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Human Life Wins: Masonic Ave Redesign Survives Tree Removal Appeal

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The Masonic Avenue safety overhaul will move forward after the SF Board of Appeals upheld tree removal permits protested by a handful of neighbors at a hearing yesterday.

Ariane Eroy. Image: SFGovTV

Ariane Eroy. Image: SFGovTV

The project calls for the removal of 49 trees. Even though each tree that will be removed will be replaced with three new trees, neighbors filed an appeal to preserve all the mature trees.

“When one considers that trees are living members of our communities, one must recognize that they also have rights,” said appellant Ariane Eroy. “They cannot merely be removed without damaging us as a community.”

The Masonic project was initiated in 2010 after a “grassroots campaign from residents,” noted Tim Hickey, president of the North of Panhandle Neighborhood Association. “It is unfortunate that trees have to be removed, however we are looking forward to the greater number of trees, and we are more concerned about the safety of the street overall.”

Elroy, who complained that she wasn’t made aware of the tree removals, said she didn’t live in the neighborhood when the community outreach meetings were held.

While she passionately defended trees, much of Elroy’s testimony consisted of downplaying the danger on Masonic that threatens human life, even though her sister was killed by a driver who ran a red light. “There have been some injuries and some fatalities” on Masonic, she said, but “thousands of cars move safely and smoothly on a daily basis.”

The city has seen “a rise in impetuous, if not reckless, driving,” Elroy admitted, then said “it’s naive to think that the Masonic Avenue Streetscape Project will improve safety.”

“To claim that the city could effectively reduce one of its busiest throughfares of six lanes to two and diminish the rate of fatalities on this strip of Masonic seems fantastical.” (The lanes will be reduced from six to four, and raised protected bike lanes and a tree-lined median will be added.)

Nine trees on a concrete triangle at Masonic and Geary Street will be replaced with a plaza with many more trees. Image: DPW

The appellants focused on nine trees that will be removed to create a plaza, where many more new trees will be planted, at the southwest corner of Masonic and Geary Street. Elroy said that filling in the roadway, which has a right-turn traffic lane and two parking lanes that separate the sidewalk from the existing concrete triangle, will somehow lead to an “exponential increase” in injuries.

Among Elroy’s other talking points: Police say there are “a hundred hit-and-run accidents on a daily basis now,” and “buses, bus routes, and bus stops are some of the most dangerous vehicles and sites on our public thoroughfares.”

Members of the Appeals board did ask follow-up questions after some of these claims, but none seemed to seriously consider upholding the appeal.

Department of Public Works landscape architect John Dennis told the board that moving the redesign forward is key to “the saving of human life as the highest priority.”


How Many People Will Get Hurt If the Masonic Redesign Gets Delayed Again?

Opponents of the safety overhaul of Masonic Avenue complain in particular about removing nine trees on a concrete triangle at Masonic and Geary Street, where a plaza with many more trees (shown) will be built. Image: DPW

Another sorely-needed street safety redesign could be threatened by neighbors protesting the replacement of trees, even though, when all is said and done, the number of trees in the project area will double.

The overhaul of deadly Masonic Avenue could be delayed or altered if the SF Board of Appeals upholds an appeal against tree removal permits at a hearing on Wednesday.

The redesign, which was supposed to start construction this summer, was recently delayed by at least six months, the SF Examiner reported earlier this month. The addition of underground utility upgrades to the scope of work pushed back the start of construction to 2016, with the project scheduled for completion a year later.

The Masonic plan requires the removal of 49 trees, 17 of which are unhealthy and “unsafe,” and the planting of 185 new trees. It’s “a more than three-to-one replacement ratio,” Department of Public Works landscape architect John Dennis said in a statement. Overall, the current count of 145 trees will increase to 282.

“In order to construct our project some trees need to be removed and replaced,” Dennis wrote in an email blast to supporters of the redesign, encouraging them to urge the Board of Appeals to approve the permits. “This is unfortunate, but a small price to pay in exchange for a safer Masonic Street for all users.”

“We have been diligent in our efforts to save existing trees along the corridor,” he added.

As with the Van Ness Avenue Bus Rapid Transit project, which 16 speakers protested last week over tree replacements, a handful of neighbors are threatening to slow down the Masonic plan, which has been in the works since 2010. The Masonic tree removal permits were issued in May, but they were appealed by two neighbors.

If the tree appeal does delay the Masonic projects, it will be another case in which the city’s appeals system has enabled a small group of people to obstruct or delay a project even after extensive vetting via publics meetings, analysis, and city approvals. All it takes is one appellant to bring a major safety effort to a halt.

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SFCTA Board Approves Funding For Masonic, Second Street, and More

The Masonic re-design will now be fully funded. Image: SF Planning Department

Federal funding for street redesigns on Masonic Avenue, Second Street, and other improvements was unanimously approved yesterday by the Board of Supervisors, acting as the board of the SF County Transportation Authority.

The projects selected to receive a chunk of the regional One Bay Area grant also include a bike/ped path on Mansell Street in McLaren Park, pedestrian safety improvements on Broadway in Chinatown, and bike and pedestrian upgrades on streets around the Transbay Transit Center. Altogether, $35 million in OBAG funds will go toward projects in SF.

A crash between a car and a fire department truck seen last week, after the car driver reportedly ran a red light. Photo: Michael Helquist

The most anticipated project in the package — and the most contentious — was the overhaul of Masonic, a deadly street which is slated to get raised bike lanes, reduced traffic lanes, a tree-lined median, bus bulb-outs, and other pedestrian safety upgrades. Of the estimated $18 million needed for the project, OBAG will provide $10 million, while the SFMTA is expected to provide the remaining $8 million.

SF Bicycle Coalition Communications Director Kristin Smith wrote in a blog post yesterday:

This is a huge win for safer, more complete San Francisco streets — especially on Masonic Avenue, one of San Francisco’s most deadly streets. In the last five years, 122 people have been injured and two people killed, just on 2/3 of a mile of Masonic. Thanks to today’s funding decision, this deadly corridor will be transformed into a safer place for all road users.

Even though the Masonic project was approved last September after several years of planning and extensive outreach, a few dozen residents at the hearing told the board to reject funding for the plan because it would remove all on-street car parking on Masonic. They claimed that the safety upgrades were actually dangerous, would add congestion, and that they weren’t notified about the planning process. Almost as many speakers who backed the project attested to the long-overdue need to save lives and make the street more accessible to bicycling.

Supervisors — including Eric Mar, Mark Farrell, and London Breed, who penned a joint letter in February urging funding for the project — gave a sympathetic nod to the complainers, but didn’t budge on their commitment to safer streets.

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Supes Urge Regional Funding for Complete Street Redesign of Masonic

Supervisors Eric Mar, Mark Farrell, and London Breed.

The plan to overhaul deadly Masonic Avenue with pedestrian safety upgrades and raised, protected bike lanes could get much of its funding from a regional grant program. The Masonic project has received a strong endorsement from three members of the Board of Supervisors, who sent a letter last week to the head of the SF County Transportation Authority, urging the agency to make Masonic a priority as it decides which projects it will recommend to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission for funding.

Image: SF Planning Department's City Design Group

Chances that the $20 million project will get a substantial chunk from the MTC’s “One Bay Area Grant” are promising. When the SFCTA presented [PDF] its initial list of ten potential OBAG projects in December, Masonic was in the “upper tier.” It remains to be seen how much funding will go to Masonic, which along with other projects, such as the redesign of Second Street, is in the running for a limited pool of funds. The SF Municipal Transportation Agency applied for $16 million in OBAG funds for Masonic, but the SFCTA says only $35 million will be available for $54 million in funding requests citywide.

In their letter to SFCTA Acting Executive Director Maria Lombardo [PDF], Supervisors Eric Mar, Mark Farrell, and London Breed pointed to “a number of high-profile collisions and fatalities on this route in recent years,” asserting that “we must act fast to improve this corridor.”

We recognize there are multiple candidate projects with needs exceeding the total available funds, but we ask you to prioritize Masonic Avenue. We consider it a matter of public safety. The project will rectify what is now a fundamentally unsafe street design. It will also improve transit on a major north-south corridor, reduce environmental impact, and increase livability, thus meeting all the criteria established in the Transportation Plan.

Masonic is the only north-south bike route in the area, but is currently very unsafe and unappealing for most riders. The sidewalk bulb-outs, grade-separated bikeways, and tree-lined median are desperately needed on Masonic Avenue.

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Plan for a Safer Masonic Gets Final Approval from SFMTA Board

Image: SF Planning Department's City Design Group

A plan for sweeping safety improvements on deadly Masonic Avenue was unanimously approved by the SF Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors yesterday. It’s the final decision needed to move the project forward, though the SFMTA says planners still need to finalize the design and secure funding before it’s implemented. The agency doesn’t have a timeline for that yet, but construction is likely still a couple years off.

Michael Helquist, a member of the neighborhood group Fix Masonic, called the approval “a huge accomplishment for grassroots organizations” like the SF Bicycle Coalition and the North of Panhandle Neighborhood Association working with the SFMTA in pushing for the improvements. “This has been six years or more coming, and this is a big hurdle,” he said.

The plan would revamp most of Masonic, from Geary Boulevard to Fell Street, with features like raised bike lanes, reduced traffic lanes, a tree-lined median, sidewalk bulb-outs for pedestrians and buses, and more. The transformation is expected to calm motor vehicle traffic and help reduce injuries on the street, which residents say they’re afraid to travel on by any mode. The plan would also bring a plaza to Masonic and Geary.

The physically raised bike lanes would be San Francisco’s first, adopting the kind of bicycle infrastructure proven to make bicycling safer and more comfortable for a broad range of people in cities where they’ve been widely implemented, like Copenhagen and Amsterdam.

Roughly a dozen neighbors and advocates spoke at yesterday’s hearing, most in support of the project. Two speakers were opposed to the removal of car parking, including a store owner who said he had a petition signed by 300 people in opposition. However, surveys conducted throughout the widely-praised outreach and planning process have found broad support for the design, which was developed through community meetings aimed at creating a more livable corridor.

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Josh Calder, Drunk Driver Who Killed Nils Linke, Sentenced to Year in Jail

Josh Calder, who killed 22-year-old bicyclist Nils Yannick Linke in a drunk driving hit-and-run on Masonic Avenue nearly two years ago, was sentenced yesterday to one year in county jail followed by five years of probation. If he violates that probation, he will serve another eight years in state prison.

Calder at his arraignment hearing in August 2010. Photo: Bryan Goebel

The sentence was apparently lightened in a bargain with the judge after Calder changed his plea to “guilty.” Starting Friday, Calder will serve one year in county jail. His five-year probation will include an alcoholic rehabilitation program, and his driver’s license will be revoked during that time.

Although prosecutors were seeking a four-year term, Judge James Collins said the sentence he chose would be more beneficial for the “protection of society” and give Calder a chance to demonstrate the sincerity of the remorse he expressed to members of Linke’s family, who traveled from Germany to attend the hearing. Collins said Calder would be ordered to serve the rest of his sentence upon just one violation of his probation, which will include attending five Alcoholics Anonymous meetings per week. Calder will not be able to drive without violating the terms of the probation.

Calder’s girlfriend, Nicole Mairs, who allegedly helped him flee the scene of the crash by switching seats with him and taking the driver’s seat, did not face any charges.

Yannick’s mother, Petra Linke, said she was satisfied with Calder’s sentencing. “On first thought, a year was not really a lot, but then when he explained what was behind it — the AA meetings, and that he is on probation for so many years — it sounded to me that the judge is really giving him time to change,” said Linke. “The one year of prison is going to be over pretty fast, but the years afterwards, he will have to really change his life, which is good, and I hope he uses the time to grow up.”

Linke’s parents sent letters in recent months to Calder’s attorney, Lewis Romero, urging Calder to accept responsibility for their son’s death. The family said they never received any from Calder in return.

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Suzanne Monaco, 25, Killed by Driver Crossing Masonic Near Euclid

Twenty-five year-old San Francisco resident and aspiring architect Suzanne Monaco was killed by the driver of a pickup truck yesterday while crossing Masonic Avenue near Euclid Avenue. She is the sixth pedestrian killed in the city this year.

Suzanne Monaco. Photo courtesy of 450 Architects via

According to the SF Chronicle, Monaco was crossing Masonic westbound, grocery bag in hand, at about 5:20 p.m. when the southbound driver hit her. Monaco was rushed to SF General Hospital where she died 30 minutes later. Reports have yet to indicate the driver’s speed, but he has not been cited or arrested by police, nor have they released his name or description. The Chronicle reports that he is “cooperating with investigators.”

“This kind of collision, this tragic outcome, emphasizes for so many people what we’ve known for the past few years, and we keep getting reminders like this: This is an essential traffic corridor, but it’s also a dangerous traffic corridor,” said Michael Helquist, a member of Fix Masonic and writer of the neighborhood livable streets blog Bike NoPa (currently on hiatus). “Many of the risks are by design, meaning how the street is designed, and that can be changed.”

The four to five-lane section of notoriously dangerous Masonic Avenue is known for speeding car traffic and poor visibility between street users, hindered by a steep rise over a hill. The Euclid intersection also has several speed-inducing “slip-turn” lanes, which pedestrians must often cross in several phases from island to island. Monaco was outside of a crosswalk, according to reports, and though it isn’t clear how close she was to the intersection, a rough look using Google Maps indicates that the nearest crossings (at Euclid and Geary Boulevard) are about 1,050 feet apart, or the length of three blocks in that area.

Although the SFMTA is working on a plan to improve pedestrian and cyclist safety on Masonic between Geary and Fell Street, the hostile conditions on the stretch where Monaco was killed would remain, despite the retail businesses that attract foot traffic, including the popular Trader Joe’s grocery store that Monaco may have been visiting.

Aerial photos from the David Rumsey Map Collection taken in 1938 indicate that this stretch of Masonic was an extension built around 1940 to connect the street’s former terminus at Geary to the end of westbound Pine Street after the Laurel Hill Cemetery was removed. It has become one of the city’s most dangerous corridors since, but a push for safety improvements has gained momentum in recent years.

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SFMTA Installs Red Light Camera at Fell and Masonic

Just before Christmas, the SFMTA installed a camera at the corner of Fell and Masonic on the Panhandle to help enforce the left-turn signal frequently violated by drivers.

A driver violates the left-turn signal in front of a bicyclist at Fell and Masonic. Photo: Aaron Bialick

Dale Danley at the Panhandle Park Stewards blog first reported the new automated enforcement mechanism, as well as a crosswalk upgrade at the nearby Oak Street intersection.

The red light camera was installed just days after a December 20 crash in which a driver injured a man on his bicycle at the busy crossing.

SFMTA spokesperson Paul Rose told the SF Examiner the camera will be activated this month and that fines “will range from $480 to $522, depending on whether the offender takes traffic school.”

According to the SFMTA website, San Francisco was the first city in California to pilot photo enforcement in 1996, and the program resulted in a 40 percent decrease in violations at five intersections after six months. As of 2010 [PDF], 24 intersections in the city were photo-enforced.

The additional enforcement could provide a quick safety boost, but as Bike NoPa writer Michael Helquist pointed out in the Examiner, the number one priority for the neighborhood is the “Boulevard” redesign of Masonic. That project was approved by the SFMTA board of directors in the summer. However, advocates are concerned that Mayor Ed Lee’s commitment to the redesign has waned and that implementation could get bogged down in bureaucratic red tape.

See photos of the improvements after the break.

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Masonic Avenue Redesign Plan Seems to Be Fading as a City Priority

Image: SF Planning Department's City Design Group

On Bike to Work Day last May, Mayor Ed Lee told Streetsblog that he would look into speeding up funding for a sorely needed redesign of Masonic Avenue, one of San Francisco’s most notorious arterial streets. The project seemed to be a priority for him, especially in the wake of two high-profile collisions that took the lives of Nils Yannick Linke and James Hudson.

“It’s very deserving of attention, particularly when it comes to pedestrian safety,” Lee told Streetsblog on May 12.

“It’s time we take back Masonic Boulevard,” Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi proclaimed that same day at the Bike to Work press conference on the steps of City Hall. “It’s time that we actually step up the city’s game in making sure that Masonic is safe for bicyclists and pedestrians and that we all descend on this cause right now before anyone else gets hurt again.”

Now, nearly four months after the Masonic redesign was approved at an SFMTA engineering hearing, the plan is plodding its way through the vast city bureaucracy, its funding is uncertain and it is in danger of winding up on the shelf like so many other good projects unless City Hall puts some political muscle behind it.

The project hit a snag recently when the SFMTA was denied a $700,000 grant from Caltrans to pay for the design costs. A $41,000 request to complete an environmental impact report (EIR) is expected to be approved by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority soon. But a funding source for the biggest chunk, $18 million for construction, has still not been identified.

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Sheriff’s Cadet Charged in Fatal Pedestrian Crash Pleads Not Guilty

Photo: ABC7

A 23-year-old sheriff’s cadet accused of gross vehicular manslaughter, drunk driving and hit-and-run in the death of a 61-year-old pedestrian on Masonic Avenue and Turk Street earlier this month pleaded not guilty to multiple felony counts in a San Francisco courtroom this morning.

Jose Jimenez, handcuffed and wearing an orange jail jumpsuit, kept his head down most of the time, while about a dozen family members and friends looked on. He is being held on $1 million bail but his attorney, Chris Morales, plans to ask Judge Nancy L. Davis to lower it. A bail hearing has been set for June 3.

Police said a drunk Jimenez was traveling almost twice the speed limit in his white Hyundai when he struck and killed James Hudson in the crosswalk on Masonic at Turk in the early morning hours May 6.  He left the scene and continued on for another thirteen blocks, damaging four cars on Fell and Shrader, and was arrested after crashing into a planter in the parking lot of St. Mary’s Medical Center.

“This tragic case illustrates the dangers of drinking and driving,” District Attorney George Gascón said in a statement.  “The victim lost his life due to some horrible decisions that we believe were affected by alcohol.”

According to a press release issued late this afternoon by the District Attorney’s press office, Jimenez is charged with one count of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, two counts of driving under the influence of alcohol causing injury, one count of leaving the scene of an accident and one count of hit-and-run driving.

Hudson’s death has intensified calls to redesign Masonic Avenue, a traffic sewer that by its design encourages drivers to speed. Last week, a proposed redesign called the “Boulevard” plan won approval at an SFMTA engineering hearing, and is expected to go before the SFMTA Board soon.

Not many details have emerged about Hudson. Several neighbors, advocates and elected officials came together last week for a vigil in his memory.

Updated: 4:46 p.m.