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The Olympian, Oct. 2005

Toni L. Bailey/The Olympian

 Tom Badger keeps an eye out for cars as he and Wendy Gerstel walk their dog, Talus, down Pine Avenue on Friday in Olympia's northeast neighborhood. Badger and Gerstel said their neighborhood is not conducive to walking because of speeding cars and a lack of continuity of sidewalks.
Officials pressed for safer walking

Published October 24, 2006

OLYMPIA -- Tom Badger and Wendy Gerstel walk through the Mission Creek reserve behind their home several times a week. Walkers and bike riders have created paths over time, but there isn't much in the way of formal trails, and there are few entrances.

On Miller Avenue near Friendly Grove Park, sidewalks are spotty, and resident Melinda Spencer says parents worry about children walking beside traffic, especially around a bend in the road.

These are some of the barriers residents say keep the neighborhood from being a better place to walk. They hope to change that -- not 10 or 20 years from now, but before their children are adults -- and they're asking city and school district officials to "think creatively."

Creating safe places to walk has been a priority in the northeast neighborhood, home to three schools and 1,500 households. Three years ago, residents stood on the corner of San Francisco Avenue and Bethel Street near Roosevelt Elementary School and counted 147 drivers in 90 minutes who failed to fully stop. They're applying for a city grant to paint the intersection and turn it into a public square.

In the spring, neighbors signed up for the county health department's STEPS program and used its survey to assess how walkable their neighborhood is. Top concerns included discontinuous sidewalks, blocked pathways and speeding cars. People wanted improved trails and access to the 30-acre Mission Creek reserve, with the hope that increased use will discourage the drug use, tree-chopping and transient camps spotted there.

They came up with a plan: Add sidewalks. Turn the busy San Francisco-Bethel intersection into a public square. Improve trails and add two entries to Mission Creek, one connecting walkers to San Francisco Street Bakery on Bethel Street and the second connecting to Friendly Grove Park.

"It's still very much unaltered, natural space," Badger said. "We like having trails that are not paved, but we'd like to see some access to San Francisco Street. Most of the neighborhood is on the west, so by opening it up, it would allow people to do some street walking and loops."

Neighborhoods generally are skilled at banding together to oppose a specific project, but neighborhood president Peter Guttchen said channeling that same passion into a vision for walking is harder. He worries that the energy around the recent study will fade if residents don't see change in a few years.

"If it means planting trees, painting intersections, piecing together different kinds of funding, we're willing to do it," he said, adding that STEPS provided them with $1,000. But the city and school district need to step up, he said, adding that "the resource scarcity argument is an excuse for not doing your job."

City Councilman Joe Hyer said he doesn't want the neighborhood's work to be wasted, either. He's trying to schedule a council meeting for residents to present their findings, but because officials are entering budget deliberations, it might not be until early next year.

"That's one of those things we could have paid a consultant $40,000 to do, but the neighborhood did it," he said. "We need to sit down with them, take up an action plan and then live up to that."

Hyer said funding is not an excuse but an obstacle. Still, there are ways to work through it, he said. When it comes to trails at Mission Creek, it's about labor. Parks crews could train neighbors and build them together.

Some work parties have been done, and officials will look for more ways to partner, said Jonathan Turlove, a parks program specialist. Crews also are visiting Mission Creek more often to deter transients. Officials aim to start assembling a plan for the reserve next year.

Building sidewalks is a different story; neighbors can't exactly construct those. But Hyer said the city can compare the neighborhood findings with its sidewalk priority list to see whether projects need shifting.

Natural gas prices are expected to go up this season, meaning the utility tax revenue flowing into the city fund created last year by the parks and sidewalks measure might grow. Hyer said it might be possible to tap that money to build more sidewalks sooner.

Some improvements will come next year: sidewalks on San Francisco Avenue from East Bay Drive to Bethel Street and speed bumps or other traffic-slowing tools on Garrison Street and Yew and Ethridge avenues.

Other plans are further off. Miller Avenue will get sidewalks sometime in the next two decades.

At Olympia School District, spokesman Peter Rex said officials push developers to put in sidewalks connecting to schools when subdivisions are built, but the district lacks the authority to make it a requirement. The northeast hasn't had much new development.

School board president Michelle Parvinen said it might be an issue for the board and the council to discuss at a joint meeting, though she didn't know when that might be.