Monterey Road through downtown Morgan Hill will be reduced by one lane in each direction before the end of this year, as city officials and downtown business owners seek to slow vehicle traffic in order to make the neighborhood safer and friendlier for customers, locals and visitors.
The city council narrowly voted 3-2 May 19 to approve a staff recommended lane reduction project on Monterey Road from Dunne to Main avenues. The vote also included a new city-funded “place branding program” to incorporate trees, planters and other beautification elements into the new street layout.
Voting against the project were Council members Yvonne Martinez Beltran and Rene Spring.
Over the last several years, Morgan Hill has invested nearly $25 million into the city’s downtown in order to make it a more welcoming destination that is safe for pedestrians, cyclists and families.
As these improvements have attracted more new businesses and more patrons to the downtown, the need for better safety for all modes of transportation has become more poignant. City staff and urban planning experts have said one of the best ways to improve the overall safety of a busy shopping and dining district such as downtown Morgan Hill is to slow down the vehicles that are driving through with no intent of stopping.
Closing off vehicle traffic on one lane of Monterey Road in each direction will help accomplish that, according to city staff. And it will allow local businesses and other members of the community to use the space from the closed lane and street parking to expand areas to serve customers or create gathering spaces for residents and visitors.
Morgan Hill Public Works Director Chris Ghione said May 19 that the downtown business sector had asked the city to consider a lane reduction effort again—about five years after conducting a six-month experiment of such a layout in 2015.
“The thoughts behind it were to increase safety, slowing the speed of traffic and supporting the economic vitality—and repurposing the space for businesses to thrive coming out of the pandemic,” Ghione said May 19. “We heard a lot about (vehicle) noise and cut-through traffic that’s not stopping and using our downtown.”
The city will spend the next three to six months designing the new Monterey Road lane reduction project. Construction will take about one month, according to city staff. Costs include about $50,000 for the design, and between $200,000 and $400,000 for construction.
City officials expect to be able to fund the project with grants from the Transportation Development Act and the American Rescue Plan.
In 2015, the council rejected a Monterey Road lane reduction after the six-month experiment. But at that time they also expressed interest in revisiting the concept again in the future. A key impetus in bringing back the lane reduction idea now is the transformation to a more outdoor way of life brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Dan McCranie, owner of Ladera Grill at Monterey Road and Third Street, said May 19 that he was not a fan of the six-month experiment in 2015. Now, he is all for it, partly because there is more parking downtown and more commuters have embraced Butterfield Boulevard as a bypass around the neighborhood.
McCranie added that for the month of May 2021—even as his restaurant’s indoor service capacity has been restricted to 50 percent due to Covid-19 restrictions—Ladera Grill’s sales are the same as they were in May 2019.
“Even though I’m at half capacity, I’m going to have the same revenue as 2019” before the pandemic, McCranie said. “There has been a sea change in the way people are viewing Morgan Hill. They are viewing it as an outdoor community… We are evolving as a downtown, and this is a natural evolution.”
The exact uses of the five-block stretch of a closed vehicle lane and curbside parking on Monterey Road have not been determined. Council member Yvonne Martinez Beltran was concerned that the spaces should be accessible and equitable for all residents of Morgan Hill—not just those who live downtown.
Martinez Beltran voted against the lane reduction project because she said it might be too invasive for now. She made an alternate motion May 19 to implement other “traffic calming” measures—specifically, speed bumps and weekend vehicle closures on Monterey Road. That motion was not seconded.
Assistant City Manager Edith Ramirez said “the possibilities are endless” for the use of the new street space. Areas could be used by local organizations to create small parklets to offer visitors a rest stop or distraction as they shop downtown. “Outdoor poetry, music—there is a whole lot that could be done that is not necessarily linked to a business,” Ramirez said.
Spring voted against the lane reduction program, but he still supports efforts to help downtown businesses thrive. He said those who live in his council district, which includes northwest Morgan Hill, were heavily affected by the slowdown of vehicle traffic approaching Monterey Road during the 2015 trial. The traffic made it difficult to drive to the downtown “because it was so jammed,” and vehicles cutting through the neighborhoods simply shifted traffic hazards from downtown to other streets, Spring said. He expects these conditions to occur again under a downtown lane reduction.
In a non-scientific survey about downtown Morgan Hill conducted by the city earlier this month, 740 out of 1,599 respondents said they are not more supportive of a Monterey Road lane reduction than they were in 2015. Saying they are more supportive were 667 respondents, and 193 were undecided, according to city staff.
Responses to other questions on the survey show that respondents place a high priority on traffic safety for pedestrians, bicyclists and all forms of transportation, city staff said.
Downtown traffic safety has long been conflicted by the fact that Monterey Road is a key thoroughfare for commuters passing through to other communities. Part of the lane reduction effort is a continued push to encourage these commuters to use Butterfield Boulevard to bypass the city’s downtown.
The new Hale Avenue extension around the west side of downtown will add another bypass route for commuters. Construction started on that roadway earlier this year, and is expected to be completed in 2023, according to city staff.