Pedestrians stream across 54th Street at University Avenue toward warm sweet bread and crisp produce. A new Latino supermarket has opened on the eastern edge of City Heights’ Colina Park neighborhood, creating a buzz among residents of an area with limited grocery options.
Among local advocates, the store’s arrival has also revived a sense of urgency to do something about a dangerous intersection that people have to cross to get there. The new store — a Northgate Gonzalez Supermarket — filled a grocery void, but it also did something else. In a community where a third of households don’t own a car, it shifted the flow of pedestrians overnight.
Since the store opened last month, I’ve noticed more City Heights residents walking east toward the retail center that before wasn’t much more than an aging K-Mart and a vast asphalt parking lot.
But to get there, they have to cross an intersection designed to make life easier for drivers, not pedestrians. The intersection at University Avenue and 54th Street is the most dangerous in the area.
On the north side of the intersection, the right-turn lanes separate from traffic and begin a sweeping curve, like a freeway on-ramp. The free turns, as they’re called, allow drivers to turn at convenient speeds of up to 40 miles per hour. No need to stop.
Between 2000 and 2010, there were 77 crashes at the intersection, including 16 involving pedestrians and five involving cyclists, more than at any other intersection along a two-mile stretch of University Avenue that the city studied this year. None were fatalities.
“Free on-ramps and off-ramps are not safe on city streets,” said Randy Van Vleck, who advocates for more pedestrian-friendly infrastructure through his work at the City Heights Community Development Corp. He said many students cross that intersection to get to nearby Crawford High School or to a city park. The new store is attracting even more pedestrians across the free turns.
“They need to go,” he said. “They pose safety hazards.”
Crossing toward the supermarket can be slightly harrowing. The curves create a blind turn that makes it impossible for a pedestrian and an oncoming driver to see each other until the zooming car is within feet of the painted crosswalk.
“They were born out of the 1950s,” Van Vleck said of the turns, “when the idea was to move cars faster.”
Much has changed since then.
Once a middle-class suburb, City Heights has transformed into a hub for immigrants and refugees in the last three decades. Many don’t have cars and instead walk to get around. In many places, aging or missing infrastructure reflects outdated urban design principles that have since been abandoned in the interest of pedestrian safety.
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Advocates and residents have been working with the city to have the curving turns at 54th Street removed. City engineers recently approved a plan to do that as part of a broader project to improve a two-mile stretch of University Avenue between 54th and 68th streets. The plan calls for popping the intersections back out to right angles, forcing cars to come to a complete or near-complete stop before turning.
It is still unclear when that will happen because the city is determining the cost and a timeline for the improvements, but residents on a committee that helped the city develop its plan want it to prioritize that intersection, especially now that the supermarket has opened.
Bill Harris, a spokesman for the city’s transportation department, said removing the free turns would be among the first projects completed once construction begins.
“We’re pulling money into it now,” he said. “This is literally moving.”
He said the city is eliminating free right turns citywide because of safety concerns.
“We no longer like them,” he said.
Adrian Florido is a reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. He covers San Diego’s neighborhoods. What should he write about next?
Contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 619.325.0528.
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