Reshaping McKinleyville’s Central Avenue

TOWN CENTER The Town Center is now divvied into three sub areas, with the Central Avenue Sub Area shown in red. County of Humboldt Graphic

Jack Durham
Mad River Union

MCKINLEYVILLE – As part of the process of creating a Town Center Master Plan, McKinleyville is re-imagining its main thoroughfare – Central Avenue.

About 50 people gathered at Azalea Hall Feb. 26 for the monthly meeting of the McKinleyville Municipal Advisory Committee (McKMAC), which further refined its vision for the Town Center.

Previous discussions have mostly focused on the undeveloped property behind the McKinleyville Shopping Center, but at the Feb. 26 meeting the McKMAC examined the Town Center portion of Central Avenue between Railroad and Heartwood drives.

Sub Areas OK’d

The committee agreed to break the Town Center Area into three separate sub areas, with the idea that building requirements may be different to fit each area’s character.

The Central Avenue Sub Area includes all of the parcels with Central Avenue frontage between Railroad and Heartwood drives, as well as properties on the north side of Heartwood Drive west of Central. The committee designated an area between Pickett and Gwin roads, and the Thunderbird Mobile Home Park to the south, as the Pierson Park Sub Area. 

Everything west of the Subway sandwich shop, including most of the McKinleyville Shopping Center, the undeveloped land behind it and a strip of land south of Hiller Road were deemed the Undeveloped Hiller Road Sub Area.

“Don’t think of them as a zoning boundary,” County Planner John Miller told the committee. “Think of them as a tool to organize the planning process.”

Highway legacy

The McKMAC also agreed to recommend that the county remove  an archaic building restriction that dates back to the 1930s, when Central Avenue was the main highway.

According to county planners, the California Department of Transportation wanted to preserve the option of building additional traffic lanes on Central Avenue when it was the main highway, so it created the Central Avenue Burden Area. This easement would have allowed Caltrans to widen  the highway and build travel lanes on the privately owned properties that line Central Avenue.

When the current U.S. Highway 101 was built in the 1960s, the burden zone was transfered to the County of Humboldt.

Miller said that the zone generally restricts building on Central Avenue parcels from roughly 45 feet behind the curb. The land owners can build parking lots and install landscaping in the zone, but they can’t construct buildings in it. That’s why most buildings on Central Avenue are set back from the roadway, with parking lots in front.

Committee member Kevin Jenkins described the burrden zone as archaic, noting that Caltrans was not able to get the easements from every property owner on Central, so the burden zone doesn’t apply to everyone. Also, Jenkins said, the zone description on individual deeds varies, with some language indicating the easements can be used for any road project, and others specifically referencing the expansion of U.S. Highway 101.

If the burden zones are eliminated, buildings on Central Avenue could be constructed close to the road. Restaurants could build patios and have outdoor dining areas.

Housing on Central

The McKMAC had previously recommended that the entire Town Center be zoned for Mixed Use. This would open up the commercial area to residential use.

McKMAC members said they would like to see multi-story buildings, with commercial uses on the ground floor and residences above.

Greg Pierson, whose family owns the McKinleyville Shopping Center, urged the committee to allow some residential units on ground floors. When building apartments of a certain size, builders are required to create some units that are accessible for the disabled, which is easier to do on the ground-floor level.

‘A work in progress’

McKinleyville resident Kelley Garrett questioned the process being used to create the Town Center Master Plan. She noted that ideas were gathered at one of the first input sessions last year, but those ideas have not been collated and brought back to the committee. She questioned whether the committee was putting the cart before the horse. 

Others in the audience also questioned the process, suggesting that some issues were being skipped over, and discussions rushed.

Making matters worse at the Feb. 26 meeting was that a computer was unable to sync with an overhead projector, so county planning staff couldn’t show its Power Point presentation to the public. 

The county had originally set an ambitious schedule for the Town Center Master Plan, with a final draft to go before the McKMAC in the middle of this month. That schedule has been tossed.

“We’re definitely slowing down this ride that we’re on,” Planning Director John Ford told the crowd.

“We’re definitely slowing down this ride that we’re on,” Planning Director John Ford told the crowd.

The McKMAC will now meet just about every two weeks to hammer out the Town Center plan and take up other issues important to the community.

“This is very much a work in progress,” said McKMAC member Jenkins. “I’m looking at my calendar and seeing a whole lot of meetings ahead to continue with the work.”

Much of what is discussed will come back to the committee in the form of a draft ordinance/master plan at future meetings.

“Right now we’re trying to nudge that cow in the road in the right direction,” Jenkins said. “It’s definitely one plodding step at a time.”

‘Extraordinary opportunity’

Ford said the process was a “unique, extraordinary opportunity” for the community to address Central Avenue and consider how it wants it to develop in the future.

“What if we began to think of Central  as a unique place that has an identity, that is starting to be attractive, as a different sort... of Town Center to what it’s historically been?” Ford asked.

McKinleyville resident Bonnie MacGregor questioned how the committee could be planning for the Town Center portion of Central Avenue without taking into consideration the Mill Creek Marketplace at School Road and Central Avenue. The old Ray’s Food Place now sits empty, and there are perpetual rumors about the future of Kmart. “Are we going to development this commercial area [Town Center] and cut off the other end?” MacGregor asked.

Mission creep

Ford responded by urging the community to stay focused.

“Sometimes what we have to do is realize we can’t solve all the world’s problems at once,” Ford said. “One of the things there’s a tendency to do is get into something called mission creep. And our mission, if you will, is to deal with the Town Center.”

Ford said that as a planner, the vacant Ray’s Food Place building is a concern to him, “but if we try to make the Town Center basically all of McKinleyville, we’re rewriting the whole plan [McKinleyville Community Plan].” 

The last time the town rewrote its growth blueprint, the McKinleyville Community Plan, the process took 10 years.

Central is Central

McKMAC member Greg Orsini warned everyone that there’s only so much that can be done to change the character of Central Avenue, which he noted is the busiest roadway in the county system.

“One of the things we’re not going to be able to get around, and it’s going to be to the chagrin of many people here, is the fact that Central Avenue is Central Avenue,” Orsini said. “Central Avenue is a main artery to get through town. The ambulances have to use Central Avenue, the fire trucks have to use Central Avenue, law enforcement has to use Central Avenue.”

“There are places you can’t get to without using Central Avenue,” he said.The four-lane road, with a middle turn lane and bicycle lanes on each side, slices through the middle of the Town Center. McKMAC members said they would like to find a way to better connect the two sides, perhaps with a pedestrian bridge.

The discussion will continue on Wednesday, March 11, from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Azalea Hall, 1620 Pickett Rd. in McKinleyville. 





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