Beyond the Curb:  The Process of Street Naming: Part I

By Harriett Burt

News-Gazette Contributor

There are many things in our daily lives that we never think about until we get the answer to a question we never asked.  Then we are often fascinated.  Street names are among those things.  Green Street in downtown Martinez is just Green Street until one finds out that it was named 167 years ago for a Philadelphia bank embezzler and successful San Francisco businessman before the Gold Rush whose real name was Paul Geddes.

Every street name seen on a street sign, a freeway off ramp, an old fashioned paper map, a Google map or a piece of mail got there through a process of some sort.  We know that Martinez founder William Smith used his business associates for street names to lure them to invest in the new town. He named other new, as yet undeveloped streets for his brothers-in-law, his wife and her best friend as a way to gain their support for their inheritance being turned into a town or as a token of his love or friendship. 

Smith had a manageable number of streets to find names for.  Today, in a highly populated area such as ours, street naming is a considerable task, especially when a developer is building dozens or even hundreds of homes. 

Jim Busby, owner of Security Owners Corporation, a major Martinez and regional development company since he founded it in 1961, has considerable experience with the task.  Since then he has built over 4000 homes in Martinez and other Contra Costa cities as well as in Napa and in other communities around the Bay.  He thinks that Security Owners completed around 20 or more projects in the Martinez area alone including 8 or 9 in the Hidden Lakes section of the city and several other projects along Center Avenue to name but a few. 

But his ‘career’ in the street naming process started in the 1950s when he was title officer of North American Title Company, a subsidiary of Transamerica Title and Insurance Company.  He was assigned to work with a developer named Christie who wanted to build on a long, narrow area adjacent to the Alhambra Avenue extension to the City of Pleasant Hill border.  We know it now as Forest Hills, a favorite place for downtown residents to bring their children for trick or treat on Halloween.  Busby’s task was to work with the developer (also called a subdivider) to help with recording the titles to the various pieces of land making up the project for the title map.  That map would have all the residential lots on it for approval by the County Board of Supervisors which has oversight over street names on all title maps whether in incorporated or unincorporated areas.  Title maps must also be approved by the city if within its boundaries or by the County Department of Conservation and Development (DCD) if in unincorporated areas.

Raised in Martinez and a member of the 1948 Alhambra Union High graduating class, Busby also helped along with the late County Hospital director Dr. George Degnan by introducing Christie to influential businessmen, local professionals and town residents to build support for building homes on what was then the south-western edge of the Alhambra Avenue extension towards Pleasant Hill and the first to be built on what had been farm or grazing land since the Mexican era.

In this role, Busby knew how and for whom the streets were being named.  No ‘final map’ of a project could be submitted to the appropriate jurisdictions, in this case the City of Martinez and the County Board of Supervisors, without every street being named.

During the project engineering and map drawing phase, the developer tells the engineer what the names will be, says Busby.  If he is too busy as was Busby at times during his career, then he instructs the project engineer to choose names.

Forest Hills has a small number of streets so the task was not too difficult. As is common in many developments, people involved some way in the project or who were thought to have been influential in building community support for it, were memorialized with a street name.  In Forest Hills that means Christie Drive is named after the developer, Degnan Drive is named after  Dr. Degnan, ‘upper and lower’ Likens (Avenue), after an investor from Texas who was a partner of Christie; Lindsay Drive after the office manager of Christie’s business, and Vineta Court after union official Lou Martin’s wife.  The origin of William Henry Way, a one house connector between Degnan and upper Likins and Smith at the northern entrance has been forgotten by sources and none of the sources knew who Smith Drive was named after..

By the time the Board of Supervisors receives the map, Busby says, it has typically been exhaustively examined and altered as needed by the various agencies so it is only occasionally still controversial when it reaches them.  An example of that situation is the Board’s final hearing on the then very controversial Blackhawk development east of Danville around 40 years ago which attracted crowds of people and yards of newspaper coverage.

When the ‘final map’ of the project is completed, it is submitted to the appropriate jurisdiction, the incorporated city or the County for unincorporated areas. Kristine Solseng, Principal Planner for the County Department of Conservation and Development (DCD), says her department checks to be sure the names are appropriate which is rarely a problem, she says, and that they are not confusing - Main Street and Maine Avenue for example. 

For at least a decade, the County has directed that each final map submission include three names for each street. According to Ted Leach, a Fire Inspector for the Contra Costa Fire Protection District which includes Martinez, Fire District approval is important to make sure there are no duplicates in the same city or even in a close-by neighboring city so that the department can respond quickly to a call.  He would even like to have a developer not submit a final map that had, say, Alhambra Avenue with a nearby Alhambra Lane which has existed in Martinez for a century. Once again this check is to assure the quickest possible response to an emergency.  Asked when three names per street became required on the final map, neither Solseng nor Leach knew for sure since it was in place 10 years ago when each joined their agencies. Leach speculated that it probably was introduced when the individual city and county fire departments began consolidating.  Also, there is no doubt that in 2017 there are more plans with more street names, more than a few of which may exist in the same or a neighboring community

“Research usually doesn’t take that long, maybe one to seven days,” Leach says.  If he spots street names that are exactly the same or very close to another he will contact the agency handling the project.  But, he adds, they used to use the County street index that Busby was familiar with when he had projects.  The County no longer provides that and updated Thomas Bros. guides are no longer available so he uses Google maps and the district’s dispatch data base to check map submissions.  Solseng says the County uses its street index and old Thomas Bros. maps as well.

Solseng and Leach agree that checking the street names is interesting.  “Sometimes there’s the name of someone who is famous locally,” Leach, a Martinez native, says.  For Solseng, reviewing the street names on a final map is “a fun aspect of the job.  It is interesting to see what people come up with.”


Martinez Historical Society

1005 Escobar Street - Martinez, CA 94553  (925) 228-8160