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City pursues 3 park sites, safe bike paths

Leaders consider Thailand for new sister city relations

Members of the Merced City Council agreed this week to pursue up to $8.5 million in state grant funding for three neighborhood park sites in north Merced.

Leaders also adopted a vision plan to improve walking and biking activity in the city, and they announced an effort to seek community involvement  — including the local Southeast Asian population — to create a sister city relationship with a city in Thailand.

The three park sites were selected because they are located within a large population with no parks, and they score high in requirements listed in Prop. 68 — a $4.8 billion statewide bond measure program that includes several rounds of large funding streams for new parks in underserved communities.

The local sites under consideration are:
• Charles Ogletree site, 250 Mandeville Lane at Hutchinson Lane
• Fahrens Creek site, 4325 Freemark Ave at Heitz Way
• Lester K. Yoshida site, 4355 Bixby Way at Revelle Drive

Six community meetings have already been held, and residents were given the opportunity to list their favorite features to be included in each project. Among the common interests were: splash pads, picnic shelters, shade structures, accessibility for children with disabilities, BBQ facilities, soccer and volleyball fields, basketball courts, water stations for both people and pets. Restrooms are discouraged in neighborhood parks and no support was voiced for them.

City staff actually recommended only the Charles Ogletree and Lester Yoshida parks for the grant application because plans for the Fahrens Creek site originally included 2 miles of improved trail for bike and pedestrian traffic, making it a larger project and less likely to be approved along with the other sites. Mayor Mike Murphy, however, suggested scaling plans back to include just a park location for the Fahrens Creek site, and leaving the trail for future funding opportunities. His colleagues agreed, and the city set up a team to augment the application before the Aug. 5 deadline.

Councilman Anthony Martinez, who represents a district in south Merced, questioned why the entire city wasn’t involved in the selection of the park sites to be developed before the community was given the opportunity to weigh in on three northern sites selected by city staff. He pointed out that there’s a vacant location next to Pioneer School on Gerard Avenue that has been designated for park development decades ago.
At present, south

Merced enjoys the most parks in the city at 19, central Merced has 12 parks (though they contain the most acreage), and north Merced is considered “park poor” with only six existing sites.

However, Martinez pointed out: “We invite blowback when we say we didn’t even look at south Merced because we already did stuff there, but we are building a park in north Mercedwhere there is not a lot of people,” Martinez said.

He also said: “If it’s free money, I don’t know if we want to approach this the next time around as ‘Well we did something in north Merced so now let’s do something in south Merced.’ Or ‘We already did something with McNamara last year so let’s do something else … I think we should look at it as what’s the most competitive with the rules of this grant.”
A few south Merced residents also spoke up at the meeting about needed improvements at McNamara Park, and stressed the grant funding could be used for things like safer playground equipment.

Grant awards will be announced in January of 2020. The park projects must be completed by March of 2022.

Why drive all the time?

The City Council has adopted a resolution and environmental review for what’s being called the city’s Active Transportation and Safe Routes To School Plan (ATP), involving walking, biking, scooting, skating — whatever transportation people choose to use “actively.”

“The key is you have to build things that people feel safe using,” said Brett Hondorp of Alta Planning and Design, who worked on the ATP plan. “I think that’s been a mistake that we have made in the past is thinking, ‘Let’s put down a system of painted bike lanes on very high speed busy roads,’ and then wondering why aren’t people using them except the one or two very confident, spandex-clad riders. I think what we have tried to provide here is a plan that provides for a system of facilities that families can feel comfortable using.”

The plan was prepared with grant funding and collaboration with a consultant. It’s designed as a vision document to assist in future decision-making, and does not establish a priority list for transportation projects to be completed.

The main goals of the plan, however aspirational, are: to improve the overall safety — and perceived safety — of active transportation in Merced, increased active transportation trips, improve connectivity of the active transportation network, promote a data-driven approach to maintaining the existing facilities and developing new ones in the city.

The plan also puts Merced in a better position to attract funding sources.

City data shows total collisions involving pedestrians and cyclists are on the rise, and mostly occurring along major corridors. Bike thefts have fallen; however, the problem of theft remains a serious concern.

In a targeted count at high traffic areas in the city, 69 percent of bicyclists were assumed to be commuters and 31 percent assumed to be recreational riders. G Street and Bear Creek had the highest number of commuters at 27.

The plan recommends $9.4 million for Class 1 off-street bike path facilities, along with $4.7 million for on-street networks of traditional bike lanes, painting of sharrows, increased signage, (including signs that tell people how long it takes to get to a destination by various transportation means), 9.7 miles of bicycle boulevards, and 4.2 miles of separated bikeways.

On the pedestrian side, the plan proposes $11.7 million for 50 pedestrian improvements or studies throughout Merced, including: 7,500 linear feet of sidewalk construction, and three miles of pedestrian-scale lighting.

Policy recommendations include improved bicycle racks on sidewalks, “bike boxes” in traffic lanes, re-evaluation of restricted skateboard use in the downtown area, campaigns to entice more people to use active transportation, and the study of electric scooters and bike rentals within the city.

City planners say an expanded active transportation system benefits the entire community: “those who choose to walk or bicycle for transportation and recreation, those who are unable to drive or do not have access to a vehicle, and those who drive. A well- connected system of paths, bicycle lanes, sidewalks, and Safe-Routes-to-School enables freedom of safe, low-stress transportation choice, and can reduce traffic congestion as well.”

The city’s Bicycle Advisory Commission also endorses the ATP plan. You can view more of the plan’s findings on the city’s website. Search for City Council meetings, and click on the agenda packet for the July 15 meeting.

Let’s go to Thailand!
City leaders announced this week that they are seeking a sister city relationship with ChiangRai — a city in Thailand.

They say the effort is to reflect the city’s large Southeast Asian population and to improve cultural ties.
The nonprofit Merced

Lao Family Community Inc. group is helping with the planning. Members selected Chiang Rai which has a population close to 70,000 people and is near the borders of Laos and Myanmar.

It’s a place where many Hmong Mercedians travel regularly to as a family vacation destination, and to reconnect American-born children with the culture of Thailand and South East Asia.

“Thailand is a democracy, the same as the United States,” said Moua Thao, a member of theMerced Lao Family Community advisory board. “Before we came to the United States, we had to stop in Thailand, so they supported us,” he said. “We think Thailand is a good place for us to form a sister city.”

Merced Mayor Mike Murphy said a trip is being planned with private funding to approach Chaing Rai
leaders to see if they want to participate. His colleagues on the Council all agreed that a new sister city in Thailand was a good idea.

Merced also has an active sister city relationship with Somoto, Nicaragua. Last year, Mayor Murphy became the first mayor to officially visit Somoto where he was welcomed by its leaders and residents.

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