San Rafael may experiment with a less walkable downtown

The planned new space. Looks nice, but where's the tree?

The planned new space. Looks nice, but where's the tree?

Tonight at 7pm, San Rafael’s Design Review Board will hear a proposal to tear out the trees and benches at Fourth and A streets in downtown. It would be a pilot to see if this is something that should be expanded to the other intersections along Fourth, and it’s not a great idea.

The staff report calls the existing concrete benches ugly and laments the fact that the tree boxes along Fourth are entirely clogged by roots, preventing the city from planting flowers. It also mentions that the trees, now grown into a proper street canopy, block drivers’ view of street lights and road signs. To fix this situation, it proposes the street trees at each of the intersections – a species called liquidambar – should be torn out, along with the concrete. In their place would be flower beds with decorative fencing and a replacement of the seating with something similar.

Each of these things is true, but the solution proposed is not one that creates a downtown.

A walkable street must be comfortable for all people. This means that when someone’s waiting to cross a street, they should be able to wait in the shade. “Natural light” sounds great, but not when you’re out in the California summer sun on a hot day next to some asphalt. Tearing out the trees tears out the shade right where it’s needed most.

As well, the needs of drivers on a walking-primary street should not take precedence over the needs and comfort of people on foot. This means that other solutions to obscured lights and signage should be pursued, perhaps by lowering the signs or lights, or pruning the trees back a bit.

If the flowers are really needed – and perhaps they are – San Rafael should replace the liquidambar with a species whose roots won’t take up the whole tree box, not get rid of all the trees to begin with.

If you’re interested in the subject, stop by San Rafael City Hall tonight at 7pm to testify about the proposal.