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Members of the downtown business community have been meeting with city staff in recent months to express concerns and share information about a "road-diet" plan that will be implemented on a four-block stretch of Petaluma Boulevard South next year.

A meeting at Graziano's restaurant in September was followed up by a meeting Nov. 9 at City Hall with PDA representatives and city engineering staff.

"We're doing our best to get as many people involved as we can," said Larry Zimmer, the city's capital improvements manager.

"We want to make sure people are informed," said Marie McCusker, executive director of the Petaluma Downtown Association.

A survey that the PDA conducted of its members about the "road diet" this fall showed that adequate street parking is the biggest concern.

The survey also polled merchants on loading zones, pedestrian and vehicle safety and congestion and traffic delays (see sidebar on page A6).

The "road diet," approved by the City Council in June, is designed to improve bicycle and pedestrian safety by narrowing Petaluma Boulevard South from four lanes to three on the stretch between Washington and D streets.

Instead of two lanes in each direction, the plan calls for one lane each way and a continuous center-turn lane, allowing more room for bike lanes and parking.

Another concern among merchants is that the construction would have a negative impact on downtown businesses. McCusker said it would be important that there be minimal disruption while the work is being done."

Zimmer said, "We will be doing what we can to minimize impacts on downtown businesses. Obviously, any impact is of concern." He said the goal is to divert traffic as little as necessary and save as much parking as possible during construction.

The city will try to minimize construction impacts by implementing nighttime work and/or blacking out dates that would affect downtown business, according to a city staff report.

Linda Postenrieder, co-owner of Pelican Art Gallery at 143 Petaluma Blvd. North, said, "One of my concerns is with losing parking spaces and loading zones between Western Avenue and Washington Street."

Zimmer said that two parking spaces will be eliminated in the redesign in that area as the spaces are standardized to 22 feet in length, but 18 spaces will be added between B and D streets. "We will maintain the existing loading zones," he added.

Postenrieder suggested that the city open up the southern end of Water Street, which is closed to vehicular traffic, to accommodate more parking, but the city has said that Water Street is not part of the grant-funded project, so that is not an option.

She is also concerned that the new center lane on the Boulevard will cause problems when motorists turn left onto Western Avenue. "When people try to parallel park, traffic will be backed up behind them" under the new lane alignment, she said.

"Parking is priceless downtown," said McCusker. "Keeping shopping alive and access open is crucial. Anything that hampers people getting downtown is harmful to merchants. Making the area walkable is important, too.

"An overall concern is that we not have gridlock. We will have a train coming through and a there is a drawbridge, too," she pointed out, both of which can cause traffic backups.

Katja Whitedeer, owner of Tutto Amiamo Galleria at 100 Petaluma Blvd. North, feels the "road diet" will be an improvement for downtown.

"It will be loud, dirty and intense for a while (during construction), but it will be good in the long run," she said.

She feels that a big problem with the current configuration is the narrow lanes that result in parked cars being sideswiped and worse.

"Two years ago, a woman drove into my car door and took it off while I was trying to get in," Whitedeer said. "I see it happen every month or two — someone getting into their car after shopping and before they can get in, people run into their car doors.

"I don't see anything negative if it's done right and if through traffic is directed around the downtown area so they don't all have to drive on Petaluma Boulevard."

In 2007, Petaluma Boulevard north of Washington Street underwent a similar road diet in order to improve safety and accommodate parking and pedestrians. Since then, accidents have decreased on that stretch of road while congestion has not increased, said Zimmer.

The funding for the new "road diet" project will come from a $708,000 grant from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and a $200,000 match from the city.

The timeline for the project on the city's website shows that it will go out to bid next May and a contract will be awarded in June. Construction is scheduled to start July 30 and be completed by Oct. 31.

(Contact Chris Samson at chris.samson@arguscourier.com)