What started out last night as a fairly routine public outreach meeting on a new sidewalk and signage improvement project for a portion of Melrose Ave. turned unexpectedly contentious when new design concepts for the signage portion of the project were unveiled.
Back in December, the Bureau of Street Services began doing community outreach for a new Pedestrian Improvement Project for the stretch of Melrose Ave. between Highland and Fairfax Avenues. As explained by city officials in the first community outreach meeting in December, the project will be funded by a $3.9 million grant the city was awarded in 2015, for which funds are just now becoming available, and for which construction is scheduled to begin in 2022. (Note that this is NOT the same as the Uplift Melrose project, a much more extensive and controversial streetscape reimagining, which was eventually killed by City Council Member Paul Koretz last year.)
As the name implies, the Melrose Pedestrian Improvement Project covers only improvements to the pedestrian areas along Melrose – including sidewalks and bus stops. Also, because the grant funding the project was from Metro, it was even more specifically designated for pedestrian areas adjacent to transit stops, so the planned improvements are mostly limited to those locations. The grant-funded improvements will include:
- Sidewalk widening on one block of Melrose between Ogden and Orange Grove
- Gateway signage at the Highland and Fairfax ends of the project area
- Wayfinding signage throughout the project area
- Pedestrian curb ramps at all corners in the project area
- Lighting improvements at 12 bus stops
- Sidewalk replacement at 12 bus stops
- New shade trees and enlarged tree wells along the full length of the project
The project timeline includes a community outreach phase from December 2020 through July 2021, and last night’s meeting was the third during that outreach phase.
After an introduction last night from the Bureau of Street Services project manger, Alexander Caiozzo, BSS’s Jeff Palmer reviewed the basic elements of the program, as described above. All went smoothly for most of Palmer’s presentation, which included a detailed description of the sidewalk widening for the block between Ogden and Orange Grove. The widening is necessary, Palmer said, because sidewalks along that block are only 5-7 feet wide, narrower than city requirements, and wind up crowded with pedestrians and other obstructions, forcing people to wait for buses too close to the curb, and/or to actually walk in the busy street to get around obstacles.
Palmer said the plan is to widen sidewalks to 12 feet on each side of the street on this block, to improve safety for both pedestrians and those who use other modes of transport such as wheelchairs, which cannot navigate the narrowest passages in current configurations.
According to Palmer, the widening will be achieved by removing two turn pockets at Orange Grove Ave., a modification that has been reviewed and approved by nearby Fairfax High School. Palmer also noted that the newest version of the plan, illustrated below, will not take away any street parking. (Previous versions had called for the elimination of one parking space, but Palmer said last night that this will no longer be necessary, and all current street parking will be maintained.)
In the next part of the presentation, however, when Palmer revealed – for the first time – some initial ideas for the proposed gateway and wayfinding signage along the project route between Highland and Fairfax, he ran into some strong opposition from stakeholder attendees. The city representatives said they wanted to honor the history of Melrose as a fun, “whimsical,” and highly visual area, and had developed initial sign concepts that are intended to fit that spirit, while also being very graphic and self-illuminated. Then the presenters offered two polls, one inviting attendees to weigh in on three options for gateway signs at both ends of the project area…
…and one showing nine possible designs for pedestrian-level wayfinding signs at various locations along the street.
But while Palmer and Caiozzo said they will report the results of the polls at the next community meeting in June, comments outside the poll, in the Q&A section of the Zoom session, showed far more negative reactions than positive. And this became even clearer as the session was opened to live questions and comments after the polls.
During the live Q&A session, several members of public said they thought the proposed sign designs were reminiscent of 1980s trends, would become dated too quickly, and/or that they don’t reflect Melrose’s historic character as an urban, avant garde street art district (one participant suggested the proposed concepts would be more appropriate for an Orange County beach area). Also, several members of the Melrose Arts District Business Improvement District board, which has been generally supporting the project and contributed funding for some additional lighting improvements, also complained vigorously that the proposed new sign concepts completely disregard a detailed set of signage recommendations from the BID, which spent considerable time and money developing its own “placemaking” elements, including logos and signage, for the street.
According to Melrose BID president Denis Weintraub, the group was not consulted before the the city’s proposed designs were unveiled at last night’s meeting. He said he was “taken aback” that the BID’s contributions were not reflected among the proposed sign concepts, and surprised that the group had not been part of the city’s preliminary design discussions, when the BID has been intimately involved in supporting and promoting other elements of the project so far.
Weintraub’s sentiments were echoed by several other BID members, including BID board member David Hay, who said that to ignore the BID’s work on these elements would be a “lose-lose” instead of a “win-win” for the city and community, and would “do an injustice to everybody” involved. In fact, out of 14 people who chose to comment verbally on some aspect of the project at the meeting, nine said they did not like the sign concepts presented, and none made positive comments about the designs.
Meanwhile, although not nearly as controversial, trees and lighting in the project area also prompted at least a bit of discussion.
Palmer and Caiozzo emphasized that no specific tree choices have been made yet, but said that the city is considering species that will provide more shade for the often hot street. He said they will probably be looking at trees that have at least some “visual interest,” and are “columnar” in shape (as seen in the rendering at the top of this story), to keep them from spreading too wide and blocking business signage. Caiozzo also said individual businesses will definitely be consulted about trees that might be planted by their businesses, and that efforts will also be made to plant trees between buildings instead of in front of them, again to minimize blockage of business signs. And he invited attendees to make suggestions of trees to consider as the city gets closer to making specific recommendations or selections.
Finally, street lighting, and its contribution to pedestrian safety, was the other most-discussed element of the project at last night’s meeting. Currently, the project grant – because it focuses specifically on bus stop-area improvements – contains funding only for pedestrian lighting improvements near bus stops. But several attendees, both business owners and those who live in the area and patronize Melrose businesses, mentioned the overall lack of good lighting on the street, and the need to improve pedestrian safety by improving more than bus stop lighting. The BID’s Weintraub was among those voices and, agreeing that lighting is a “very, very, very important issue,” said the BID might seek an additional grant to fund wider lighting improvements, or – if necessary – assess its own members for contributions to new street lighting that would be outside the scope of the current project.
In the end, Caiozzo noted that there will still be many more opportunities for community input on the various elements of the Melrose Pedestrian Improvement Project, including another outreach meeting in June, before the city’s more specific design process begins in earnest. In the meantime, comments can also be sent to [email protected] or [email protected]
It really would have been nice to have a “None of the above” option in the polls. I am one of those who really didn’t like any of the designs so I choose one that I could tolerate. I should have abstained from voting like over 30% of the attendees did and add my voice to the displeasure with the original designs. Unfortunately, I’m also afraid to ask what the COST of these original renderings cost us! Hopefully, not much since they look like something that an intern at the design department could have come up with. We do need better lighting and better sidewalks, maybe the signage issue just needs to be left out of this equation or just simply made to look more generic while being highly informative. I’m speaking for myself here and not the Melrose Village Neighborhood Alliance or any other organization.
Confused. Are these “pedestrian signs” really at torso level on the sidewalk side (per the diagram)? So, they are talking about sidewalk widening for safety and then adding protruding signs into that space?
I agree these sign designs are outdated before they are even made. The street definitely has more of an artsy edge, than they are trying to reflect here. Disappointing.