When asked to retell the story of what happened early Friday, Oct. 2, 2015, Tacoma’s Cindan Gizzi starts with a warning.
“I’m going to get emotional,” she tells me.
It’s understandable, given what happened to Gizzi’s daughter, Anna, and her friend, Lillian Wood, that day.
It’s also key to understanding the human element of the ongoing debate about the future of Tacoma’s North 21st Street.
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At the time, Anna and Lillian were 11-year-old sixth-graders at Mason Middle School in Tacoma’s North End. As Gizzi recalls, it was “an average morning for us.”
That changed in an instant.
Gizzi left in her car for work downtown. Her husband, John, left to walk the dog.
Anna and Lillian took off on foot, intent on making the short walk to school.
Roughly two blocks from the Gizzis’ home, the girls attempted to cross four lanes of traffic at North 21st — as they did every school morning.
For Gizzi, this is the part of the story where the tears come.
Both girls were hit after a motorist stopped and waved them across.
“Unfortunately, a driver in the next lane did not stop,” wrote Mason Principal Patrice Sulkosky in a letter to parents that day.
The collision, which Gizzi says happened after a vehicle behind the one that stopped for her daughter tried to go around it, occurred about 7:50 a.m., according to police accounts.
One of the hardest parts was when she looked at me and said, ‘Momma, am I going to die?’
Gizzi said Anna suffered multiple broken bones, including breaks in four ribs, her collarbone and her left leg. Lillian’s injuries included breaks in her arm and leg, internal injuries to her spleen and a concussion.
Because, like many, Gizzi travels North 21st Street to work, she says she was “on the scene probably within 30 seconds of it happening.”
Gizzi describes it as “the most terrifying thing that has happened to me, so far.”
“I see cars stopped and kids in the road, and my first reaction is, ‘Oh my god, is it Anna?’ And it was,” Gizzi remembers.
“I could see that (Anna’s) leg was going the wrong way. I knew there were broken bones. I didn’t know if there were internal injuries. … I had her breathe, and look in my eyes, and somehow I kept it together.
“She was awake, I thought she was going to live.”
“One of the hardest parts was when she looked at me and said, ‘Momma, am I going to die?’ ” Gizzi says.
“I never imagined that I would have to answer that question from my child.”
As The News Tribune’s Candice Ruud reported in September, a project approved by Tacoma Public Utilities to remove 16 of the 90-year-old lattice towers that carry power lines on North 21st Street — which date to the Potlatch Transmission Line built in 1925 to bring power from the Cushman Hydroelectric Project to Tacoma — has created an opportunity to reimagine the street.
For Gizzi and many of her North End neighbors, who deal with speeding traffic and pedestrian dangers that go with it, it’s an exciting prospect.
The aging towers, described by at-large City Councilman Ryan Mello as “hideous,” will be replaced by steel monopoles. Currently, most of North 21st has no sidewalks, no turn lanes and no bike lanes. The poles are scheduled to go up in 2018. While no funding has been identified for remaking the street, the city is moving forward in hopes of setting the stage for the coming changes.
And, while, it may seem like a small detail, where the poles are located — in the center of the median, or to the side of it — will help determine what North 21st Street, between North Adams and Pearl Street, eventually becomes.
Through months of planning and public outreach, two options have emerged.
The first, known in city-speak as “Option 1,” places the poles in the middle of the median, creating room for sidewalks, bike lanes, left-hand turn lanes at intersections and one lane of traffic in either direction, except for a small section on either side of Proctor that will retain a second westbound lane.
The second, known as the “Hybrid Option,” places the poles on the south side of the median, allowing for most of the things Option 1 provides, while creating the flexibility for removing the rest of the median to add a westbound lane of traffic at a later date. City staff has identified this future flexibility as potentially beneficial.
To advocates like Gizzi, and many of her neighbors, however, the choice is a clear one. Preventing the option for a third lane in the future, she says, will ensure that accidents like the one that put her daughter in the hospital will never happen again.
“We believe Option 1 is the best option to promote pedestrian safety, because it hardwires in one lane going each direction, now and in the future,” she says.
Members of the City Council’s Infrastructure, Planning and Sustainability Committee remain divided. Tacoma Power and the city’s public works department sought a recommendation from the body last month, but — after polite yet pointed debate, about street design — it reached no consensus. The matter will be discussed during a full City Council study session next month.
It’s turned into this bigger policy debate. Can you still adhere to the polices and the direction of the already adopted master plan … or are we going to continue with the same 20th-century car-centric model, and thinking that we are designing our streets for cars first and foremost, and the safety of pedestrians will always be second, third, or fourth tier.
City Councilman Ryan Mello
The committee’s chair, Mello and City Councilman Anders Ibsen, who represents much of North Tacoma, support Option 1. They point to what they describe as “overwhelming” community support for the plan, in addition to city traffic studies that indicate two lanes in each direction, with the addition of left-hand turn lanes at intersections, provide enough capacity for even generous expectations of growth over the next 25 years. Even at peak traffic hours, the analysis has concluded that — at worst — travel times on North 21st may be lengthened by a matter of seconds by reducing the street to just two lanes.
Mello admits to being frustrated by the committee conversation, which he views as attempting to re-argue the city’s car vs. pedestrian policy already settled by the transportation master plan.
“It’s turned into this bigger policy debate,” Mello says. “Can you still adhere to the policies and the direction of the already adopted master plan … or are we going to continue with the same 20th century car-centric model, and thinking that we are designing our streets for cars first and foremost, and the safety of pedestrians will always be second, third or fourth tier.”
Ibsen, meanwhile, is even blunter.
“In terms of my values, life comes before convenience,” Ibsen says of his stance in support of the strictly two-lane option.
Council members Robert Thoms and Conor McCarthy, on the other hand, remain skeptical about whether one lane in either direction will be enough to meet the city’s traffic needs well into the future.
Thoms, who has made a point of championing public safety, wants to control speeds through enforcement of the city’s existing traffic laws. He has stated that some city streets — like North 21st — need to remain focused on serving vehicular traffic. He worries that reducing traffic capacity on North 21st could lead to unsafe conditions on surrounding arterial streets if drivers get frustrated with delays and seek other routes.
McCarthy, who lives in the neighborhood, questions whether the city’s traffic analysis has taken expected growth in the Proctor District fully into account, and wonders whether expectations of residents shifting to modes of transportation other than single-occupancy vehicles may be overly optimistic.
McCarthy also believes it’s premature to hotly debate roadwork that’s not funded yet. Additionally, he’s quick to point out that both options, at least initially, reduce North 21st to one lane in either direction, and both include additional sidewalks and bike lanes.
You’ve got to move cars around this city, and we just want to make sure we’re doing the right thing.
City Councilman Conor McCarthy
“The debate, it’s kind of gone to this silly place right now, because one group of people are making a stand and saying, ‘We’re the ones that care about kids’ safety.’ Nothing could be further from the truth. All our hearts are in the right place,” McCarthy says. “It just seems like this is political dialogue these days.”
“You’ve got to move cars around this city, and we just want to make sure we’re doing the right thing. We have a great goals in our master plan that talk about changes in people’s behavior, but they’re significant. What happens when they’re no longer goals, but they’re mandates?” he wonders.
Choosing his words carefully, McCarthy describes the ongoing debate as “interesting.”
Over a year has passed since the collision that morning in October 2015. Anna has returned to school at Mason — she is now in seventh grade — and has largely recovered. Gizzi says her daughter is still dealing with nerve pain and PTSD, and struggles with anxiety related to the collision. She no longer walks to school in the morning.
Gizzi consider her family lucky it wasn’t worse.
But when discussing what happened to her daughter, Gizzi is deliberate in referring to it as a collision, and not an accident, because “These things are preventable. That’s the whole point.”
It’s this public stance that has injected the family — and its story — into a bubbling, and increasingly contentious conversation.
“Every group that the City Council or staff talk to, they want Option 1. And so it’s hard to understand why a couple City Council members are still favoring (other options),” she says.
“They’re talking 100 years out, and we’re saying, ‘Why are we looking at this from the point of view from the car? Why aren’t we saying … we want more people walking and bicycling, and taking more public transit on that route? We don’t want more cars.’
“That’s the Tacoma that I want to live in.”