First of all, my apologies for taking so long to write. It been a very busy few months, compounded by a bike crash and a bad case of road rash, oral surgery and a few nasty viruses that have kept me busy or almost totally brain dead in the evenings.
I said months ago I’d mention something about water use, but since it’s technical I’ll save it for the end for those of you who still have the energy to keep reading by then.
CLOSING STREETS VS. TRAFFIC CALMING NEAR THE PLAZA
On the night of Tuesday Jan 20, the council took up what has been a controversial issue for years — closing off the streets between El Cerrito plaza and Albany to the south. I had watched, via KALB, the two Traffic and Safety Commission meetings in 2014 about the issue, which occurred on July 24 and October 23.
T&S did recommend closing the streets, a decision I found hard to follow at the time, and one that I came to disagree with as I studied the staff report for our Jan. 20 meeting. But before I get into the nitty gritty of the decision making, here is some background:
El Cerrito Plaza was constructed in 1958 (it has its own Wikipedia site). The streets south of the plaza in Albany (Kains, Cornell, Talbot, and Evelyn) have provided access to the plaza since its opening. Stannage St. does not go through. The border between the two cities runs east and west along Cerrito Creek at the southern edge of the plaza parking lot. This is where the streets could be closed, with barriers that would still allow emergency vehicles through.
Although some suburban style shopping malls began to be built soon after WWII, 1958 was still early for emerging suburban world of freeways and shopping malls. At El Cerrito Plaza, traffic planners allowed street access in a way that would not be done today. Similar examples are the on- and off-ramps to Treasure Island on the Bay Bridge, which was built in the 1930s. Freeways today would never be built with such short ramps.
In addition to the plaza access, there are two other important factors. First, the neighborhood just south of the plaza is zoned R3, the most dense zoning classification in Albany, and dense neighborhoods tend to have more traffic than less dense neighborhoods. Finally, Albany Middle School on Brighton is also just one long block south of the plaza (and a little east), and changes in traffic patterns could affect the safety of students walking to school.
At the meeting, I mentioned two points that were important to me. Various versions of projects on the plaza property have come and gone over the years. Back when I was on the school board, in about 2003, there was the idea of building a big parking garage, then later, various versions of condo complexes.
My first concern is that the City of Albany has been too passive and reactive — during the last 12 years we have based our decisions on what we think will happen on the plaza, and when those plans didn’t pan out, we dropped our plans too. The city needs to be more proactive, and the residents of the neighborhood deserve more consistency than they have gotten in the past from the council.
My second concern is that closing streets is far more legally difficult than many people realize. Closing streets is a process governed by state laws. Any effort to close these streets will have to survive an expensive and lengthy CEQA review. Toss in a lawsuit from either El Cerrito, the plaza management or one of the big retailers there (almost a certainty) and we are talking years before these streets can be closed. Given that San Pablo Ave. is a state highway, and that a street closure would affect traffic patterns there, Caltrans would also have something to say about our plans.
I am not suggesting we rule out closing these streets, but I am suggesting we go into that process with our eyes wide open and with a strong legal case. We are not there yet. In fact, given that our staff and professional consultants both have recommended traffic calming measures, we are in a pretty weak legal position. Even if we do decide to close the streets, we need to try traffic calming first so that we can argue to a judge that closing the streets is our only option and that we have exhausted all other remedies.
However, I am not yet persuaded that closing the streets is a good idea. For many Albany residents, access to the plaza is much more convenient via the streets in question than by driving around either to the San Pablo or Fairmont entrances. Traffic studies show that the traffic on these streets is comparable to the traffic on the 900 blocks of Curtis and Cerrito streets in Albany, two North/South streets between Marin and Solano avenues. However, smaller two-axle bakery and soda delivery trucks use the streets south of the plaza, and the council would like to see this stopped.
And as much as I favor walking and bicycling, a car is necessary if you are buying six bags of groceries, any many seniors are not able to carry heavy package long distances. For Albany seniors (and there will be lots more of us in coming years), easy access to the plaza in an automobile is important. Finally, closing these streets won’t make traffic go away — it will just divert it elsewhere.
As I said at the meeting, I am not persuaded (yet) that closing these streets is in the interest of Albany as a whole. The expenses for mitigating the changing traffic patterns, which could include new stop lights and widening parts of San Pablo, could run over a million dollars easily. Besides, there are very few cul de sacs in Albany. The vast majority of us live on streets with through traffic.
Fortunately, regardless of whether a plaza condo project is build or not, and regardless of whether we eventually move to close the streets, the solution is the same — implementing traffic calming measures now, possibly including speed humps, traffic circles, signage and striping. As the suggestion of P&Z chair Doug Donaldson, who spoke at the meeting, more than one council member was also in favor of planting trees, which have a traffic calming effect.
We don’t have to wait for a condo project to be built. Even if I knew no project would ever be built, I’m in favor of traffic calming. And if the project does get built, and if traffic gets out of control, then we are on more solid legal ground moving forward with street closure if we do traffic calming first.
But let’s be clear and not over-promise: Traffic calming will slow traffic, but it not expected to reduce volume very much. But from a safety perspective, it is slowing traffic that is imperative. Many of my safety concerns for AMS students can be addressed with traffic calming.
The five council members had nuanced positions, but they all supported unanimously the following three motions:
1. Directed the Traffic & Safety Commission to suggest language for the General Plan to allow street closures as appropriate;
2. Directed the Traffic & Safety Commission to quickly and aggressively pursue traffic calming in the area south of EC Plaza;
3. Directed staff to develop draft ordinances to address truck traffic and review with the Traffic & Safety Commission for recommendations to the City Council.
This is a good start, but I expect the citizens to hold us to our word. Needless to say, all council members have an incentive to get street calming done before the next election.
MORE ON WATER USAGE
The average U.S. household uses almost 100 gallons per day per person. There are about 7.5 gallons per cubic foot, so the average person uses about 100 cubic feet per week, or about 5000 cubic feet per year.
Assuming that you live in a house in Albany with a fairly standard 50×100 foot lot (5,000 sq. ft.) there is an easy way to visualize how much water one person uses: enough to cover your 50×100 lot with one foot of water. If there are four people in your household, than the amount of water you use in one year will cover your lot in four feet of water.
Let’s make a few comparisons just to put this in perspective. Olives are one of the most water-efficient crops in California. A typical olive orchard uses enough water to cover it one foot deep over the course of a year. So if you planted your whole 50×100 foot lot in olives, you would need about as much water every year and one person in your household. As we’ll see in a bit, some other plants require much more. (In California, agriculture uses about 80 percent of the state’s water).
The average amount of rain that falls in the Bay Area is two feet per year (although not during the recent drought). Think about that — if you could capture all the rain that falls on your 50×100 foot lot, that’s enough to meet the needs of two household members. Of course, it’s not that easy, but it gives you an idea of how much potential there is to use recycled rainwater, if only for watering plants.
Finally, a typical lawn needs about four feet of water in a year, about four times as much as olives. In an average Bay Area year about half the water comes from rain, but the other half must come from watering. My little patch of lawn and plants is about 20×25 feet, or 500 square feet. Putting two feet of water per year on my lawn would require 1,000 cubic feet of water, or about 20 percent of the water used by one person. Scaling up, a 50×50 foot lawn uses about as much water as one person. That’s quite a big lawn my Albany standards. Do we need to get rid of lawns in Albany? Not a bad idea, but at least we could start by making them smaller.
And it’s pretty easy to show that if my old sprinkler system puts out 10 gallons/min and must supply 1,000 cubic feet (7,500) gallons during the dry half of the year (call it 25 weeks), than my system needs to pump out 300 gallons per week during the dry season, and that requires running the system 30 minutes each week.
Because lawns require (and transpire) so much water, along with trees, they help keep your house cool through shade plus evaporative cooling. But the era of lawns is probably coming to an end for California as water supplies dry up. Part of the problem is known as the “Triple-R,” the ridiculously resilient ridge of high pressure that keeps reforming off the coast of California and diverting storms north (more here). The Triple-R is likely due to climate change, says this Stanford study.
For me, nature is providing a solution. The Bermuda grass from a neighbor’s lawn has taken over mine. Like it or not, it is a very hardy and drought-tolerant plant. Lack of watering won’t kill my Bermuda grass, because NOTHING kills Bermuda grass.