New image sought along with a better Front Street surface
Way back when, Front Street was a line in the sand — the widest, deepest ocean on earth sometimes lapped one side of the road, while Crescent City prospered on the other.
Renderings show concepts of a new Tsunami Way (Front Street), including views from its east end. Courtesy City of Crescent City
For a century of storms, this main drag sent a message to Mother Nature: “Here begins our town. Mind the sea wall.”
The ocean took stock indifferently. And in 1964, its force changed downtown irrevocably.
Nearly 50 years later, city planners are proposing a new line, a new message, and a new name for Front Street, today a bumpy avenue buffered from the harbor by a man-made park.
The plan won’t just fix the potholes, or change the name of the street to Tsunami Way, a symbolic and somewhat controversial gesture the City Council mulled last Monday.
“It’s a whole concept,” City Engineer Eric Wier said of the proposed $4-million redesign, which includes new monument signage to direct people off of the highway; a roundabout; an S-curve; diagonal parking; a metal archway; a median; level sidewalks dotted with trees, artful places to rest, informative signs to read and culturally relevant sculptures to eye.
The street’s very course will “meander” at H Street, subtly curving toward the harbor like an unhurried walker, just taking it all in.
A rendering shows the concept for the west end of Tsunami Way (Front Street). Courtesy City of Crescent City
“We want Front Street to be functional again. The function has changed. It’s more than a street. It should tell a story more than a typical street,” Wier said, a stack of poster-sized renderings arrayed behind him at City Hall on a recent morning.
The local transportation budget has already pegged $400,000
to support the project, but another $3.6 million has to come from competitive state and federal grants. This could take months, or years.
Last week, the City Council took a small, relatively inexpensive step by approving designs for snappy new way-finding signs.
Changing the street name to Tsunami Way was also on deck.
“There’s a million Front Streets. It would be unique for us,” Mayor Kathryn Murray said at the meeting, echoing the sentiments of other city officials and residents who argued that, for better or worse, a heightened risk of tsunamis makes Crescent City special.
But isn’t the standing threat of natural disaster a repellent, not a draw? Crescent City resident Ted Scott posed at the meeting.
“The word tsunami will invoke terror and nightmare in the minds of people,” wrote Oceanfront Lodge owner X.J. Yuan in a letter of adamant opposition sent to city staff.
“The change of the street name from Front Street to Tsunami (Way) would wipe our hotel off the map in the next three years and cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars in business income plus other losses.”
Another long-time resident and local hotel owner, Bhanu Patel, spoke very much in favor of the name change before the city’s Planning Commission, which passed a recommendation to change the name 3-2, after much “lively discussion,” according to the March meeting minutes. Unlike Yuan, the name change won’t affect the address of Patel’s Best Western Northwoods Inn on Highway 101.
The Crescent City-Del Norte County Chamber of Commerce issued a letter in favor of Tsunami Way, saying the new handle will “trigger dialogue and interest from visitors.”
The City Council took all this in last week, then put off voting until the Del Norte Historical Society could be consulted.
The society’s board hasn’t had a chance to talk it over at a meeting yet.
Society volunteer Bob Ames has lived in Del Norte since 1942, when Front Street was still a hustling and bustling strip of hotels, stores and watering holes. A 6-foot wall of water swallowed his downtown appliance store on March 27, 1964.
“I’ve been in World War II. I’ve been in Korea. Tsunamis are another thing I don’t want to go through again,” he mused last week in the lobby of the Historical Society Museum.
He took in an account of the street name scuttlebutt with a smile.
“I don’t care,” he laughed, “Go for it ... More importantly about Front Street is what are they going to do to fix it ... If they call it Tsunami Way, then better just leave it the way it is,” he added wryly.
Most of the money needed to complete the proposed redesign project would fund roadwork in the classical sense, not marketing ploys or aesthetics, Wier said.
The two objectives have been packaged because Front Street’s problems run deep, he explained.
Just retopping the road isn’t going to fix things for long and could cost close to a $1 million, without addressing the structural issues that create sinkholes, like one that opened up in front of the Surf Hotel a couple of years ago.
Way back when, winter waves licked the Front Street storefronts, leaving a trail of woody debris behind. Nearly 100 years ago the street was built up and out on top of these giant, decaying logs, which now must be excavated from 3 feet below the surface in order to stabilize shifting sands beneath the road.
“This isn’t a Band-aid fix,” Wier said of the structural overhaul, which constitutes 80–90 percent of the proposed work.
The rest comes down to a familiar question, namely: what’s in a name?
Ultimately, the City Council will decide if a road by any other name would still be as rich in history and potential.