Village Matters

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Obstacles to Being on Foot

By Ann Christoph
By Ann Christoph

Long time resident Hilde Keneley walks along the ocean side of Coast Highway in South Laguna twice a day with her dog Ginger. This is not an easy pleasant walk, with the speeding traffic on one side and walls and obstacles on the other. From her home near the hospital she walks north to Bluff Drive on varying uneven surfaces from dirt to concrete, dodges mail boxes, utility pedestals and retaining walls, and squeezes by hedges growing out towards the curb. Frequently she has to step off the curb and walk on the highway pavement to avoid all the impediments.

She passes right by my office, so often we talk and I hear her frustrations about the dangerous and difficult walking conditions due to lack of continuous sidewalks. “Why doesn’t the city do something about this?” she insists.

It’s not like it hasn’t been talked about. Fixing the sidewalks has been part of the plan for South Laguna since 1983. The county consistently required sidewalk dedications and construction as part of any project approval for Coast Highway properties. After South Laguna’s annexation to the city in 1987, these requirements were not consistently applied by the city. We continued to bring this to their attention.

In 2001 a pedestrian was struck and killed walking on the highway pavement just north of Ruby’s Restaurant where there is no sidewalk. The city’s public works department proposed building a walkway in there, but Caltrans would not approve the design. It would have required narrowing the traffic lanes. Both the city’s public works department and South Laguna Civic Association president Bill Rihn asked the adjoining condominium association to dedicate the space needed for a proper walkway, but they refused. So 15 years after the pedestrian death, the very hazardous no-sidewalk condition remains.

In 2008, thanks to the city and a Caltrans grant, terrific improvements were made in the commercial area of the village. Sidewalk linkages were installed along with planting and lighting.

Still, long stretches remain without connecting walkways.

In October 2010 the Council unanimously adopted as a high priority the objective of providing adequate walkways on both Coast Highway and Laguna Canyon Road. They directed that the city manager evaluate and return with programs to accomplish: an ordinance requiring 5’ minimum sidewalks on all projects adjacent to Coast Highway, clearing of impediments from the right-of-way areas along Coast Highway and installing a safe walking surface, removing impediments from existing walkways, and evaluating design solutions to create space for walkways. In 2011 the council unanimously allocated $100,000 for pedestrian pathway improvements for Coast Highway and Laguna Canyon Road. Yet none of these items have been accomplished.

Recently two projects on Coast Highway have been going forward without the requirement that they dedicate and install sidewalks. One of them even installed a large masonry mailbox where the sidewalk is supposed to go. City staff is waiting for a plan from the owner that demonstrates that there will be room for ADA compliant passage around the mailbox, but the city doesn’t intend to require construction of the walkway. Community Development Director Greg Pfost says that staff will be “looking at a possible code amendment that may lower the threshold for requiring sidewalks.” Shouldn’t that have happened in response to Council’s direction in 2010?

The recent evaluation of the conditions in the PCH Corridor Study by the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) highlights the lack of continuous sidewalks here, but it leaves the solutions to the city and Caltrans.

When this problem was raised under public comment at the council meeting of April 26, Councilmember Bob Whalen expressed concern about the sidewalk gaps and the on-going public safety issues. Councilmember Toni Iseman reported that the one complaint that the hotels have about our city is lack of sidewalks.

While we dream of fanciful improvements in the downtown in the name of creating a better pedestrian environment, the basics of pedestrian safety are lacking elsewhere. People have died. And Hilde is still asking, “When can I walk in safety?


Landscape architect Ann Christoph is a former council member.





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