Hemet City Council should reject median project
■ Rob Lindquist / Contributed
In 1983 I owned a bicycle shop just across Florida Avenue from where Hemet’s current City Hall stands. At that time, all the street-side properties, the downtown stores, banks, car dealers, motels, restaurants and the new Hemet Mall faced the town’s existing four-lane boulevard with its hodgepodge of sidewalks and its storefront setbacks that varied relative to Florida Avenue’s centerline. That year, Caltrans came to the city with a plan to widen Florida Avenue and the Traffic Commission and City Council approved their proposal, with little to no idea of the consequences.
I was fine with the widening, even though it meant the curb-to-storefront distance would be narrower for some store owners. The construction replaced sidewalks in many places, including the section in front of my store. Being a historian, I enticed the crewmen to rescue a square from the 80-year-old sidewalk that displayed the contractor’s stamp of E. P. Burnham, who at the turn of the last century, owned a large pipe yard on South Carmalita Street and produced most of the early water flumes and pipelines for the streets, groves and orchards of early Hemet. He also poured many of the original sidewalks downtown.
Burnham had another claim to fame. He was a champion cyclist on the East Coast before coming to California. He won America’s premier bicycle race in Boston, Massachusetts in 1882 and rode his 60-inch “penny-farthing” wheel around the Hemet Stock Farm’s race track on its opening day in 1909. I wanted to put that sacred chunk of sidewalk cement right in front of my Schwinn Center’s front door.
Meanwhile, the Florida Avenue widening project finally began to reveal the innovative feature that Caltrans was apparently experimenting with by using the city’s motorized population as guinea pigs. The widening permitted the addition of a middle driving lane striped to allow turning in either direction across the double two-way lanes on either side of it. Where it was deemed appropriate, this allowed vehicles to enter commercial parking facilities from both directions for eight miles without restricting drivers to signaled intersections alone.
This controversial trafficking feature came at the height of Hemet’s “snow bird” season when thousands of cold country escapees caused our population to boom as usual just as the new middle lane addition was completed. Local folks were already aware of Hemet’s claim to being the top per capita town in the nation for car collisions with buildings. Many citizens feared what might happen when unwary winter visitors used what we traffic commissioners were calling “the suicide lane.”
Much to our surprise, the suicide lane epithet did not live up to our expectations. Instead, both the local populace and our many northern guests quickly accepted and conformed to the revolutionary center lane that not only allowed them to safely, easily gain direct access to their destinations, it also permitted our area’s emergency vehicles a perfect unobstructed avenue for getting to a fire or accident even when Florida Avenue traffic was jammed up with shoppers and commuters.
In my opinion, esthetics wind up a distant second to access. I don’t understand why the city of Hemet is even talking about a raised median, much less a landscaped one. Nor can I imagine why we would want to “take control” of all or any part of that 8-mile section of Highway 74. Every time the median issue raises its ugly head, it’s rejected by those who can see and appreciate the virtues of our town’s unique middle lane.
Don’t even think of crowning Florida Avenue with a raised median. As a project, it’s a menace to traffic, a serious impediment, and a costly, useless obstruction.
Don’t wait until Nov. 14 to tell Caltrans to leave its painted median alone. And then, pat yourself on the back and sigh, when as usual, you’ve quickly and safely found your favorite parking spot!