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The Battle Over Art And Safety On San Diego’s Streets

A screenshot of a rendering of a rainbow crosswalk in Hillcrest from an Octob...

Credit: San Diego City Councilman Chris Ward's Office

Above: A screenshot of a rendering of a rainbow crosswalk in Hillcrest from an October 2018 digital presentation produced by the office of San Diego City Councilman Chris Ward.

Vehicles move quickly along a store-lined stretch of El Cajon Boulevard in San Diego’s City Heights community. Grocery store operator Andy Tang said he’d like to see street improvements that slow traffic down and create a pedestrian-friendly environment.

"Make it more walkable, just more of a focus point to kind of bring attention that this is a great area to start a business I think,” the owner of Sin Lee Food Wholesale said.

He thinks a street crossing with artistic designs representing the neighborhood's Asian population would be an eye-catching solution in the city-designated Little Saigon district, but a city spokesman said San Diego adheres to federal standards, which prohibit decorative crosswalks.

The discussion in City Heights is the latest debate over the street art that comes amid a years-long struggle in another neighborhood where a separate but similar project may finally come to fruition.

Beryl Forman with the El Cajon Boulevard Business Improvement Association, which is backing the idea in Little Saigon, said a decorative crosswalk would highlight the cultural and commercial district and draw the attention of drivers, forcing them to reduce their speed.

"We really do want people to take notice of the environment and that gives people a reason to slow down as well as make it a much more comfortable place for people to explore the Little Saigon district," Forman said.

The proposed site for the decorative project at Menlo Avenue and El Cajon Boulevard is a bit more than a mile down the road from one of the city's most dangerous intersections, according to a report by Circulate San Diego.

Photo caption: Beryl Forman (left) of the El Cajon Boulevard Business Improvement Associatio...

Photo by Tarryn Mento

Beryl Forman (left) of the El Cajon Boulevard Business Improvement Association, speaks with Sin Lee Food Wholesale owner Andy Tang in front of his family's grocery store in San Diego's City Heights neighborhood, Nov. 8, 2018.

Forman is working with the office of Councilwoman Georgette Gomez, who represents the area, to move the project forward, but is hitting roadblocks because the city claims the street designs are unsafe and violate Federal Highway Administration rules, a council representative said.

Councilman Chris Ward said his office received a similar response when seeking to install a rainbow crosswalk in Hillcrest. Community groups have pushed since 2013 for the project to recognize the neighborhood's LGBT history and identity.

Ward said he worked with city staff for 18 months to overcome the challenges presented by the federal rules, including concerns that bright colors would reduce crosswalk visibility because it may eliminate the contrast of white stripes on black asphalt.

"We seemed to have resolved some of the objections through our city engineer that we’ll be able to move forward," Ward said.

Federal Highway Administration Doug Hecox said decorative crosswalks are indeed a violation under the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices because unique designs are distracting or difficult for drivers to interpret and therefore dangerous.

"If some have artwork out there, it’s not clear to some new drivers, tourists, that it’s a crosswalk and looks like a crosswalk," Hecox said in a phone interview.

He said the artistic markings also encourage pedestrians to stop and snap selfies.

"That’s exactly the wrong thing to be doing in the middle of the street," Hecox said.

The cities of San Francisco, Los Angeles and West Hollywood have installed decorative crosswalks on their streets, which Hecox said is a violation but that the state is responsible for enforcing the regulations.

A spokeswoman for Caltrans said it is researching its role in policing the street crossing designs.

The city of San Diego declined an interview, but in an email spokesman Tim Graham said the city has deferred to federal guidelines in the past and is investigating whether it can develop regulations to permit decorative crosswalk projects in the future. Graham said the Hillcrest project, to be formally submitted by Ward, would likely move forward after those regulations have been established.

"I suspect if details have been worked out related to the Councilmember and City engineer for that request, then once the City has an official policy regarding decorative striping, then projects can go forward using the approved process," Graham wrote.

Ward said he hopes his office can work out an agreement with the city in about four to six months.

"Now that we sort of have the signal that (an) opportunity could be approved by our city, we’re just beginning that public conversation about specific locations," Ward said.

Crosswalks must be installed on roads of a certain speed and at controlled intersections that already include a traffic light or stop sign, he said.

Public dollars will not be used for the project, so his office is working to raise $20,000 to cover the plastic panels and materials for one intersection. He said he also hopes to partner with a local community group that can maintain the crosswalks.

Matt Yagyagan, council representative for Gomez in City Heights, said he hopes to build on Ward's efforts and get approval for the Little Saigon project.

"His office definitely helped in getting the conversation going in setting these guidelines," Yagyagan said.

The El Cajon Boulevard business group's Forman said the organization would be ready to proceed with the project once it gets the green light from the city. Thanks to recent arts grants, the organization has funds to carry it out and the interest of artists to develop a design.

"We just need to seal the deal with the city, know that we have a thumbs up before we move forward with this project," Forman said, "And with all the partners in place that want to see this happen, I think the roll out should happen pretty shortly."

Photo caption: A car sits in the crosswalk as it waits at a stoplight in front of Sin Lee Fo...

Photo by Tarryn Mento

A car sits in the crosswalk as it waits at a stoplight in front of Sin Lee Food Wholesale at the corner of Menlo Avenue and El Cajon Boulevard in San Diego's City Heights neighborhood, Nov. 8, 2018.

The discussion in City Heights is the latest decorative crosswalk debate that comes amid a years-long struggle in Hillcrest, where a separate but similar project may finally come to fruition.

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