Talk about Operation Warp Speed.
The Merced City Council — with three new members and a new mayor after the November election — are taking on some big, staff-driven, proposed changes to downtown Merced that are being presented at a startling pace.
They have had three regular meetings so far. On Dec. 7, they discussed details of a staff-proposed pilot program to redirect traffic on Main Street and create a one-way flow from M to K streets, and a portion of Canal. The change (expected to take place in late spring) would replace parallel parking with diagonal parking on both sides of the street.
The City Council moved forward with the downtown pilot program at the following meeting on Dec. 21, and in addition, Mayor Matt Serratto doubled down and proposed even more diagonal parking on18th Street in the downtown core, and along N Street near the Tioga Hotel, the Civic Center, and UC Merced Downtown Campus Center.
And on Monday night, staff presented another traffic plan that detailed an N Street diagonal parking design with additional spaces added in the middle of the street, in between the historic palm trees that lead up to the city’s landmark County Courthouse building.
All this is happening, says Mayor Serratto, because the city is responding to the desire for much-needed parking and a more “walkable downtown” that is safe and attractive for shopping, dining and entertainment. A proposed multi-deck parking structure in the vicinity apparently is not economically feasible at this time. However, there is potential grant money for an expanded Bob Hart Square recreational area, including an outdoor performance stage that would extend to 16th Street.
All this is happening during a time when there have been no in-person council meetings, and public comment has been limited to letters, emails and voicemails from people who happen to be aware of what’s on the agenda. Also, according to a city timeline that was revealed on Monday, some of the proposed traffic changes to downtown Merced were being mulled by city staff as early as May of 2020. With the possible exception of the city’s Downtown Subcommittee and perhaps some Main Street focus groups, the traffic and parking plans only came to public light after the city received positive feedback from the California Transportation Commission and Caltrans in December.
On Monday night, the City Council quickly nixed the “parking between the palms” idea after receiving a dozen or so letters and emails, particularly from the Merced County Historical Society. There was also robust comments about the proposal on social media before the meeting.
Interestingly, only a couple of voicemails by concerned residents were played during the meeting about the matter. Carlene Cunningham and Grey Roberts spoke up about the possible destruction of the N Street median and the health of the palm trees, as well as the idea that they were unaware such a plan was up for approval.
Among the correspondence that was not read out loud during the meeting was one from former City Council member Michael Belluomini. He wrote: “It seems the redevelopment of the Tioga apartments, the Mainzer theater restaurant, and the UC Merced office building have created a demand for parking that has not been planned for or resolved. Though the conversion of civic historic landscape areas is a financially inexpensive way to increase parking what is the full true cost to the community? The loss of this historic boulevard, its connection to the city’s historic past, and the beauty of N St. civic center design are priceless elements of the city character that should not be sacrificed to a parking lot. Other parking solutions should be researched.”
The council ultimately directed staff to forget about changes to the median on N Street, but keep moving forward with the plan to create diagonal parking along the route.
In related news, Mayor Serratto brought up a discussion about a downtown art project that would decorate or transform curbside utility boxes into works of painted art. The plan would be led by the city’s Art Commission, and they would target about six utility boxes in the Main Street area. The idea has been proposed to the city in the past by various groups, but the positive discussion on the matter during Monday night’s meeting signals that the suggestion is gaining ground. Serratto played a video that featured an artist in Livingston, Joel Aguilar, who has already created similar works (that were well-received by residents and leaders alike) in that town’s “art district.”
If you are concerned about changes to downtown — often described as the city’s gem for ALL residents and visitors — or anything else happening in Merced, two “virtual” town hall meetings are being planned by the City Council.
In previous years, three annual town halls were held in the northern, central and southern areas of the city. Of course, during the pandemic, this is no ordinary year.
Council members decided to meet in-person themselves at City Hall, and then invite city department heads and the general public to participate via television and social media. Questions and comments will be either taken or monitored in real time.
The two dates being discussed Feb. 11 and Feb. 18., 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.