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The Olympian, April 2006

Steven M. Herppich/The Olympian

Peter Guttchen, president of the Northeast Neighborhood Association, and Melinda Spencer, vice president, stand at the intersection of San Francisco Avenue and Bethel Street, where plans are in the works to transform the intersection into a safer, more beautiful public square. Spencer's son, Rawley, 3, will be going to Roosevelt Elementary School (in background) in a couple of years. Ideas being considered include plants, benches or a painted
Neighbors seek ideas to slow cars at ‘a zoo' of an intersection

Plants, street paintings and benches considered to brighten crossroads

Published April 29, 2006

OLYMPIA — For residents in the northeast part of town, the intersection of San Francisco Avenue and Bethel Street is both a neighborhood nexus and an unsafe intersection.

Drivers fail to come to a full stop at the corner, where cars back out of the popular San Francisco Street Bakery, and cars hurry in and out for children attending Roosevelt Elementary School.

“It's a zoo,” said Melinda Spencer, vice president of the neighborhood association who walks her child to school.

Residents are hatching a plan to turn the space into a public square to slow traffic and pull neighbors closer together.

Starting May 6, the neighborhood association will hold four workshops to craft a plan. Members said they're open to all ideas, which could include a painted design in the street, plants, benches, trellises, kiosks or other artwork.

It's the first project in the city's new program that allows residents to paint and apply art to public intersections. The neighborhood association has secured a $2,000 grant from the city.

Not a new idea

The idea of altering intersections isn't new to Olympia. In 2003, the group OlyNow and residents near the library got the city's permission to paint a mandala — a circular design with geometric forms, images of deities and other symbols representing the universe or wholeness in Hinduism and Buddhism — at Ninth Avenue and Adams Street.

A mandala also was painted and a bench installed at Plymouth Street and Garfield Avenue.

Olympia has no studies showing the murals slow traffic, said Randy Wesselman, transportation engineer supervisor.

Those who live near the two existing mandalas offer anecdotal evidence. They've seen drivers slow to stare at the design. Neighbors pause to chat longer at the corners or to read a book on the benches, they said.

Traffic studies have not been done in Portland, where residents have been transforming intersections into public squares for a decade. Recent surveys show people feel a greater sense of community and use the intersections more for sidewalk conversations, jogging and play.

“It's amazing to see people drive up to a big sunflower in the street and stop,” said Jan Semenza, a professor at Portland State University who penned his findings for the American Journal of Public Health. “It's pretty dramatic. Then they get used to it, but every time we paint it, it slows down cars.”

The design is repainted annually, he said.

In northeast Olympia, neighborhood President Peter Guttchen points to an old garage on the corner of the San Francisco-Bethel intersection as an example of what art and a community sense of ownership can do. The garage was repeatedly vandalized until Roosevelt Elementary School students painted a mural on its exterior. There has been no new graffiti for two years, he said.

He hopes adding art to the intersection will produce the same effect.

“That it's not a place to speed through because there are people around,” he said. “If it's designed differently, people behave differently.”

In a recent neighborhood survey, participants ranked the intersection as the most unsafe.

Neighborhood association members understand the city lacks the resources to have an officer patrolling the intersection at all hours, Guttchen said. And the constant vigilance and police presence isn't the kind of experience they want, he said.

Art already is coming to San Francisco Avenue. Colored and glow-in-the-dark concrete with special embedded designs will pepper the new sidewalks from Tullis Street to East Bay Drive, under the city's pilot project to embed art in public sidewalks. The sidewalks would be curvy, rather than straight, on some stretches and include several large stones for people to sit on.

Intersection repair in northeast Olympia

What: The first of four workshops for the neighborhood's intersection repair project. Attendees will receive an introduction to the project, get to know each other and begin to identify solutions.

When: 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. May 6

Where: Roosevelt Elementary School, 1417 San Francisco Ave.

What's next: Three workshops will follow on May 13, June 10 and June 24. Participants will brainstorm ways to improve the intersection, build models and finalize a plan.

More information: www.neneighborhood.org.

Katherine Tam covers the city of Olympia for The Olympian. She can be reached at 360-704-6869 or ktam@theolympian.com.