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Arcata pretties herself for strangers with a $1.3M stimulus-funded makeover



Owner Denise Daskal leans against the front counter of Orange Cup Coral Salon and Spa in Arcata and looks out the window. Her salon is wedged between Industrial Electrical Services and Earth's Store, an exotic imports retailer, on a particularly drab stretch of Samoa Boulevard. The white leather chairs, circular mirrors, and slick IKEA shelving inside the salon clash with the industrial aesthetic outside -- but not for long, Daskal hopes.

Starting in mid-June, Samoa Boulevard will undergo a major facelift, part of a long-term project to make the city more welcoming and navigable. The Arcata Gateway Project aims to help people find their way around the city and give out-of-towners a good first impression.

Arcata received a $1.3 million grant through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (aka the stimulus bill) to redevelop Samoa Boulevard between G Street and the railroad tracks on the way out of town, and to repave a short stretch east across the bridge toward Sunny Brae.

"It's gonna look a lot more polished," said Arcata's Deputy Director of Public Works Morgan Kessler. The concrete and asphalt, or hardscape, work is out for bid. The sidewalk on that stretch will be made wheelchair accessible and widened to at least six feet. Bike lanes will be added in both directions, and the road will be narrowed from four lanes to two.

"There's not enough traffic to support two lanes in each direction," Kessler said.

Samoa Boulevard was historically an industrial area, with heavy truck traffic to and from the various lumber mills, but Kessler said that's likely never coming back.

City officials have wanted to make the area more appealing to pedestrians and bikers for years but never had the funding. "Before it was the Gateway Project it was a bike and pedestrian project dating back 10 or 12 years," Kessler said.

Once the hardscape is completed -- targeted for October -- Caltrans will evaluate driving conditions on the new road. Arcata Community Development director Larry Oetker said the city hopes Caltrans will determine that the speed limit can be lowered from 35 to 25 miles per hour. Not only would this make the road safer for pedestrians and cyclists, Oetker said, it would also open up landscaping options that aren't permitted on faster stretches, such as trees along the sidewalks and directional signs.

Oetker said Arcata's lack of directional signs is a big problem for people unfamiliar with the city. "There literally is one old sign [on Samoa]. It's about nine inches by one foot that says, ‘Arcata Plaza this way.'" The way to look at it, he said, is through the eyes of a traveler. "When you turn into a strange city, if you don't feel like you're going in the right direction within a short time, you feel like you're going in the wrong direction."

Bob Brown, owner of Streamline Planning Consultants, was part of the committee that helped develop the Arcata Gateway Project's directional elements. "There's not a whole lot to draw people into the heart of Arcata," he said. "There's actually no freeway sign that says, ‘Arcata, go here.'"

Another member of the committee, County Planning Commissioner Mary Gearheart, said, "The main thing we wanted to do was make it obvious for anyone coming from the south how to find Arcata. The second thing was to clean it up and make it more attractive."

What the team came up with was color-coded directional signs designed to highlight Arcata landmarks and help guide visitors toward their destination. Gearheart said that the landscaping itself will help direct visitors -- larger trees along Samoa Boulevard will match smaller trees along other roads so that travelers don't feel lost.

Brown said his team wanted to avoid the typical, monumental ‘Welcome' signs that sit alongside highways, opting instead for a more integrated approach. "We wanted something that would fit Arcata," he said.

Back at her salon, Daskal said she remembers the first time she visited Arcata. "You drive into town on Samoa... ." Her voice trailed off and she scrunched up her face. "It doesn't look like a place you wanna stop." Outside, a truck rumbled westward, its Jake brakes sputtering as it slowed down for a red light at K Street.

Daskal said she thinks lowering the speed limit would make the stretch safer for pedestrians. She looks forward to improved sidewalks and crosswalks -- the narrow, crumbled strip of sidewalk outside her building is dangerously close to traffic, she said. And she hopes a more attractive setting will draw more foot traffic into her store.

Across the street, Todd Larsen, general manager at Baroni Designs, agreed that safety is a big concern. "We'll be glad to slow it down through here," he said, adding that wider sidewalks would make the walk to Porter Street Barbeque less perilous. It could also protect Baroni's office. "We've had our building hit a couple times," Larsen said.

But not everyone's a fan of the project. "I think it's a waste of money," said Linda Roseman, owner of V & N Burger Bar. From her vantage point on the corner of Samoa and I streets the road looks fine as is. "There's a lot of log trucks and traffic that still uses that road. ... I think they should leave well enough alone."



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