Tacoma City Councilman Ryan Mello was at a walkability conference in Atlanta when I reached him by phone this week.
It was fitting given the reason for my call.
As chairman of the City Council’s Infrastructure, Planning and Sustainability Committee, Mello has been heavily involved with the recent debate over the fate of Tacoma’s North 21st Street. And much of that at times surprisingly testy conversation — which in the past few weeks has taken a baby step toward finality — centers on just how pedestrian-friendly North 21st Street will be in the future.
As I detailed late last year, a planned Tacoma Public Utilities project to remove 16 of the 90-year-old lattice towers that carry power lines on North 21st Street and replace them with steel monopoles next year has presented an opportunity to reconfigure the street.
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How many lanes will there be for vehicle travel? What about bikes lanes? How wide will the sidewalks be? Where will crosswalks be placed?
Eventually, if everything goes as planned, all of these decisions, and more, will be made.
“Eventually” is the key, though. It’s important to understand that the city still needs to find the money to remake North 21st – $15 to $20 million, according to Public Works Director Kurtis Kingsolver. So a brand-new North 21st is still many years off. Perhaps even eight to 10 years, Kingsolver tells me.
But first things first: Where to place those monopoles?
Last month, after much debate, TPU finally received direction from the city’s Public Works Department to begin placing its monopoles next year.
They’ll go in the center of the North 21st median.
I think it’s huge.
City Councilman Ryan Mello, on the recommendation to place steel monopoles in the center of the median on North 21st.
For Mello, the decision signified an important victory.
“I think it’s huge,” he told me.
To understand that sentiment, one must understand how we reached this point.
As this decision on where to place the poles made its way through Mello’s committee, it became something much more than just that.
Pedestrian safety proponents and neighbors pushed hard for the poles to be placed in the center of the median, because that placement was part of a preliminary concept design for the street that would reduce North 21st, largely, to one lane of vehicle travel in either direction.
Ultimately, that’s what they’d like to see, a concept Mello and others believe is in line with the city’s Transportation Master Plan, and backed up by data illustrating current and future traffic. It’s what the wonks like to call a road diet.
“We think it’s a positive step,” said Cindan Gizzi, whose daughter Anna, and her friend Lillian Wood, were struck by a vehicle while crossing North 21st on their way to Mason Middle School back in late 2015.
“They’re following what the data is telling them, and they’re honoring the community feedback,” she continued.
Still — and this is where things get tricky — a competing design for North 21st also was circulated and considered, one with the poles off to the side of the median. This pole placement, it was argued, would still allow for the pedestrian and bike amenities, but also would allow for the flexibility to include an additional westbound lane of traffic at some point.
For those not entirely sold on the idea of a road diet for North 21st, this plan became appealing. But for walkability advocates like Mello, or concerned neighbors like Gizzi, it understandably came to represent everything that’s wrong with car-first street design.
And so, a seemingly simple decision about where to place the poles took on a life of its own. There were hours of intense and often personal public testimony. Council members battled, in public and behind closed doors. Emotion ran high, and lines were drawn.
So now that we know where the poles are going, we can move forward, right?
Well, not quite.
“All the position of the poles means is that TPU can go on with their project,” said Kingsolver.
“And it just gives us the maximum flexibility,” he continued, “so that when we do this process again …”
We’ve said all along that we’re not designing the road. We just weren’t vocal enough that this project isn’t going to be constructed for a long time. … . (Placing the poles in the center of the median) allows us to have the most flexibility, for when we do design the street many years from now.
Tacoma Public Works Director Kurtis Kingsolver
“We’ve said all along that we’re not designing the road,” Kingsolver explained. “We just weren’t vocal enough that this project isn’t going to be constructed for a long time. … (Placing the poles in the center of the median) allows us to have the most flexibility, for when we do design the street many years from now.”
So the decision to place the poles dead center could easily be construed as both a victory for everyone and a defeat for no one — because it doesn’t tie the city to favoring pedestrians or motorists in the final design.
Though Kingsolver says that, if he had to make the decision today, he’d opt for a street design of one lane in either direction, at this point everything is still on the table.
“We will go through this process again,” Kingsolver said. “And the public input will be just as important.”
Gizzi says that, whenever that debate happens, she plans to be just as vocal and vigilant.
“This is an important issue to us, so we’ve been committed to seeing it through,” she told me.