Beyond Main: How Streets Get Their Names
Who decides whether you will be fated to live on one of those unfortunately named streets or on something with a more pleasant ring, such as Lucky Lane (Rockford, IL, among many other cities), or a whimsical and memorable one, such as Haveteur Way (San Diego)?
It depends on your city and/or county, but most often street names are requested by the developers of new subdivisions.
Catherine Nicholas, agent/owner of the CADO Real Estate Group in San Diego, which builds new subdivisions, says that what happens in the city of Carlsbad (a San Diego suburb) is typical.
“The developer submits street names to the city through the relevant departments for review,” said Nicholas, who worked in Carlsbad’s Planning Department for years and coordinated the street naming process, which often takes weeks from submission to approval. “The building, engineering and public works departments all comment, but the departments that have the most input and veto power are police and fire. The concern here is that the street names are unique and intelligible enough for them to distinguish and find a street and property in an emergency.” She says the post office also gets a final review, as a general rule.
Many cities also have guidelines on the type of street names required for an area of town. “When I worked in Carlsbad, there were four main areas and other subareas with ‘themes’ – such as bird names or historic names,” she said. “I would reject a name if it didn’t follow the appropriate protocol.”
And then there are the more personal associations.
“Many developers try, often successfully, to name streets for themselves, their partners, wives, mistresses and children,” she said.
In the United States, most streets are named for numbers or trees. According to the National League of Cities, the most popular street name is Second (or 2nd). This is often because what would have been First is instead designated as Main or something similar, like Broadway.
Streets are also commonly named for current or former landmarks (Windmill View Road, El Cajon, CA), American presidents (especially Washington) and famous people who were born in the area. There’s an East Bryan Street in Salem, IL, for example, named for William Jennings Bryan, the politician best known for his involvement in the famous Scopes “Monkey” Trial of 1925.
Developers also often tender names that are representative of an area’s primary business or industry (Promenade Chardonnay in the wine country of Temecula, CA) or for a physical characteristic of the road itself (17 Mile Drive in Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA). Another popular strategy is to name a street for its ultimate destination. In San Diego, for example, University Avenue once led to the first location of San Diego State University while College Avenue will take you to its current location.
Can the name of a street affect the sale of a property? Yes, says Nicholas. “People always respond to the street name,” she said. “The street name can be a real turn-off or an advantage.”
So, what if you don’t like the idea of living, say, on Butt Road (Fort Wayne, IN)? Can you get the street name changed?
“Changing a street name is a very, very big deal, and this sort of thing is very, very rarely approved,” Nicholas said. “In Carlsbad, the only successful change I remember during my tenure was changing the name of Carlsbad’s main street from Elm to Carlsbad Village Drive, which was very controversial, as all attempted changes are.”
She says you have to take into consideration how a name change would impact everybody with a home or business on the street.
“In a case like the Carlsbad Village Drive one, it required every property owner or renter to change all of their advertising, their stationery and business cards, to name just a few of the hassles,” she said. Street name changes also affect external companies, such as those that produce maps and GPS apps.
“In my research and experience, I know that trying to get a street name changed is not uncommon,” Nicholas said. “But unless everyone on the street concurs, or the city is behind it — such as, say, renaming a major thoroughfare for Martin Luther King — it rarely happens.”