ALBANY — Residents on streets bordering El Cerrito Plaza have been complaining for years about traffic entering the shopping center and the City Council this week initiated steps to address the issue.
The City Council on Jan. 20 approved a series of directions to staff instituting a series of traffic calming measures, while also allowing the possibility of closing off the streets in the future.
It took a long time to get there. At 10:17 p.m., mayor Peter Maass said, “The hour is late and I know people have paper routes they need to get to in the morning.” That was how he closed the council”s deliberations on the subject. Those deliberations along with public comment took nearly two hours.
According to residents, the issue is that shoppers, commuters and delivery trucks drive through the neighborhood on the Albany side of the border, just south of the shopping center on Kains, Stannage, Cornell, Talbot, Evelyn and Brighton avenues.
Complaints are long-standing, but really took off in 2006, when El Cerrito was considering approval of a 128-unit condominium project on the southeast corner of the center. Concerns about an increase in traffic problems resulting from the project led to a drive to close the streets down to through traffic. The condominium project was approved and in 2008, the Albany City Council approved the commission of an environmental impact report on closing the streets.
The economic collapse led to the residential project being put on hold. In August 2013, the property owner submitted an application to El Cerrito for building permits that is now under consideration.
This led to new calls by residents to close the streets via barriers to prevent through traffic. The barriers would have to allow emergency vehicles to pass through, as well as residents, while being cumbersome enough to stop the nonresidential traffic.
At this week”s discussion 25 people spoke on the matter, most supporting closing the streets to through traffic.
Resident Gene Hellwig told the council his parked car was hit by a speeding car on Brighton Avenue last week. “Now I have black paint on a white car,” he said. “This has happened before and it happens quite often.”
Another resident, Stewart Gooderman, said, “I don”t think calming is going to work. Calming makes people angry. Angry people do things they shouldn”t.”
One dissenting opinion came from Doug Donaldson, a member of the Planning and Zoning Commission. “I think this is bad public policy,” he said, noting that closing some streets would just push the traffic onto other streets.
The California Vehicle Code restricts how and why local jurisdictions can close streets. Cities can only do so if they can show the street is no longer needed or that closing the street implements a policy in its general plan. Further, council members noted that legal action could challenge closing the streets if Albany can”t show that it exhausted all other measures.
“I don”t want to get into a (California Environmental Quality Act) fight without trying those measures,” said Councilman Michael Barnes in suggesting that Albany aggressively pursue traffic calming first.
Barnes also noted that “almost any other group of neighbors around town could raise the same issues.”
Councilwoman Peggy McQuaid agreed, saying, “There is not anyone in town that would not say to you there is too much traffic on my street and it goes too fast.”
Councilman Nick Pilch, however, said the city needs to continue pursuing possible closures because “street closure is the only thing that can reduce the volume (of traffic).”
The council ultimately approved three motions: A direction to the Traffic and Safety Commission to study potential language on street closure for the general plan; a direction for the commission to pursue traffic-calming measures; and a request to city staff to explore possible ordinances to address truck traffic in the area.
In El Cerrito, interim Public Works Director Yvetteh Ortiz said the city had no comment on possible action while Albany is going through its study process, noting that “There are going to be environmental studies if they do pursue closing the streets.”
The Albany council also approved a resolution amending the city”s traffic calming policy to allow for “soft” traffic calming measures, such as using striping or signs to try to calm traffic rather than “hard” measures, such as installing speed bumps.