Trolley madness

Posted: December 20th, 2010 | Balboa Park, Communities, Downtown, Hillcrest, North Park | 5 Comments

By Lauren Ventura | SDUN Editor

Christian Chaffee, shown above, displays an original decoration, discovered under layers of old paint, which was replicated by making a stencil. Chaffee and his team of restorers are currently using it to decorate one of his San Diego historic trolleys. (Lauren Ventura/SDUN)

Imagine Uptown, downtown San Diego, Balboa Park and the San Diego Zoo all being accessible via old-fashioned trolleys chugging down University Avenue, Park Boulevard and beyond. Imagine not having to drive, find parking, take a taxi or find a designated driver to get you to and from restaurants, shops and bars around town.

San Diegans Christian Chaffee and Harry Mathis do all the time. Although they are two very different individuals, both surprisingly have the same dream: To bring historic trolleys to the streets of San Diego. They just disagree on how, when and where to do it.

“Running a vintage trolley here in San Diego is not a new idea,” said Mathis, chairman of the Metropolitan Transit System (MTS), during a recent interview about his “Restoring the Magic” trolley project concept. “It’s an idea that actually came about during the ’80s, but business owners downtown didn’t want the construction to impede the roads.”

Taking past factors and concerns into consideration, Mathis rallied MTS board members’ support in order to purchase three President’s Conference Committee (PCC) trolleys or streetcars in 2006, with a grant from Centre City Development Corporation, as well as corporate donations from The Coca-Cola Company and several others.

“We’re now at the point where we’re ready to get them on the downtown loop, probably by spring in 2011,” Mathis said.

The cars were transported from a junkyard in Lake Tahoe, Calif. to the MTS yard in downtown San Diego where they are being restored with volunteer support from the San Diego Electric Railway Association and Carlos Guzman, Inc.

A self-professed train aficionado, Mathis said he was inspired to use PCC cars in San Diego as they reminded him of his childhood in San Francisco where he used to ride original PCC cars down F Street.

Mathis’ modern-day trolley project—which he said is fine tuned to the wants of local downtown business—will use the MTS infrastructure that’s already in place. But the trolleys will only be serving the downtown area, making a loop from Imperial and 12th avenues through C Street —for now.

In terms of connecting the streetcar project from downtown to Uptown, Mathis said he just received a grant from Caltrans to do a feasibility study which would look at what he called, “phase two” of the project, whereupon he would propose that the trolleys head up Park Boulevard from San Diego City College, bringing passengers to the San Diego Zoo and Balboa Park.

“In my mind, the project would be extended to include North Park as well,” Mathis said. As for when that would be, Mathis said it could take years.

Enter Christian Chaffee, an antiques dealer from San Diego who wants to do just that—in less than four years. His goal is to bring the original San Diego streetcars, which were commissioned by John D. Spreckels for the Panama California Exposition of 1915, back onto their original tracks and routes they traveled from 1915 through the 1930s. Chaffee would then like to have them presented at Balboa Park’s centennial celebration in 2015. The main routes would connect North Park, University Heights and Hillcrest with downtown, the zoo and Balboa Park.

“Once these trolleys are running on any part of the original route, they meet the last criteria for national historic designation which would provide federal and state recognition. That will open up special federal money set aside for historic transportation systems,” Chaffee said.

Balboa Park was made a national historic site in 1977 and the trolleys are already San Diego Historic Landmarks No. 339, Chaffee said. He continued and said that if his trolley project were to come to fruition, that would make every district around Balboa Park where these trolleys traveled historic districts: Everywhere from Uptown to Hillcrest, South Park, Golden Hills and Little Italy.

“San Diego can have a national historic streetcar system, and it would be equal in a sense to San Francisco’s iconic nationally designated cable car system,” he said.

Chaffee’s grand idea was born serendipitously in 1996 while visiting an Adam’s Avenue street fair. There he learned that there were three original San Diego Exposition trolleys were being used as a home in El Cajon and were in danger of being demolished to make way for a new resident structure.

It would seem then that Chaffee and Mathis have a lot in common, but when asked why MTS doesn’t join forces with Chaffee, Mathis said it’s not a priority and that collaboration at this point would be premature.

“Right now we don’t share the same goal. Our goal is to start a pilot project downtown, called ‘phase one,’ and ‘phase two’ is to go up to the zoo, and so we’re working on a different regime than those folks,” Mathis said.

“But ultimately, anything that’s run up to the other communities will be an MTS operation—unless it can be funded by the community and I think they realize they don’t have the funds to do it.”

Mathis established the San Diego Vintage Trolley Association in 2005 with the blessing of the MTS Board. He was advised to create a nonprofit to fund his goal of purchasing the PCC streetcars.

“This is really an MTS project, as San Diego Vintage Trolley Association is a wholly-owned subsidiary of MTS. We did it that way, because, first of all, I needed a vehicle I could use to collect donations, so we established it (SDVTA) as a nonprofit. And the project has to be connected to MTS because we’re running on the MTS system. The operators of the streetcars will be MTS operators,” Mathis said.

“We’re serving several interests here, certainly tourists and local hotel interests, and we’re serving the needs of business and residents down there as well.”

Chaffee said that his project is being “enthusiastically received” throughout the Uptown communities, but is perturbed about the impact that PCC cars could have on the Class 1 historic trolleys project.

“PCC’s are low-cost streetcars. They were designed during the Depression for all-weather climates and the cold—not San Diego,” Chaffee said. “I don’t understand why MTS has plans of running these foreign, non-native PCC vehicles versus original San Diego streetcars.”

Chaffee, with his historic trolleys in tow, has been making a concerted effort to get the communities of North Park and Hillcrest and even Normal Heights on board. One of his restored trolleys has been making appearances all over Uptown, from the Toyland Parade to the Hillcrest Farmer’s Market.

“I think that people need to get involved in their community associations and let people know they want San Diego historic streetcars,” Chaffee said.

“There are private interests in downtown San Diego that do not want this project to happen, especially in Uptown. Why? Because they have the Convention Center, the ballpark, the waterfront, and they have a very inefficient transportation system to get people out of downtown—on purpose. They do not want people to leave downtown, especially to go to Uptown. They do not want to share the business from downtown with Hillcrest, North Park, etcetera.”

Although Uptown area communities are slowly becoming more and more interested in Chaffee’s trolleys and his ideas, the funding hasn’t materialized.

Benjamin Nicholls, executive director for the Hillcrest Business Improvement Association (BIA), said that he understands that many people involved are caught up in historic significance of one trolley

Christian Chaffee, an antiques dealer from San Diego, wants to bring the original San Diego streetcars (shown above), which were commissioned by John D. Spreckels for the Panama California Exposition of 1915, back onto their original tracks and routes they traveled from 1915 through the 1930s. (Lauren Ventura/SDUN)

over the next, but as a representative of area businesses, he is more concerned with getting people out and about in Hillcrest.

“I’m more interested in fulfilling some sort of goal that helps move people around and helps property values increase. I’m interested in a public transit system that people will use,” Nicholls said. “I think streetcars are a less expensive way to get people to ride public transportation. I’m a streetcar advocate.”

In order to advocate for the trolley project in Hillcrest, Nicholls and the BIA have asked University of California, San Diego students to volunteer their time to research the impact and study the feasibility of trolleys in Hillcrest. The results of volunteers thus far have shown a positive impact for the community, Nicholls said.

There is also a $100,000 set aside with the Hillcrest Planning Committee to study the potential for trolleys running down Fourth and Fifth avenues, Nicholls explained. But all these projects are disconnected from Chaffee and Mathis’ trolley projects, as both parties said they are not involved with the UCSD studies or planning committee projects.

The San Diego Regional Planning Agency (SANDAG) 2050 Regional Plan also includes a line item for a trolley project, which would include Hillcrest, but according to Elyse Lowe, executive director of an organization comprised of volunteer citizens who work to support sustainable transportation, there are no funds available whatsoever to pay for it. Lowe, who works with to “promote progress on the planning, development, and use of different transportation modes,” said that the cost of the project is disarming and would best be accomplished with community collaboration.

“SANDAG is blatantly stating that if any communities want these trolleys they will have to pay for them themselves,” Lowe explained. “SANDAG is looking to business communities that want them to actually form private and public partnerships to build them and maintain them.”

North Park Main Street’s executive director, Elizabeth Studebaker agrees with the concept of community collaboration. She said that North Park business needs are not driven by tourism. In order for a public transportation option to work for the North Park community it would have to primarily serve residents, she said.

Whether or not San Diego’s historic trolleys will make it to the streets of Uptown appears uncertain, despite the number of communities that are excited and eager to have the project launch. And as many community leaders stressed, collaboration between all parties is key.

“Every community needs to stand up for what’s best for the people,” Chaffee said.

For more information regarding the Chaffee and Mathis’ trolley projects in San Diego, visit or respectively.


  1. Lynn says:

    I didn’t even know all this was going on. I’d love to be able to ride a streetcar around town.

  2. Mike says:

    Am I reading this right? The government/MTS is going to do their project, regardless of what the community wants, because the guy rode on certain cars as a kid in San Francisco? And the projects the community wants don’t get help at all? Really? I guess it doesn’t matter if you’re in DC or SD, politicians are the same everywhere.

  3. Kudos to both Christian Chaffee and Harry Mathis for pushing for more streetcars in San Diego. A reliable network of streetcars linking neighborhoods would make our fine city even finer.

    Think of it… hopping on a streetcar from a central point in your neighborhood and riding to the beach to catch a sunset, or to downtown for dinner and drinks — and then riding another streetcar back home when you’re done. This is not out of reach…

  4. Claude says:

    PCC cars are best for MTS because they’re rugged, low maintenance cars. We had PCC cars in San Diego, so the design is appropriate for Downtown.
    I’d also like to see the San Diego cars restored, but I’d like to see them in Balboa Park. Possibly running a loop from the San Diego Museum of Art out to the junction by Founder’s Plaza.

  5. Paul says:

    I’m all for vintage transit–I ride the “F” line here in San Francisco all the time. Still, while I can see restoring vintage and antique streetcars that are still available–and especially when they’re available to the town that actually ran them in the first place, I still think it’s a bit of a cop out to reach into the past for something that in its day was considered ultra modern. Eventually the old car bodies will not be available, so why aren’t we putting more effort into designing more appealing modern streetcars?

    Todays regulations often produce rather hideous replicas–as is the case with the Riverfront line in New Orleans, where the modern cars suggest an old style but have nothing in common with the historic cars that still run there, otherwise. Portland, Oregon, on the other hand not only has two first-rate replica cars (as well as a small fleet of original cars on the seasonal Riverfront Line) but it also has a brand new streetcar line that runs in a loop downtown, in addition to its older LRV service.

    The Portland Streetcar is attractive–much more so than San Jose’s miserable box-like streetcars, but it’s still not what it could and should be. And as long as cities are opting for boutique vintage car service, we’re not going to get good designed streetcars. More kids are pursuing degrees at art and design colleges across the nation, so when are we going to demand they start producing better designed transit vehicles—that not only work well, but look appealing too?

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