By Hutton Marshall
SANDAG considers postponing input meeting, reassessing plans
Hundreds packed the voluminous St. Paul’s Cathedral in Bankers Hill March 24 for what some called the largest Uptown Planners meeting in recent history.
The gathering was not the community planning group’s normal monthly meeting, but a special single-agenda item hearing for the SANDAG Bike Corridor through Uptown. While the Uptown Planners is purely an advisory body to the city on land-use and development issues, SANDAG staff said following input received from the meeting, the agency will reassess plans for the bicycle corridor.
The 6 p.m. meeting, which took place in a much larger hall than the group’s typical Hillcrest venue, marked the last actions of several members, including longtime chair Leo Wilson, who has served intermittently since the Clinton administration. Wilson and other outgoing members passed strongly worded motions at the special meeting that rejected the SANDAG plan outright.
The meeting began with some disorganization, with Wilson’s introduction of a SANDAG representative quickly devolving into boos and shouting. Elizabeth Hannon of the nonprofit Uptown Community Parking District, rather than the SANDAG representative, gave an impromptu presentation of the plan’s basics.
More than fifty residents and bicycle advocates gave public comment over the course of two hours. Approximately half spoke in favor of the SANDAG plans, which would construct several miles of protected bikeways through Uptown’s urban core, while others criticized SANDAG for what they saw as an overreaching or poorly executed plan.
After public comment closed, the planning board deliberated for another hour, eventually passing four unanimous motions condemning SANDAG’s plan. The crowd had thinned considerably by then, with only a small group of community activists and dedicated community newspaper editors remaining. Some attendees left to participate in a candlelight vigil through Bankers Hill honoring victims of fatal bicycle accidents.
Of the four unanimous motions, the first was intentionally the most straightforward: “We find the current SANDAG proposal to be unsatisfactory and unacceptable.”
The board also passed motions to ask SANDAG to reopen the planning process, to avoid closing University Avenue anywhere along the route and to mitigate parking losses, among other recommendations.
While Wilson abstained from voting as the board chair, he created the majority of the language for the motions and led deliberations on them. Bike San Diego Executive Director Samantha Ollinger, a vocal critic of Wilson’s, said it was wrong to pass such strong motions a week prior to a new board being sworn in. Ollinger also broadly critiqued what she saw as a history of inaction by the Uptown Planners since its creation in the 1970s.
“Given the fact that [the Uptown Planners] have shown zero leadership on making the streets safer during their entire existence, I’m not sure they actually have any idea how to make Uptown safe, with or without any input,” Ollinger said.
“All they have to show for themselves is a handful of sharrows on University Avenue, three bike corrals, a couple blocks of bike lanes, one of which is under lawsuit,” she added.
Charles “Muggs” Stoll, director of land use and transportation planning at SANDAG, said that following the input received at the meeting, the agency would reevaluate their plans for the corridor, possibly reexamining the route’s alignment.
“Given all the comments we got [March 24] on that Mission Hills segment, right now we’re kind of reassessing some project options and how we would present those at the community meetings that we’re going to host this spring,” Stoll said.
SANDAG planned to host a meeting on the bike corridor in Mission Hills April 23, but Stoll said that the meeting may be pushed back following last night’s input.
“I think we’re gonna spend a little time assessing where we’re at on this,” Stoll said.
A common criticism of the plan is its route down the dense University Avenue. When asked whether or not this reassessment would explore a route realignment, Stoll said that was now a possibility.
“I think we want to review everything we’ve done so far — we’ve been working on this project for a while — but it could be,” Stoll said.
This will likely be a sign of success for the plan’s critics, such as the HBA, which recently hired a lobbying firm to advocate on behalf of Hillcrest business interests. HBA board members and staff have criticized the plan for its potential impact on parking and traffic without providing for traffic calming measures.
“The plan right now seems to be remove all the parking so we can ride our bikes, and I think that’s why it’s controversial,” HBA Executive Director Benjamin Nicholls said, referring to the portion of the route planned for West University Avenue.
Nicholls clarified that the HBA continues to support the implementation of bike lanes, so long as it isn’t done at the expense of other modes of transportation.
“Just because you’re not 100 percent on board with everything SANDAG’s doing, doesn’t mean you’re opposed to everything — that’s just silly,” Nicholls said.
During the early stages of the project, SANDAG released an estimate that 91 parking spaces might be removed along the route through Hillcrest. University Avenue has 277 parking spaces between Front and Normal streets. SANDAG staff later called that estimate a “worst case scenario.”
During board deliberations at the meeting, Uptown Planner Chris Ward (a 2016 City Council candidate for Uptown’s District 3), requested increased outreach rather than a redesign of the plan, since design renderings for the route have yet to be made public. He unsuccessfully proposed a motion to commend SANDAG for their efforts to promote active transportation, which was criticized by another member as “kissing up a little too much to SANDAG.”
“I’d ask SANDAG not to go to back the drawing board, but to bring the drawing board out into the community,” Ward said.
The HBA and other community organizations continue to support the “Transforming Hillcrest” plan, which was created by local architect Jim Frost. The plan calls for the removal of traffic lanes as a traffic calming measure, and adds parking rather than removing it. Ollinger and other bicycle advocates have also supported the plan. Stoll said SANDAG is currently performing a traffic study in conjunction with the city of San Diego to explore the plan’s feasibility.
“We did make a commitment along with the city of San Diego to work through the city of San Diego to assess [Transforming Hillcrest],” Stoll said.
When asked if he had any message for Uptown residents after the meeting, Stoll said that the project would be a challenge, because finding a balance among everyone’s interest was key.
“We appreciate that the community cares a lot about this project, and we think that’s a good thing,” Stoll said. “But this is a challenge — there’s no doubt about it — to find a way to balance all of these issues, and we’re working with the city of San Diego to do that.”
Clarification: When HBA Executive Director Benjamin Nicholls referred to the bike corridor removing “all the parking,” he was referring to portion of the route on West University Avenue.
—Contact Hutton Marshall at firstname.lastname@example.org. Vote below in our online poll on the Uptown bike corridor.