Some Olympia neighborhoods do not want better street connections

ahobbs@theolympian.comApril 24, 2014 

FILE - Janis Rich is pictured in 2002 enjoying walking in her Decatur neighborhood because of the tree-lined, low-traffic, dead-end streets and the occasional view of the Capitol dome. Residents had successfully fought against a city plan to open Decatur Street to commuter traffic in an effort to maintain the neighborhood's appeal. (The Olympian, Tony Overman file)

TONY OVERMAN

As city planners prepare Olympia for population growth and congestion, one solution they are considering is a street grid system with more connections for vehicles.

However, some neighborhoods say these new connections will do more harm than good.

The Olympia City Council study session Tuesday included a discussion on “street connectivity,” which refers to a policy of linking small streets with larger arterial roads.

The idea is to reduce traffic on main roads and create shorter trips for drivers. The concept considers the needs of bicyclists, pedestrians and emergency vehicles when navigating Olympia neighborhoods.

City planner Sophie Stimson told the council that connecting streets has a “compound impact” on traffic. As an example, she cited Ensign Road, and its ability to link Pacific Avenue and Martin Way while providing a direct route to Providence St. Peter Hospital on Lilly Road. Ensign Road can reduce traffic between 14 percent and 22 percent on surrounding roads, Stimson said.

But the city has struggled to create new street connections in more established neighborhoods. Planners say there are often objections from residents and property developers, along with environmental or topographical constraints.

Some council members suggested that the street connectivity has not been successful. According to a list of street connections under consideration since 1995, there are 14 unfulfilled connections, compared with eight fulfilled street connections.

“Whatever we’ve been doing hasn’t been working,” said Mayor Pro Tem Nathaniel Jones, noting a perception that neighborhood opposition is typically enough to thwart plans for a new connection. “We’re almost setting ourselves up for conflict. … In some ways, we’re inviting opposition.”

South Westside Olympia Neighborhood Association, better known as SWONA, recently sent a letter that asked the council to remove two proposed connections from the city’s list. One connection at 16th Avenue to Fern Street was closed in 2001, following an outcry from residents over increased traffic.

Another proposed connection involves a paved pedestrian and bicycle path between Decatur Street and Caton Way. The city classifies the Decatur route as a “major collector,” but residents don’t want the path opened to motor vehicles. According to the letter from SWONA, this route “would adversely affect the character of one of Olympia’s most walkable — and most vulnerable — neighborhoods, with increased peak-hour traffic volumes and the likelihood of becoming a bypass for regional traffic.”

George Johnson’s house is located next to the pedestrian path on the south end of Decatur — and he hopes the path stays the way it is. He fears that vehicular traffic would increase exponentially if the path were open to drivers looking for a quicker route to Highway 101. For now, the piece of Decatur Street in front of his house remains quiet.

“We get a certain number of turnarounds,” said Johnson, who has lived in the house for 40 years, “but after a while, people catch on.”

No decisions were made at Tuesday’s study session, although city staff will return to the council May 6 with revised language for the comprehensive plan draft. The comprehensive plan outlines the city’s vision and goals for the next 20 years. A public hearing on the comprehensive plan’s draft will be announced, and the council’s goal is to adopt a new plan by June or earlier.

Andy Hobbs: 360-704-6869 ahobbs@theolympian.com

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