The Man Who Saved Chico’s Oak Trees

How one man created a plan that prevented the removal of over 100 of Chico’s trees along a 2 mile, nature-filled stretch of road.

By Victor Cantu. Dec. 15, 2008

Believe it or not, Sept. 11, 2001 can also be a very happy anniversary for many patriotic Americans. It just happens to mark an event that occurred in Chico, California, thousands of miles away from the tragic events that occurred at the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania.

That is the day when a Chico neighborhood group, Manzanita Avenue by the Park, first met publicly to propose Dan Cook’s idea, which would eventually save over 100 of Chico’s trees from being uprooted. It would also prevent the city of Chico from pouring tons of concrete and asphalt along a beautiful, tree-lined, 2 mile section of Manzanita Avenue.

The man who saved Chico's trees on Manzanita Avenue, Dan Cook, stands on the roundabout at the corner of Manzanita and Vallombrosa avenues. Photo by Victor Cantu.

The Trees

The trees along this 2-lane avenue are oak, pine, sycamore, walnut and alder, among others. They stretch from the fire station near the entrance to Upper Bidwell Park, past the front of Hooker Oak Park, and finally to the intersection of Vallombrosa Avenue, just below Five Mile Recreation Area.

As the Hooker Oak Park name suggests, dozens of the trees are oaks. Many of them have massive, 5-foot-wide trunks, their long, green-leafed branches reaching 40 feet or taller into the Chico country sky.

In September of 2001 they were all scheduled to be chopped down and paved over forever to make room for a wider public road.

These trees along Manzanita Avenue would all have been chopped down. Photo by Dan Cook.

And Then Came Dan Cook

Cook is a 76-year-old retired civil engineer laureate who lives on Manzanita Avenue. A former triathlete, he stays extremely fit working around his property and bicycles often. He has the athletic build of someone decades younger with a full head of neatly combed, light-colored hair. Cook is easygoing and is quick to smile and laugh heartily.

He created an alternative to the city of Chico’s plans for widening Manzanita from its cozy two lanes into a commercial four-lane thoroughfare. He participated in the study which showed that 105 total trees along Manzanita would have been cut down in Chico’s original road expansion plans. Cook’s substitute proposal was known as “Plan B” and was eventually renamed the Manzanita Corridor Project.

Like legendary architect and philosopher Buckminster Fuller, Cook says he believes the best way to stop an unwanted action is not to fight it, but instead to propose a better plan for others to work positively toward achieving. He strongly advises thinking outside the box.

“It takes guts to leave the ruts,” Cook says.

Cook had devised an innovative plan that was instantly credible and respected because it drew on his over 55 years of experience as a civil engineer in cities like Chico and Lake Tahoe.

The City of Chico’s Original Plan

The plan he was trying to replace was the city of Chico’s original “Option 4” plan to double the width of Manzanita’s two lanes and build traffic lights at three of its main intersections: Vallombrosa, Hooker Oak and Wildwood avenues, also known as the Manzanita Corridor.

If that weren’t enough paving, the plan also needed over 100 extra feet worth of clear cutting width along the Manzanita Corridor for a new row of power poles to support new power lines. The old power poles would need to be torn out since they were too close to the existing road.

This would have required more than 200 extra feet of paving width beyond the shoulders of Manzanita, virtually all on the eastern, Hooker Oak Park side that contains the most trees, but no houses. In addition to chopping down and uprooting all the picturesque trees, the baseball park near the Hooker Oak Park entrance would also have needed to be paved over.

The Hooker Oak Park baseball field that would have been lost.

Manzanita is a heavily used throughway. Other than Highway 99, it is the only road that runs across Bidwell Park from north to south. In 2001 traffic along it had become overcrowded and unworkable, accommodating 11,000 vehicles per day. It was heaviest during the many morning and evening rush hours. In addition to city traffic driving to and from work, Manzanita is also used by freight truckers as a favored route. Compounding this is the traffic from Bidwell Junior High, Pleasant Valley High and Marigold Elementary School. They add their own rush hours with hundreds of cars carrying students back and forth daily.

The intersections only had stop signs to control traffic and during rush hours Cook noted cars sometimes took 40 minutes to drive the less than two mile stretch. This stop-and-go way of driving not only caused frustration and road rage to commuters but was also a danger to bicyclists as well as children and adults walking through the area.

This heavy congestion had become what is known as “a major arterial block,” says Bob Greenlaw, city of Chico’s Senior Civil Engineer.

Or as fellow Manzanita Neighborhood Association member Mark Sorensen humorously puts it, “the area had become fully constipated.”

A final nuisance, according to both Cook and Craig Murray, City of Chico Associate Civil Engineer, was the heavy air pollution caused by thousands of cars sputtering fumes while stopped in Manzanita traffic every day.

Better Plan “Cooked” Up

Cook’s idea was to keep the road at two lanes, but install little-known roundabouts instead of traffic lights at those three intersections. This was several years before the roundabouts on Eighth Avenue were built.

Roundabouts are large, circular islands in the middle of an intersection that force drivers to slow down without the use of stop signs or traffic signals. The cars drive around the roundabout at a slow pace of 25-30 mph, without the need to stop. Engineer Greenlaw explains this is a practice called ‘traffic calming.’

The roundabouts make driving through an intersection far easier as they reduce the number of driver variables, or “conflicts” from 32 to only eight, Greenlaw says.

To supplement his idea, Cook prepared and presented 20 professional scale drawings to the Chico City Council. After many months of meetings and heated debates, the Chico City Council adopted the Manzanita Corridor Project unanimously. As reported in the Enterprise-Record on May 22, 2002, the vote was 6-0 with 1 abstention.

Many people and organizations would eventually help bring Cook’s original proposal to fruition. “But the idea was 100 percent mine,” Cook says.

Sorensen, who is currently on the Chico Planning Commission, concurs.

“It’s an understatement to say that Dan was a major influence on this project,” Sorenson says.

The roundabouts will also save Chico approximately $1 million to $2 million, versus the original plans to widen Manzanita, according to Engineer Murray.

Today- The Impossible Dream Comes True

Today work on the project is 90% completed. Cars drive smoothly through Manzanita with virtually no traffic blockage.

A roundabout today at Manzanita and Wildwood avenues near entrance to Upper Bidwell Park.

Cook tells a story of the public’s happiness with the roundabouts.

Last summer Cook went into a local bank and saw an unfamiliar female employee who excitedly waived him over. Wearing a huge smile she remarked, “You’re the one who helped bring those roundabouts to Manzanita aren’t you?” she said. “I drive through them every day and I just wanted to tell you that you’ve given me back my peace of mind.”

As an extra added bonus, the bridge near the Vallombrosa intersection was expanded to allow pedestrians and horses to cross under Manzanita. To make the project even more people-friendly, two separate trails for bikes and horses are also being built along the eastern side of Manzanita.

Cook’s accomplishments had been lauded long before this roundabout saga ever started. Congressman Wally Herger had commended him upon his retirement in 1992.

“You are indeed a local legend,” Herger wrote.

Cook is extremely proud of how it all has turned out. His eyes water up when explaining it.

“I have truly lived the impossible dream,” Cook says.

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