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Open Ericksen to Hildebrand, engineer says

Ericksen Avenue and Hildebrand Lane should be connected within the next two years, the city engineer says.

And while the city council’s public works committee will consider the recommendation Monday, at least one member wants to delay any final decision until the already volatile issue of Ericksen’s design is finally resolved.

“The natives are so restless now, why put another hornet in their bonnet,” Councilman Merrill Robison said.

In a Sept. 17 memo to the public works committee, engineer Jeff Jensen said that joining Ericksen and Hildebrand to make a single street would not increase traffic dramatically, because the Frontier Bank parking lot is already freely used as a cut-through.

“Our traffic consultants’ study projected an increase of 60 cars per hour if that were made a through street,” Jensen said. “Without a stopwatch and a counter, you would not really notice the difference either way.”

The advantage of opening the street, Jensen said, is to provide another north-south route through the downtown area. At present, only Grow, Madison and Ferncliff avenues and Highway 305 connect Winslow Way to High School Road.

With the city’s comprehensive plan calling for half the island’s growth to occur in old Winslow, Jensen said additional traffic routes are needed.

“We are so limited in connectivity we need to utilize anything available,” he said.

Jensen noted that with the closure of the busy intersection at High School and Madison for construction of the roundabout, traffic through the bank parking lot has increased significantly, further confirming the idea that many island motorists treat the two streets as connecting despite the “Not A Through Street” signs posted at the entries to the lot.

Jensen’s memo says that if the streets are joined, improvements need to be made at the street ends, particularly the intersection of Hildebrand and High School.

He calls for installation of an island separating right-turning from left-turning traffic. That would smooth flow, he says, because vehicles turning right onto High School won’t get stuck behind left-turning ones, and will also give pedestrians a place of refuge.

A park by law?

Emerging as a significant question, though, is the impact of a 1991 ordinance passed by the first post-annexation city council.

The recently unearthed ordinance, calling for the “plug” that now separates Ericksen and Hildebrand to become a park, substantiates the claims of some neighbors who say local officials have long “promised” to keep the streets separated.

Former Winslow councilwoman Sheila Crofut, now an opponent of planned Ericksen Avenue improvements, called the ordinance to the attention of Jensen, who located it in the city records vault.

The ordinance said that First Western Development, which owned the land around Hildebrand, was donating the area south of the Island Country Inn to the city.

The ordinance said the donated land plus the city right-of-way between Hildebrand and Ericksen would be turned into a park.

But according to Jensen, county property tax records do not show that the land to be donated was ever actually transferred to the city. Nor did the city ever formally vacate its right of way.

And the Winslow Master Plan, part of the comprehensive plan, discusses connecting the streets without mentioning the ordinance.

This week, neither then-mayor Sam Granato nor finance director Ralph Eells, both of whom signed the 1991 ordinance, could recall why the property transfers and road vacations were not done.

Ericksen-area residents have generally opposed connecting the street to Hildebrand, fearing that increased traffic would destroy the character of the area. While they concede that many cars traverse the bank parking lot, they say heavy trucks do not, but would do so if the street were opened.

Although Robison wants to defer the connection issue, noting that Jensen recommends the action be taken within the next 16 to 24 months, he said he favors the recommendation.

“I’ve always felt the need to open it up,” he said. “If we do a good job of traffic calming to make it safe for pedestrians and bicycles, we can protect that neighborhood.”

Widening slated

Meanwhile, the city council Tuesday continued wrangling over how to make existing portions of Ericksen safe for non-motorized travel, particularly the narrow portion between Wyatt and Winslow ways, but once again failed to finally resolve the issue.

The public works department had asked the council to approve a conceptual design that called for curbs, gutters, bike lanes and sidewalks on both sides of Ericksen, features specified in the Winslow Master Plan.

Adding those features would make the narrow street as wide as Ferncliff, and would essentially run the sidewalks right to the doorsteps of the older homes on the east side of the street.

The plan calls for a meandering sidewalk on the west side for the time being, with sidewalks added to the east side when those properties are redeveloped.

Local activist Jeff Moore said the Ericksen neighborhood would prefer a one-way street southbound with a bike lane on the east and a sidewalk on the west. They also favor keeping the “plug” separating Ericksen from Hildebrand.

“We circulated a petition in the area,” he said. “Seventy-five percent favored a one-way street, and 86 percent wanted to keep the park in place.”

Moore did applaud putting the street-joinder issue on the table and discussing the whole street at once.

“It should be looked at as a comprehensive project,” he said. “Even if we can’t afford to do everything at one, we can still plan comprehensively.”

The council sent the plan back to public works for what Robison described as minor retooling, with a pledge that the new plan will be adopted without discussion at the next council meeting.

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