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Return of the Plaza de Panama

Return of the Plaza de Panama

Like a Comic-Con zombie staggering back to life, the Irwin Jacobs Plaza de Panama Autotopia has returned to Balboa Park.  Despite Jacobs walking away after his defeat in court a few years back, the intrusive project has been resurrected by fact-challenged Park institutions determined to squeeze every last car into the Park.  No matter that Balboa Park is one of the few large public green spaces in all of Uptown and downtown, or that a 650-space parking garage for zoo employees was recently added, or that parking lots at the south end of the park are under-utilized.

I biked through the park on 4th of July weekend and found the Inspiration Point lots across Park Boulevard empty. A 2012 parking study found the lots and their 1100+ spaces, served by a tram, are indeed usually empty on weekends:


Back inside the park, the southernmost lots on the west side of Park also had hundreds of spaces open.  In fact, the same study shows that on any given day there are 1200-1800 parking spaces available at Balboa Park, mostly in these lots.

Given that there’s a tram running directly from these lots to the institutions demanding more parking, I assumed there had to be signage up to direct drivers there.  Surely the city would do this before spending $50 million on another parking garage and bridge?  But this is the only sign as you head south from the always-full Organ Pavilion parking lot, and it’s not about parking:


Adding some way-finding signs to the parking lots and tram seems like a low-cost way to maximize existing parking resources.  But given some of the bizarre, parking-entitled arguments for the new garage (“my elderly mother isn’t going to wait for a tram to the Old Globe” – despite a brand new drop-off area on Globe Way for Globe patrons), why start using common sense now?

— Remember when Hillcrest residents opposed the Mr. Robinson project on Park because parking?  Well we visited its new ground-floor restaurant, Trust, a couple weeks back for brunch and had no problem finding any.   It seems other patrons didn’t either (perhaps some of them Ubered, walked or biked) – because the place was full.  I liked the interior design, especially the wall behind the bar, along with the space’s big windows to the street and ample patio outside:




San Diego Magazine has a much better review of Trust’s food than anything I can write, but my fried chicken sandwich was pretty amazing – the spicy ssam sauce, chili and pickles really brought it to another level.

— The Uptown Gateway Council has put up a video showing their vision for 4th to 6th Aves in Hillcrest south of University, including the long-vacant Pernicano’s restaurant:

One component of the Uptown Gateway may be a hotel, and on a trip to Palm Springs last month the Virgin Hotel going up there reminded me of how Hillcrest could use a modern boutique hotel:


The hotel is part of a multi-block downtown revitalization project that replaces a dead shopping mall, and includes this nearly-completed building:


Like Hillcrest, building heights have been a sticking point, and the Virgin hotel’s height was reduced to no more than 69 feet.  This is still taller than the 50/65′ heights specified in the Uptown interim height ordinance (which turns 8 years old this month).  It seems odd that Palm Springs, a city of less than 50,000 people, has a greater height limit than an urban neighborhood near downtown in a city of 1.3 million.  But Uptown Planners and the city planning department are still wrangling over the final building heights for the blocks in the Uptown Gateway area. Much of the debate centers over whether density should be added near Uptown’s extensive public transit, but at a recent Uptown Planners meeting, one caring resident declared that young people shouldn’t be able to live there – unless they can save up the money to afford a house like she did all those years ago.

— The Port of San Diego has selected the winning project to redevelop Seaport Village – the Seaport project from Protea Waterfront Development:

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Contrary to many residents, I’m not a big fan of the current Seaport Village.  It’s largely geared to tourists (including some awful restaurants), has half its prime land devoted to surface parking, requires bicyclists to dismount when riding its bayfront, and sports Cape Cod-style architecture that’s totally out of place in southern California.  With the city encouraging more people to live and work downtown for a variety of reasons, shouldn’t our bayfront serve both tourists and residents?

The Protea proposal is a mixed bag of ideas, some with more potential for the above than others, but at least it doesn’t include an 18,000 seat indoor arena like a competing proposal did.  Why would you put a giant, enclosed arena where the bay view is the main attraction?  The tower ride (and aquarium) is a reminder that tourism will still be a big driver, but at least it’s not another ferris wheel.  I like the terraced green space built into the tower base, actually:

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Here’s an overview of the project:

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I think the above map is the only one which shows the pedestrian bridge (bottom right) planned to connect Embarcadero Marina Park North and South, which is a neat idea.  (Still waiting for someone to implement my infeasible idea of a retractible pedestrian/bike bridge connecting Marina Park to Coronado.)  It also shows the Market Street pedestrian/market area – similar to Pike’s Place – connecting to the G Street Pier.  Here’s a zoomed-in view of the heart of the project, followed by a rendering of Market Street:

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Pacific Place, a pedestrian plaza at the southwestern edge of the project, looks out on a giant floating screen in this rendering.  Yes that is a picture of a whale jumping out of the water of a screen on the bay:
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A wide promenade is planned for the entire bayfront (as far as I can tell) that will allow bicyclists to actually ride through without dismounting, along with additional space for pedestrians.  A boardwalk for pedestrians will extend beyond that:

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I also like the “beach” shown here:

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I’m hardly an expert on these types of projects, just giving my initial thoughts here, but the SD Environment and Design Council’s recommended guidelines for the development of Seaport Village are probably worth reading if you’re interested in the future of this area.

Bikeways Update

Bikeways Update

SANDAG held an open house for the Georgia-Meade Bikeway yesterday at the Lafayette Hotel, and overall the route looks good, with construction planned for 2017. Meade is probably the route I bike the most, so I’m encouraged by the project’s buffered lanes and traffic calming treatments.  The treatments include mini-roundabouts, raised crosswalks and sidewalk bulb-outs. One pleasant surprise was the incorporation of my (and others) suggestion to add a missing westbound bike lane on Meade behind the YMCA between 43rd and Fairmont. This was done by removing the eastern part of the concrete median there:

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Also, I had forgotten just how wide the proposed painted buffer is on the Meade bridge over I-805 – hopefully this will slow some drivers on what can be a fast stretch of road:

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Another SANDAG open house is coming up on the 24th: the Uptown Bikeway Open House in Balboa Park. This bikeway goes before the SANDAG Board of Directors on June 24th for a CEQA exemption. Construction would begin in 2017 on the 4th and 5th Avenue segments first. Here’s a terrible photo of SANDAG’s rendering of the bikeway on east University Grabbed a screen shot of east University from SANDAG website (the protected bike lanes will end west of 10th):

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More on the Uptown Bikeway below, but first a quick rundown of all the bike-related events coming up:

Construction of the Rose Creek Bikeway could begin in August.  The bike path will extend from Santa Fe Drive east of I-5, along Rose Creek, under I-5, and connect to the existing bikeway along the creek as it travels under Garnet.

The Uptown Bikeway saga continues as the Hillcrest Business Association still attempts to kill it, block by block.  Recently, Urban Mo’s owner Chris Shaw introduced a motion for the Uptown Parking District to request removal of the Uptown Bikeway north of Robinson on 4th and 5th Avenues.  Recall that Shaw supported the Uptown Bikeway after he tore down a 100-year old house for a parking lot.  He’s apparently changed his mind again, since the HBA removing the Bikeway from most of University Ave wasn’t enough.  4th and 5th have to go too, over a mere 15 parking spaces (there are over 700 off-street spaces on these same blocks).

Here a playlist of videos from that contentious Parking District meeting, including HBA Executive Director Ben Nichols interrupting and yelling at board members and the public.  Yes, that’s the same Ben Nichols who has admonished others, “That’s not how we do things in Hillcrest“.

Fortunately, members of Uptown Parking District from Bankers Hill overcame the HBA’s efforts.  And last week, Uptown Planners reiterated support for a continuous east-west bikeway on University, with a suggested two-way cycletrack on the north side of the street from 5th to 10th, to fill the “HBA Hole” (h/t to Jeff Kucharski):


With the city repaving/striping University later this year due to underground pipe work, there’s an opportunity to fill the above gap, potentially removing just 8 parking spaces (5 new spaces are being added nearby on Robinson at 163). I’m impressed at how Uptown Planners has come around on this issue, and I’m grateful that Tom Mullaney, whom I’ve disagreed with on other issues, even attended the Parking District meeting in support of the bike lanes.  I’m guessing the efforts of Kyle Heiskala (who’s now running for City Council) and Michael Brennan have helped people consider both sides of the issue.

Nichols has complained about bicyclists who ride on sidewalks (“It reminded me of those cyclists that give all riders a bad name by riding up on sidewalks… with complete disregard for any rule or procedure at all“), and sure enough, on my way to the Parking District meeting, I saw a bicyclist riding on the sidewalk on a dangerous stretch of University in the HBA Hole:


When I asked the rider, “It’s too dangerous to ride in the street, isn’t it?”, she said yes.

I’m hopeful someday Hillcrest can overcome Ben Nichols, Crest Cafe owner Cecelia Moreno, Bread and Cie owner Charlie Kaufman, Chris Shaw and Ace Hardware owner Bruce Reeves, who have all put their claim to public street space over the safety of residents and visitors.  Meanwhile a new SANDAG report shows University Ave has the highest number of pedestrian and bike collisions in Uptown:

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The Bike Wars Are Over, and the Bikes Won“?  Not in Hillcrest, unfortunately.

– Finishing up: traffic calming is coming to the Sixth Ave south of Laurel courtesy of the City, with buffered bike lanes, a road diet, new crosswalks and rectangular rapid flashing beacons (UPDATE: here’s the City presentation [h/t Adrian] and screen shots from it below:

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And here are the results of the I-8 corridor study: lots of interesting proposals, but making this part of Mission Valley safer for non-drivers is going to be a big (unfunded) infrastructure challenge after decades of auto-centric planning.  Also, some useful Mission Valley planning maps (h/t Tyler) as this area readies for transit-oriented development.


Uptown Planners election this Tuesday

Uptown Planners election this Tuesday

The density and height limit debates have been going on in Uptown for eight years now, and they’ve come to a head with the long-delayed update to the 1988 Uptown Community Plan. The Plan will determine zoning for decades to come throughout Hillcrest, Bankers Hill, Mission Hills and University Heights. The current Plan proposed by the city reduces densities throughout much of Uptown versus the 1988 Plan. The main exception is the commercial core of Hillcrest, where densities would remain the same:

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Uptown Planners narrowly rejected this proposal at a recent special meeting, and instead re-affirmed their own proposal, which would greatly reduce densities and building heights in west Hillcrest. For more background, please see this Uptown News summary of the meeting. As part of their excellent coverage of this issue, they also published a piece written by a representative of west Hillcrest’s commercial property owners, who have been advised to sell their properties if Uptown Planners’ recommended downzoning (109 dwelling units/acre to 44) and height reductions (150-200 feet to 50/65) for their properties are approved. (Imagine investing millions in a commercial property to then have its value halved by the local planning committee.) As a result, these properties would likely remain parking lots and one-story retail instead of vibrant mixed-use developments and a potential boutique hotel.

The city’s Climate Action Plan legally requires the city to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by increasing walking, biking and public transit use in urban neighborhoods like Uptown. Its proposal for west Hillcrest simply continues the zoning needed for transit-oriented development in the area. Mixed-use commercial and residential developments won’t pencil out at current land values unless we continue existing heights and densities in the area.

Many middle class San Diegans can’t afford to live in an increasingly expensive Uptown due to the lack of new housing in the neighborhood. To keep Uptown diverse and vibrant, I believe we need to accommodate residents of all ages and incomes. One way to do this is to support this slate of candidates up for the seven open board seats at next Tuesday’s Uptown Planners meeting:


These candidates support preserving Uptown’s historic residential areas while working with the city to meet its Climate Action Plan goals on transit corridors.

As the flyer points out, Uptown’s issues aren’t limited to just density. They include walkability, infrastructure for people on foot and bikes, and various quality of life issues. Both Joshua Clark and Maya Rosas have been endorsed by BikeSD for their support of safer streets. I know both of them personally, having met Maya through her complete streets advocacy work for Circulate SD, and Joshua for his bike lane planning work on the Pershing Bikeway in North Park. Another candidate on the above slate, Judy Tentor, volunteers her time for the San Diego Bike Coalition.

Given the importance of Uptown’s Community Plan, please consider voting on Tuesday at 6PM at the Joyce Beers Center at The Hub in Hillcrest. Thanks for taking the time to think about what Uptown’s future holds for current homeowners *and* renters/future residents who face affordability challenges. Next I’ll go into my usual long-winded detail on the issues involved, so feel free to bail out now.

* * *

I appreciate that every Uptown Planners board member and candidate is willing to volunteer their time for a four year term. Obviously they care about their neighborhoods to be this engaged – if only more San Diegans were! But as someone who’s long been interested in urban planning, complete streets and progressive issues such as affordable housing, I just disagree with what some of the candidates’ priorities.

The flyer for the anti-density slate of candidates states that “parking and traffic” are their top priorities. But most of these candidates already own homes in Uptown, so they’re not affected by the region’s housing unaffordability crisis. In fact, they’ve enjoyed large home appreciation gains in part by making it harder to build new housing.

Uptown Planning Chair Jim Mellos probably summed up this viewpoint best when he said that as a third-generation Mission Hills resident, I disagree with people who moved here recently” who want more housing in Uptown.
To me, this implies only established residents get to decide who lives in Uptown, because their traffic concerns trump housing for others. Mellos also said we need to “keep density low until staff finds a solution to the traffic situation” – while offering no solution. Uptown homeowners deserve to have a strong voice, but certainly not the final say over neighborhood zoning when it conflicts with the city’s Climate Action Plan and state affordable housing laws. In fact, the CAP precludes community group downzoning in Transit Priority zones like Hillcrest.

Other anti-density candidates say they support “smart growth with infrastructure”, yet don’t specify what that infrastructure is. This really means widening roads and building more parking garages. Yet these measures only worsen congestion through induced demand and more parking capacity, while making streets more unsafe for pedestrians and bicyclists. While these approaches might be justified in a suburban world with no air pollution or climate change challenges, these are terrible planning ideas for real-world, urban Uptown. And with younger Americans driving less, using ride share, and alternative transit modes, why would we apply 1960’s-era planning to Uptown for decades to come?

I’m also concerned about community character and don’t think we should increase density on residential streets, except allowing granny flats and bungalow court-style housing. But our commercial streets can surely allow more density – look at east University Ave. in Hillcrest, a largely car-oriented set of one-story strip malls.

For brevity’s sake I’m skipping the “new housing will always be too expensive” argument the anti-density folks have been using, and just linking to this article that explains why that’s simply not true. Here’s the related roundtable discussion that explores the affordability problem in more detail, including a number of approaches to it. Preventing all new housing is not one of the solutions.

Increased density also corresponds to higher bike mode shares, and one of the most important issues for me has been the lack of safe pedestrian and bike infrastructure in Uptown. Unfortunately Uptown Planners has a mixed record on safe streets. They rejected the SANDAG Uptown Bike Corridor, then after it was removed from University Avenue, supported the concept of a bike corridor there someday. While serving as Uptown Planners board chair, Leo Wilson (who’s running again for the board on the anti-density slate) filed a CEQA lawsuit against the city to remove the buffered bike lane from 5th Avenue . The current chair of Uptown Planners, Jim Mellos, is the attorney on the lawsuit. State law now directs that road diets can no longer be rejected under CEQA, yet the lawsuit lives on. Wilson also opposed any road diets on 4th/5th/6th avenues. Another candidate for Uptown Planners, Tim Gahagan, recently voted for the Uptown Parking District to reject multi-modal projects like the Uptown Bikeway if they cause any loss of parking. This directly contradicts the city’s legal obligations to increase bike mode share under its Climate Action Plan.

When the North Park Planning Committee voted recently to increase density along its rapid bus line, Uptown density opponents noted that west Hillcrest didn’t have a rapid bus line and therefore shouldn’t accept any more density. One suggestion was to move the density proposed for west Hillcrest to Park Boulevard, even as they downzoned the parcel at El Cajon and Park Boulevard:

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In reality, there are actually multiple bus lines that travel through Hillcrest, many of which will be upgraded to semi-rapid status over the next several years. A streetcar is also planned for 6th Avenue. But when Uptown Planners rejected SANDAG’s multi-million dollar investment in the Uptown Bikeway because it removed some street parking, wouldn’t any decision maker question the wisdom of investing future transit funds there? The slate of candidates shown above will work with SANDAG and the city to ensure Uptown residents have a variety of safe, convenient transit options to choose from.

Finally, an argument I often hear is, “San Diego has always been an expensive place to live”, and therefore we should just accept the current unaffordability crisis. While that may be true at the coast, much of Uptown was actually much more affordable 20-30 years ago when the anti-density slate of candidates bought their homes. It’s possible they can’t comprehend the challenges faced by renters and first-time buyers, many of whom face much higher transportation and education costs than previous generations.

Let’s move beyond the priorities of traffic, parking and home value appreciation, to the more important challenges of climate change and housing affordability. We can do this by supporting Uptown Planners candidates who will work to implement San Diego’s Climate Action Plan and transit-oriented development in our neighborhoods.

transit roundup

transit roundup

The second half of 2015 has featured plenty of transit and housing-related developments, both here and in other west coast metros.  I was taking a break from the blog during much of that time, but not from obsessively (and sadly) collecting links about all the changes.  Here in San Diego the biggest development was SANDAG’s unanimous approval of a regional transportation plan for the next 40 years that “fails to set the county on a course for a transit-friendly future, fails to meet the state’s long term greenhouse gas reduction goals and fails to address the reality of climate change“.  The SANDAG plan essentially nullifies the city of San Diego’s Climate Action Plan before it’s even up for city council vote; SANDAG’s executive director (and former Caltrans district head) Gary Gallegos called the CAP’s transit goals “unrealistic” and “dreamed-up stuff”, plus:

Gallegos said communities outside the city, especially those along congested state Routes 78 and 56, would prefer to see a greater percentage of SANDAG’s money spent on freeway widening and road construction instead of transit and bike lanes.

Despite pleas from transit advocates, CAP author Todd Gloria and CAP advocate Mayor Faulconer both voted for a regional transportation plan that didn’t remove a single freeway expansion from its last incarnation – not even the general-purpose-lanes expansion set for I-5 in National City.

For context, on-road transportation accounts for 43% of San Diego’s greenhouse gas emissions, global CO2 emissions are now at an all-time high, and we appear to be on course for at least a 2.7 degree Celsius increase in global temperatures, with huge impacts as a result. San Diego is uniquely vulnerable to the effects of climate change given our coastal location, ongoing drought and high wildfire risk; its regional planning agency responded by approving a transportation plan that exceeds state 2050 emissions goals 7 times over.

The plan isn’t just a failure from a transit and climate change perspective, but on a common sense level too. Gallegos’ former agency now admits that widening freeways just creates new traffic through induced demand, and other state DOT’s are also beginning to grasp this concept. Yet the suburban board members of SANDAG and their car-dependent constituents simply refuse to listen, and are relentless in their demands for more and wider roads.

What’s most interesting about SANDAG’s actions isn’t their continued defiance of state court rulings invalidating their plans, but how out of date their freeways-first approach is versus plans approved in other cities recently.  In Los Angeles this summer, the city council voted for a mobility plan that “adds hundreds of miles of new bicycle lanes, bus-only lanes and other road redesigns”, acknowledging the changing transit priorities of younger residents. Because this will potentially slow traffic in some areas, drivers there have claimed the city “want[s] to make driving our cars unbearable by stealing traffic lanes from us on major streets and giving those stolen lanes to bike riders and buses“. For a group that doesn’t even come close to paying the cost of roads, it takes a lot of chutzpah for some motorists to say our public streets are “theirs” only.

In San Diego, elected and appointed officials typically cave in to these selfish interests, as we’ve seen time after time. (One notable exception is Marti Emerald, who stood up for a bike lane on College Ave., and more recently, a road diet on Fairmont in City Heights.) In LA, the council members didn’t back down, and are doing the right thing for their constituents’ safety and the planet’s future.  Reaching a Vision Zero goal of zero pedestrian deaths within 20 years requires courage to stand up to business and motorist interests, not just passing proclamations.

In his piece on LA’s Mobility Plan 2035, Christopher Hawthorne addressed the commonly-voiced complaint that making streets safer for others will inconvenience drivers (in this case, taking the kids to soccer practice), and therefore shouldn’t be done:

For starters, people who live in Chicago (or Seattle or New York or Philadelphia) don’t consider taking their kids to soccer practice some distance away, via private car, the sort of basic right that their elected representatives should spend a lot of time helping them protect.

In Los Angeles we have come to view things differently. We’ve convinced ourselves that we are the only big city in the country where we can have all the great things that come with urbanization and, remarkably, none of the eternal and endless traffic congestion. We want the cultural amenities and economic clout of a major metropolis but the traffic patterns of a garden-variety suburb.

This is a kind of magical thinking.

There are several other good points in Hawthorne’s piece, including how residents have blocked needed housing because of traffic congestion concerns, helping to create the housing crisis in LA. The same applies to San Diego, where preservation of free street parking nearly always trumps affordable housing – just ask the KenTal Community Planning Group and their unanimous opposition to state assembly bill #744. The bill (now signed by Governor Brown), reduces parking minimums on new senior, special-needs and low income housing near transit.  Are state laws our last resort to overcome the hostility of many San Diego planning groups toward affordable and middle class housing?

Another big change in LA’s mobility plan is that it follows a state directive to drop the automobile Level of Service (LOS) policy. Auto Level of Service analysis, which measures traffic delays, is currently applied to any development or infrastructure change – even transit-oriented development and bike lanes. So changes that encourage multi-modal transit and safer streets for people on foot and bikes can be rejected solely because of their impact on auto travel times. This is exactly what San Diego’s Traffic Engineering Divsion (Steve Celnicker in particular) did to the Transform Hillcrest bike lane compromise that had universal community support. Yet when I asked Climate Action Plan author Todd Gloria (whose plan seeks an 18% Uptown bike mode share by 2035) why an outdated analysis method was being used to kill the compromise, he seemed unfamiliar with the policy. Why do our street engineers, who have spent their entire careers optimizing our roads for fast traffic flow, still have final say on deciding our city’s (unsafe) street design?

In Seattle, voters passed a bold transit plan earlier this month to increase the number of rapid bus lines by 7, add bike lanes and fund safer street design.  Residents there get it – the lives of people on foot and bikes are more important than fast street speeds for motorists – and so they allocated $71 million toward implementing their Vision Zero policy to eliminate pedestrian fatalities. How much funding has the City of San Diego or SANDAG devoted to Vision Zero? With the city’s infrastructure megabond looking unlikely, don’t expect much (from the UT):

San Diego Councilman Todd Gloria said Friday that (the megabond) was unlikely.

“I don’t have confidence the city is going to be in position to put a reasonable measure on the ballot in 2016 that could be successful,” said Gloria, noting that San Diego doesn’t have an expenditure plan and hasn’t done preliminary polling like SANDAG.

Cheap on-street storage of private vehicles is an incredibly inefficient use of public street space, when you can move many people to their destination rapidly in this same space via bus. So Seattle has removed over 1000 parking spaces for bus and bike lanes, and downtown parking garages are still only at 60% capacity. In San Diego, Hillcrest’s parking facilities are also not at capacity, yet the Hillcrest Business Association successfully lobbied Todd Gloria and SANDAG to kill the agency’s protected bike lane design on University – to preserve cheap/free street parking. Incredibly, the 91 spaces lost under the design’s worst-case scenario were more than offset by nearly 200 spaces in the DMV lot, and 145 spaces from forthcoming angled parking conversions in the neighborhood.

IMG_0249Seattle organizations were already taking big steps toward reducing solo car commuting before the vote. Seattle Children’s hospital subsidizes transit, bicycling, walking and carpooling using employee parking fees. Here in San Diego, the CFO of Rady Childrens Hospital was killed while riding his bike in an unprotected bike lane earlier this year; the driver still hasn’t been charged. Next door to Rady’s, Sharp Memorial employees lock their bikes to trash cans due to a lack of racks, pedestrians are regularly run over, and a visitor was even killed while crossing the speedway in front of the hospital known as Health Center Drive. In response, the hospital told visitors to park in the parking garage. How does a public transit user who disembarks on Health Center Drive do that, exactly?

In addition to passing a failed transportation plan, SANDAG also ignored requests to incentivize transit-oriented development. The Bay area has a comprehensive regional TOD plan that quantifies minimum levels of development around stations and to fund plans for jobs and housing near stations. Conversely, San Diego’s trolley system was named worst in the state for putting jobs, housing, retail and services near stations (from Voice of San Diego):

(The study) quantified a phenomenon that’s long been apparent anecdotally: Local leaders support smart growth – urban development that’s crucial for transit ridership – in theory, but not in practice.

They are not planning for or facilitating enough construction of walkable, affordable housing near transit access points.

More than any other large metropolitan area in California, San Diego has not allowed for the development that would capitalize on the major investments made in its transportation system. Leaders in recent years have continued to profess their support for accommodating a growing population responsibly, but their decisions tell a different story.

San Diego’s awful grades for its rail station amenities are a direct result of decades of building trolley lines along existing rail corridors, rather than in dense neighborhoods with built-in ridership. When you’re focused on widening freeways over building rail infrastructure (and just 12% of the new SANDAG transportation plan goes toward new rail), there’s no money left over for the expensive rail right-of-way infrastructure costs in urban neighborhoods. Throw in our city’s notorious provincialism and NIMBYism that blocks development near stations and you’ve got yet another failure.

As bad as the city and SANDAG are on these issues, the Airport Authority somehow tops them with their utter disregard for both transit users and climate change. The Authority has done next to nothing to connect to the trolley line that runs just yards from the airport, then insists to the Coastal Commission that they must build a 3000 space parking garage because no one’s taking public transit there. If you use ride-share services, airport officials say you’re creating more traffic congestion and should be parking in the garage instead (for more airport revenue). Two more garages are slated, in addition to the massive rental car garage and parking lot that were recently constructed. And while airport after airport connects to their light rail systems, next month San Diego trolley users will have the honor to stand on the side of Pacific Highway and wait for a rental car shuttle to get to our airport.

Next up is the SANDAG Quality of Life half cent sales tax, which will likely appear on the ballot next year. The measure would fund water, environmental and transportation projects, but once again freeway widening rears its ugly head (from the UT):

North County leaders stressed that including upgrades to state Route 78 would play a key role in building support for the measure in their communities.

“78 constrains every single project in my city,” Chris Orlando, San Marcos councilman, said. “We have to fix it.”

Orlando and his constituents still think you can “fix” congestion by adding more lanes, but even Caltrans is admitting this is false. Meanwhile, while there are billions available to widen freeways in the current SANDAG plan, Gallegos says we have to pass the Quality of Life Initiative if we want any SANDAG funding for a critical trolley line connecting job centers (from KPBS):

Gallegos said SANDAG needs more local funding to enact the transit projects in its recently approved Regional Transportation Plan, including a purple trolley line from San Ysidro to Sorrento Valley. He said some of that project’s $6 billion price tag could be covered by federal funds, but SANDAG can’t secure federal funding without local matching funds.

“Absent local funding, the purple line will not be possible without new local resources,” he said.”

Personally I think that before we give them any more money, SANDAG needs to be reformed to address a senior staff that’s unaccountable to taxpayers, and biased toward suburban interests that ignore state GHG emissions goals and induced demand concepts.

Well, this post has turned into a novel and I still didn’t get to some recent housing-related developments, so I’ll cover them next time.

i’m the decider

i’m the decider

“I’m the decider, and I decide what’s best” – President George W Bush, 2006

“It was my call (to remove the planned protected bike lanes from University Avenue)” – SANDAG Executive Director Gary Gallegos, 2015

It’s been over a month since SANDAG killed the long-planned protected bike lane on University Avenue in Hillcrest to preserve street parking.  Here are some good summaries of just what happened:

  • SD City Beat: Bike plan greased with political power; Revision could represent ethics violation for Supervisor Ron Roberts – “As a result of the decisions that were made behind the scenes, the entire community planning process has been undermined”
  • Uptown News: The sting of defeat – “In the end, the community lost because it was outgunned by a group with deeper pockets and misplaced concerns, acting only in its narrow, perceived self-interest, instead of for the greater community”
  • Voice of San Diego – apparently under a “no bike lane articles” policy since October 7th, 2014

The takeaway from these features is that after a years-long process of public input, SANDAG cancelled all public meetings and instead met privately with the California Strategies lobbyist hired by the Hillcrest Business Association for $20,000.  Several HBA members, including President Johnathan Hale, Executive Director Ben Nicholls, Director Cecelia Moreno and former Director Eddie Reynoso all insisted that the lobbying was only to keep the Washington off-ramp to University open.  Yet lobbying disclosure forms from Todd Gloria’s office indicate California Strategies was indeed fighting to preserve all parking on University also.

Think about that for a second: San Diego County taxpayers, who pay the TransNet sales tax that funds SANDAG, were completely shut out of SANDAG’s planning process for the Uptown Bikeway.  Instead, a private business association (who actually receive funding from the city, though none of those funds were used for lobbying), claimed ownership of our public on-street parking, and have now permanently put the safety and lives of bicyclists on University at risk – all for their own private gain.

How does something like this happen?  The Uptown Bikeway was supposed to help address several things beyond safety: the city of San Diego’s Climate Action Plan goals for increased bike mode share; state greenhouse gas emissions goals; and decades of SANDAG ignoring bike infrastructure.  In my opinion, the blame primarily lies with the culture of the senior staff at SANDAG, namely Executive Director Gary Gallegos.

SANDAG Executive Director Gallegos: “It was my call”

Gallegos is the former director of the San Diego Caltrans division, an agency that has largely ignored all non-auto modes for decades.  He’s been executive director of SANDAG since 2001, during which time the agency has continued to under-fund alternative transit modes in favor of endlessly widening freeways and roads.  Their current 2050 regional transportation plan continues this trend, exceeding state greenhouse gas emissions targets seven-fold, and has been successfully defeated in court twice with the state of California as one of the plaintiffs.  Yet SANDAG has chosen to continue this court battle (using taxpayer funds), even as the state made these emission targets official last week.   Gallegos appears to be stuck in the past, ignoring state law and trends of younger Americans using alternative transit modes.  And why wouldn’t he, after serving much of his career in Caltrans, an agency devoted to building and maintaining our auto-centric culture.  He is San Diego’s Decider, issuing executive orders to buy a toll road unmentioned in SANDAG’s regional plan, or gut a long-overdue bike facility.  Gallegos is charting a course backwards that’s incredibly harmful to our city, our children and our climate.

Oddly, even the author of our city’s draft Climate Action Plan, Todd Gloria, voted to continue SANDAG’s costly-yet-pointless court battle above.  KPBS concluded that SANDAG’s regional transportation plan hinders the city’s Climate Action Plan goals.  So if a SANDAG board member (and Transportation Committee chair) as progressive as Gloria on transit and the environment can’t go against senior staff recommendations, who can?  This suggests that SANDAG board members fear rejecting SANDAG staff recommendations, because funding for their district could be killed as retaliation.

Thus, once the Hillcrest Business Association successfully lobbied Gallegos in private to kill the bike lane on University in favor of parking, the fix was in. When bike advocates finally were granted a meeting with Gallegos recently, he declared that the decision to keep the status quo there was his decision alone. There was no way the SANDAG Transportation Committee board members, who are appointed by elected officials, could vote against the senior staff recommendation to do nothing for the majority of University (where they actually call sharrows a Bikeway!).  Well, all but one board member: Mike Nichols of Solana Beach, who expressed concern over a long-planned and badly-needed set of bike lanes being removed for parking, when abundant off-street parking already exists in the area.  Two weeks later, when SANDAG staff recommendations for Smart Growth Incentive Grants were announced, Solana Beach’s project had been rejected.

I don’t know how to fix SANDAG’s broken senior staff culture (term limits for senior staff?), but it would be unfair to blame SANDAG alone for the gutted Uptown Bikeway.  Lower-level staff working on the project certainly fought for it.  Unfortunately there was a lack of political courage – nothing new for our city – from our elected representatives, including Gloria and Ron Roberts.  No effort was ever made to bring stakeholders from both sides to the table and find a compromise for the consensus SANDAG said they needed.  Instead the “win-win” “compromise” was to simply remove the bike lanes from most of University for parking, or exactly what the HBA lobbied for.

Let’s not kid ourselves about the fact that our elected representatives need to look out for their own political fortunes first.  Several members of the HBA donate significantly to Gloria’s campaigns, and when they declare they own our public street parking, so be it.  This is exactly why I could never be a politician, because doing the right thing can often be damaging to your career.

Removing public street parking for alternative transit and increased safety is something many cities are doing.  San Francisco and Seattle have removed hundreds of spaces for buses and/or protected bike lanes.  Isn’t it more important to get more people to their destination on time safely, via the greater carrying-capacity of multiple transit modes, than setting aside this space solely for the publicly-subsidized storage of private vehicles?  Apparently in San Diego, the answer is no.

On a personal level, the loss of the protected bike lanes is deeply disappointing.  Hillcrest is a community where I first came out and it’s long been a special place for me.  I’ve picked up trash from their streets during community clean-ups, despite not even living there.  I attended Uptown Parking District meetings to contribute ideas to mitigate any lost parking from the Bikeway.  I’ve promoted HBA events and new Hillcrest businesses on my blog as its business district has declined over the past several years.  Yet I was questioned by both the President of the Uptown Parking District and the Hillcrest Business Association about my activism in their community, since I didn’t live there.  It didn’t matter that I wanted to travel to their businesses safely by bike and make streets safer for others; since I wasn’t a resident, my input was suspect and invalid.  Meanwhile, HBA senior members Hale, Moreno and Nicholls also all live elsewhere.

The Uptown Bikeway was an opportunity to set Hillcrest apart with something really unique: the only protected bike lanes in a commercial district in San Diego.  It could help draw back younger residents who have long written off this now decidedly-unhip neighborhood, and moved on to more interesting districts in North Park, Little Italy and East Village.  And with the first multi-million dollar investment ever from SANDAG in the neighborhood, the placemaking opportunities were huge.  Yet the anti-bicyclist vitriol that I witnessed from many community members was astonishing.  Maybe it really is true that the long-oppressed (in this case, the Hillcrest gay community) often become the oppressors.  To be fair, some community members, such as Hillcrest Town Council President Luke Terpstra, did try to find compromise.

Finally, the most amusing part of this saga has to be the contortions from HBA Executive Director Ben Nicholls.  Even to the bitter end he was telling the bike community that he supported Transform Hillcrest, the alternative bike lane plan that preserved most parking – while secretly agreeing to SANDAG’s plan to gut the bike lanes.  Bike advocates were even trying to sign on to a letter of support for Transform Hillcrest with the HBA until it got bogged down on – you guessed it – parking.  The fact is that the HBA never budged on “giving up” one street parking space, despite the addition of hundreds of on and off-street parking spaces that have (or will) come online in the area.  This is precisely why the HBA opposed the original SANDAG plan and the western segment of Transform Hillcrest.  But this statement in the comments of the SD City Beat article has to be the king of all Nicholls-whoppers:

Screen Shot 2015-07-11 at 6.13.33 PM

Forget the “good compromise” part – how exactly is status quo on most of University a compromise?  The “private closed door meetings” from Circulate SD and SDCBC were a single desperate, last-minute meeting with SANDAG Transportation Director Muggs Stoll (on the Memorial Day holiday no less) to the HBA’s successful lobbying of executive director Gallegos to gut the bike lanes.  Nicholls’ ability to contort truth is breathtaking, but no more so than his laughter during the SANDAG Transportation Committee meeting while speaker after speaker begged for safe bike lanes (middle image below; from the Parking Over People Facebook page):

Clockwise from top left: Charlie Kauffman, Mo’s (owner Chris Shaw did support all of Transform Hillcrest), Ben Nicholls, Leo Wilson, Nancy Reagan?

Given all of the above, it would be hypocritical for me to continue supporting Hillcrest, so there won’t be any more coverage of the neighborhood here (I know, “big deal”).  But I think it’s up to each person to make their own decisions about what communities or businesses they decide to give their money to.  At the least, San Diegans should be aware that proceeds from events like the Hillcrest Farmers Market, CityFest, Taste & Tinis, etc. put on by the HBA likely go into their pool of money used to lobby the city and SANDAG against the bike lanes.