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Going from sound walls to inviting travel corridors

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POSTED April 10, 2009 3:45 a.m.
The old walled city of Manteca was a forbidding place.

It was a place where asphalt and concrete was king as nothing broke up monotonous corridors of asphalt, concrete and masonry walls save for a few stunted trees doing their best to avenge their treatment by having their roots push up nearby sidewalk.

The sound walls attracted graffiti, hemmed in dust and debris, and served as a passive reservoir for the oppressive sun of summer to make walking by them a miserable experience even after sunset as heat radiated from the blocks.

Today, the cancerous spread of inhospitable corridors has been checked. Even the older canyons have been given a partial rebirth after an effort led by now retired Manteca parks project manager and arborist Ed Maze replaced the stunted and inappropriate tree choices of decades ago with trees that are not only doing well but are providing large canopies of shade when Manteca needs it most.

Manteca now employs a program that requires landscaped sound walls plus has a hit-and-miss policy about where landscape medians go to break up large expanses of roadway to improve aesthetics, slow traffic, and reduce heat.

There is some grumbling that we can’t afford the policy of landscaped sound walls any longer given the economic climate. While there is lot of room for arguing whether it requires just over $1 million a year to keep up the nearly three dozen landscape maintenance districts which aren’t all created equal due to add ons in some of park upkeep and street lights, to derail the requirement now is akin to being pennywise and pound foolish.

There are a number of neighborhoods now with landscape walls that are over 10 years old. It is easy to argue they enhance property value and are definitely more pedestrian friendly than the old way of doing things.

To get a good feeling of what Manteca of the future would be like without the existing standards, take a drive out to the west side of Sierra High to Fishback Road just south of Wawona for the equivalent of a block.

It is here where enraged residents finally put a halt to the mindless walling of Manteca.

This small stretch of Fishback reflects the “gold standard” Manteca planners were pursuing in major corridor sound walls back in the mid-1990s. It is stark, sterile, and uninviting as accommodating cars and traffic flow was the primary driving force in its design. The revolution that coined the moniker “Manteca canyons” for the city’s sound walls brought about the segment between the monolith swath of Fishback and Daniels Street where you will find a landscape median and a much narrower street.

There were those back in the 1990s who scoffed that landscaped sound walls would work in Manteca including some at City Hall who weren’t exactly confident that AKF Development could deliver on an intensely landscaped corridor along Spreckels Avenue.

AKF proved them wrong. A decade later, the private landscape maintenance district funded by property owners within the 362-acre multi-use development has the best urban stretch of landscaped bikeway not just in Manteca but in all of the Northern San Joaquin Valley. There are close to 4 million square feet of distribution center style buildings hidden from street view by the landscaping on the east side of Spreckels Avenue.  AKF scratched median landscaping in Spreckels Park due to the need for big trucks to make turn movements.

Even so, AKF openly promoted landscape medians at a time city staff at the mid-management level were torpedoing council directives to pursue them. Their rationale for insurgence was the fact the original South Main Street medians were damaging the streets. Private sector developers kept pounding away and soon got median landscaping included as part of their residential projects after noting newer techniques reduced or eliminated the undermining of pavement. Not all developers were wild about the added expense, but they got on board when required to do so.

There is little doubt that the cost of the LMDs can be reduced. That said Manteca can ill afford to return to the ways of yesteryear where a thing of beauty along major city corridors were Charlie Brown-style trees that provided neither shade nor aesthetics while at the same time uprooted sidewalks.
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