KENDRA SITTON | Uptown News
Soon, many neighborhoods in Uptown will have skylines unencumbered by overhead power lines. After years of delays, the city and SDG&E (San Diego Gas & Electric) streamlined the process of moving power lines underground. In 2020, sections of North Park, Burlingame and Robinson Avenue are slated to start construction. In 2021, Missions Hills and other parts of North Park will be freed of power lines. The five-year rolling schedule will continue to reshape the skylines of neighborhoods for decades to come.
Why underground power lines?
Undergrounding is advantageous for both safety and aesthetic reasons. With clear skylines, property values go up and quality of life improves. Without poles, there are less vehicle-to-pole collisions that cause outages. Power lines have also been responsible for sparking wildfires in California.
“Very strong windstorm events or something may topple some of our very old power lines and in a dense community with a lot of canyons and high fire hazard areas — this is a major threat. Then from the beautification standpoint, it just looks a lot nicer to be going about your daily life in your community without the obstruction of view,” said Council member Chris Ward.
SDG&E has been slowly moving power lines underground since the 1970s. In 2002, residents approved paying a surcharge on their SDG&E bill to accelerate it. Residents pay between $5 and $8 each month to support the efforts, according to SDG&E. The money SDG&E collected was then passed to the city and the city then reimbursed SDG&E for design and contracting costs.
However, the city’s goal to finish undergrounding in 20 years was not met. At the end of the budget year in 2018, there was $183 million sitting in a surcharge fund. After that, the San Diego City Council worked with SDG&E to improve coordination and make the process more efficient.
“We have a five-year undergrounding schedule that took some time to memorialize and council just adopted close to a year ago. Up to that date, undergrounding had been very piecemeal and not really working with SDG&E. We weren’t meeting our 15 miles a year of undergrounding target that the rate payers were expecting based on the assessment that was paid. We were accumulating a lot of this extra reserve and just not deploying it. It was frustrating,” explained Ward. He said that with the haphazard process, it was often the community outreach and working out neighborhood-specific issues that was neglected. Now, residents can better plan ahead for disruptions because they will know six months in advance about the construction and can give design input.
With better coordination between the city and the local utility company, residents have a clearer path to providing input in where power boxes will be placed. In some cases, power lines in alleys will be moved to a main street because the utility boxes would block the alley.
By October, SDG&E successfully moved about 20 miles of power lines underground — four times the amount done in a typical year. There is now hope 100 of the remaining 1,000 miles of power lines will be moved underground in the next few years.
MAD for streetlights
Without power line poles, it will be necessary to install new streetlights. Some neighborhoods are organizing to improve their streetscape by bring additional light to dark areas and adding historic-style streetlights. Marrying the process of adding historic streetlights with the power lines undergrounding saves thousands of dollars.
“Our numbers show that it would be about $16,000 per light. You can get that down to about $6,000 per light by doing the work at the same time as the undergrounding project itself,” said Ward.
To do this, Morley Field and Normal Heights are in the beginning stages of organizing for a maintenance assessment district (MAD). If property owners vote in favor of raising their property taxes, that money would go towards the MAD, which would then install and maintain the historic streetlights.
Developing a MAD is a long process and many neighborhoods will settle for the overhanging cobra streetlights instead of the fancier acorn streetlights. Neighborhoods like Kensington, Mission Hills and Talmadge already have the historic-style streetlights.
In Morley Field, Catherine McCullough is spearheading the project. She says the acorn lights will give character to the neighborhood and show it is unique from the rest of North Park. “That brings value to the neighborhood… It’s about beautifying,” she explained. “The naysayers are just people who are anti-property tax — they just don’t see the value. Or they’re a person who doesn’t understand how that whole process works.”
McCullough has been hosting events and built a website to educate people on the MAD, which is helping the idea gain traction. Although she has championed this plan for decades, moving the undergrounding schedule up from 2050 to 2021 gave the group she formed a unique opportunity to finally improve lighting in the area.
Many of the blocks in Morley Field are double the length of the rest of North Park. With streetlights only on corners, this leaves long stretches of darkness on the street. While data is mixed on whether streetlights lessen crime, they certainly contribute to the feeling of being safe as well as improving visibility of the road and sidewalk at night.
Morley Field plans to conduct a survey of all property owners in the proposed district in the spring, conduct a feasibility study in the late spring, hold a public meeting in the early summer, and mail out the official ballot to all property owners in early fall.
In Normal Heights, the initial survey has already gone out. Once the results are tallied, the organizers will decide whether it is worthwhile to pursue the next step of forming the MAD.
Kendra Sitton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.