. And I would not advocate sacrificing the new bike lane to restore the parking. As mitigation, the new plan does include several trees and bollards on the block to act as buffers.

But what Caltrans has done is unconscionable. And the city agencies who have been visionary and supportive throughout the Cesar Chavez Street process failed to notify the community in time to let us agitate against this change. Finally, I fault myself for neglecting to check in on the process and nag the city officials for more details, once it seemed like smooth sailing, losing the chance to alert the opposition. I let myself and the community be blindsided.

Lesson learned: Never let up! And never trust the guys in charge.