Sara Butler | Editor
Stretching more than five neighborhoods, El Cajon Boulevard is a vital point of connection for Uptown, as well as a crucial community asset.
So when The El Cajon Boulevard Business Improvement Association (The Boulevard BIA) held a town hall this month about the El Cajon Boulevard’s future, residents and business owners alike packed the house to offer their input.
El Cajon Boulevard 20/20 — also referred to as Blvd. 20/20 — is a “new vision for smart living, working and growing into San Diego’s model transit-oriented community,” according to The Boulevard BIA’s website.
Blvd. 20/20 aims to accommodate the growing density in nearby residential areas and along the commercial corridor of El Cajon Boulevard. Though El Cajon Boulevard extends all the way to East County, the plan specifically focuses on the west end, including the Uptown neighborhoods of University Heights, North Park, Normal Heights, City Heights and Talmadge.
Ultimately, Blvd. 20/20 hopes to find a balance between vehicles, public transportation and pedestrians in order to mitigate traffic, parking and safety issues that Uptown residents, business owners and visitors currently face.
“With so much being built on The Boulevard, and so many residents moving in, we have to think about how we’re all going to make it and get along, park next to each other, park in front of each other’s houses, take bikes safely [and] walk across the street,” The Boulevard BIA President Tootie Thomas said.
The group held its second town hall on Dec. 4 at The Rock Church in City Heights, which discussed Blvd. 20/20 and focused on mobility. Mary Lydon, executive director of Housing For You Matters, facilitated the event, which featured more than seven speakers.
Councilmember Ward, who serves on multiple council boards including the Infrastructure Committee, called Blvd. 20/20 a “robust mobility paradigm,” that could help reach Climate Action Plan (CAP) goals, as well as provide more reliable and frequent transit. Additionally, he noted the need for “meaningful, community-serving amenities,” as well as his hopes for easier pedestrian access for businesses and lower parking standards for the area.
Sharon Cooney, Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) chief of staff, described the Blvd. 20/20 plan as “a win-win for everyone.” Though optimistic about El Cajon Boulevard’s mobility future, she admitted that long-term changes — including median lanes dedicated for buses and linking El Cajon Boulevard to the trolley — would take “a lot of planning, political will, and community support.”
As a short-term solution, Cooney suggested a pilot program — a trial run that would dedicate the third lane of El Cajon Boulevard to busses, simply using paint to separate the bus-only lane. To start, she said the pilot program could start with the intersections most impacted by traffic congestion such as 30th, Texas and 43rd streets.
This idea of a pilot program for a bus-only lane became a common theme of the night, supported by many speakers and audience members. One of these proponents, Sherry Ryan, is a city-planning faculty member at San Diego State University and teaches geographic information systems, transportation planning, and land-use planning.
She provided an overview of El Cajon Boulevard’s past and focused her presentation on “missed opportunities” of housing and transit development throughout Uptown, such as the El Cajon Boulevard Study of 2017 and the 2014 Mid-City Rapid Bus Project. To avoid another missed opportunity, Ryan stressed the need to recognize that transit and density go hand-in-hand.
“Transit needs density, and density needs transit — you can’t develop densely if we’re all driving, there’s not enough space,” Ryan said, adding that the six travel lanes do not contribute to transit-oriented development. “If we’re really serious … we need to allocate space to other modes [and] need to rethink what we’re recommending.”
In addition to hearing from local leaders, a keynote speaker video chatted into the town hall from New York. Kirk Hovenkotter, program associate at Transit Center, offered examples of comparable streets around the country who are making steps toward innovative transit and mobility options. One example was a bus lane in Everett, Mass. — a street that he referred to as a sibling to El Cajon Boulevard — who piloted a successful pop-up bus lane that has since become permanent.
Following presentations, attendees wrote sticky notes of what they would like to see changed on El Cajon Boulevard and placed them on five poster boards around the room. Referencing mobility options of transit ridership, walking, biking, scooters, and car shares, the five questions asked were:
- How can we improve getting on the Boulevard as a resident?
- What are your preferred method(s) of transportation on the Boulevard?
- What are your ideas for enhancing mobility to improve businesses on the Boulevard?
- How do we better accommodate all forms of transit?
- What would invite more people to the Boulevard?
After the all the sticky notes were placed, The Boulevard BIA board member Danny Fitzgerald studied the boards and provided a brief summary of the trends he noticed on the walls. Fitzgerald said that most of the comments were about public investment — including the need for parks, plazas, storefront improvements, wider sidewalks, trees, cleaning and public art — and the overall “lacking a sense of place” on El Cajon Boulevard.
Additionally, he added that an initial tally revealed the crowd voted 12-4 on alternative modes of transportation to cars, with six for buses, four for cars, three for walking and two for biking.
“When it came to the question about how to better accommodate all forms of transportation, there was really nothing about cars,” Fitzgerald said. “It was prioritizing away from the car-designed boulevard that is there today.”
After the summary, the floor opened to audience feedback, discussion and debate.
One attendee took an audience poll of who lived within one to three miles of El Cajon Boulevard, revealing more than half of those in attendance were nearby residents. She said it was crucial to “communicate with the residents who are going to be most impacted by these changes,” which elicited applause from the crowd. Another attendee, Jen, expressed the importance to engage the businesses along El Cajon Boulevard in continued conversations, as possible removal of parking spaces would affect them.
In regard to parking, Thomas said that there is not a need to discuss the loss of spaces yet, as the current six lanes of traffic on El Cajon Boulevard should suffice for any initial changes, such as the much-discussed pilot program.
“We don’t want to remove parking — we know it is important for a thriving business district,” Thomas said.
David Moty, who is vice chair of the Kensington-Talmadge Planning Group, noted his concern that traffic improvements on El Cajon Boulevard wouldn’t make the traffic go away, but rather move it into the residential areas. Ryan responded that the pilot program could test that, and they could also develop a diverting program to make it inconvenient for drivers to use neighborhoods roadways.
San Diego Association of Governments’ (SANDAG) future light rail transit system was also debated. One attendee named Larry said that he saw the MTS pilot program for buses as a “temporary fix” until the SANDAG system is built, which is slated for the year 2050. He said he didn’t understand why the Blvd. 20/20 plan was considering the proposed MTS bus lanes when SANDAG would come in and revert everything back in 30 years.
“Even though there are two different plans … I think it’s very important to have a solution now that is affordable that you can put in quickly until you get to that point where they have funding,” Jen responded.
Other discussion points included a possible integration of the planned Meade Avenue bikeway with Blvd. 20/20; a shared bicycle and bus lane for space considerations; a concern about Local Route 1; and the possibility of a community shuttle from the trolley to Rapid Bus Stops; among others.
All of the input and data collected from the town hall will go into the decision-making process of the Blvd. 20/20 plan, which is expected to be unveiled in January 2019. The Boulevard BIA assured the attendees that their voices were heard and would be considered during this undertaking.
Though the tone of the evening was predominately positive, one of the written notes on the wall arguably reflected the reason everyone gathered in the first place.
“Right now, I prefer to stay off the Boulevard,” it read. “Let’s change this.”
—Reach Sara Butler at email@example.com.