Bike community speaks out on Uptown Bikeways, public comment sought by June 24 deadline
By Ken Williams | Contributing Editor
The long-awaited Uptown Bikeways project reached a key milestone on May 24 when San Diego’s regional planning agency conducted a public hearing in a packed Santa Fe Room at Balboa Park Club to collect comments ahead of a crucial vote by its board of directors.
The board of the agency, San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), will vote June 24 on whether the Uptown Bikeways project is exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). As part of the project’s CEQA compliance, SANDAG prepared a Traffic and Safety Impact Assessment, which was published May 9 and can be reviewed at bit.ly/1sRI0uR.
According to the assessment’s executive summary:
“It concludes that the proposed project would not result in any vehicular traffic impacts, as defined by the City of San Diego Significance Thresholds for Traffic Impacts. The proposed project also would not have any negative bicycle or pedestrian safety impacts. …
“The proposed project would make it easier and safer for people of all ages and abilities to travel on bikes among City of San Diego neighborhoods in the Uptown area, connecting Uptown to Old Town, Mission Valley, Downtown, and North Park. It also improves safety for people who walk and drive in these neighborhoods.
“The proposed project would create inviting and convenient bikeways that link key community destinations, including schools, parks, transit, and commercial centers. The bikeways would feature design elements that enhance the experience for people biking and walking, make streets safer for all users, and benefit people who live, work and do business in the neighborhoods served by the proposed project.”
Public comment at the hearing
At the May 24 public hearing, the comments were largely one-sided as the bicycling community came out in force to overshadow the voices who spoke out against part of the project. The area of contention is dubbed “the gap” in the Uptown Bikeways plans, which is located in the business district of Hillcrest where the western portion of University Avenue is much narrower than the eastern portion. Not only is this a bottleneck for traffic, but it is called a nightmare for cyclists.
On June 5 last year, SANDAG’s Transportation Committee, despite widespread community opposition, voted to constrain the project’s University Avenue segment from First Avenue to 10th Avenue, roughly ending at the State Route 163 overpass.
The vote created “the gap” between protected bikes lanes that head west along West University Avenue to West Washington Street, and down the hill to the Washington Street Trolley Station and with a connection to the Old Town Transit Center via San Diego Avenue and Congress Street.
On the eastern end, “the gap” ends at the SR-163 overpass, where protected bike lanes head east on University Avenue to Normal Street, and then north to Lincoln Avenue. It also connects to the proposed Park Boulevard protected bikeway.
Critics blamed “the gap” on intensive lobbying by the 1,200-member Hillcrest Business Association (HBA).
At the public hearing, Benjamin Nicholls, executive director of the HBA, endorsed most of the project, and supported keeping “the gap” in Hillcrest. The HBA’s other objections mostly are over a loss of parking spaces, which Nicholls said would negatively impact businesses in those locations.
“I am extremely concerned about Fourth and Fifth avenues between Robinson [Avenue] and Washington Street,” Nicholls said. “Within a one block area of the iconic Hillcrest sign, we will lose 16 parking spaces.”
Nicholls said the HBA strongly opposed protected bike lanes north of Robinson Avenue.
Chris Dugan of the California Restaurant Association and Cindy Eldridge, representing Carlton Management, spoke out against any loss of parking in the Hillcrest area. Dugan said the loss of parking would pose “an economic hardship” for restaurants nearby.
But Paul Jamason, a board member of BikeSD, scoffed at the opposition to the project being based solely on a loss of a few parking spaces.
“Losing 12 to 16 parking spaces is not a lot,” Jamason said, noting that there are 700 off-street parking spaces in that area.
“There is no safe biking route through Hillcrest. To say people’s lives are worth less than a few parking spaces is ludicrous.”
Jamason’s comments drew applause from the audience.
Samantha “Sam” Ollinger, executive director of BikeSD, pointed out that San Diegans drive to Mission Valley to eat and shop at the malls, and are willing to park in garages or use off-street parking and walk considerable distances to get to their destination.
“Mission Valley today is an economic engine,” she said. She suggested that Hillcrest should learn from Mission Valley’s success, and said that one solution would be to build more parking options to alleviate the problem.
Several residents echoed the need to build a parking structure in Hillcrest, pointing to the two public parking garages built in North Park.
A handful of people, who identified themselves as motorists as well as avid bicyclists, testified that they did not come to Hillcrest very often because it wasn’t safe to bike on the roads.
“I would love to spend my money in Hillcrest, if I felt safe,” Catherine Day said. “But biking on University is terrifying.”
Several other commenters also used the word “terrifying” to describe road conditions for bicyclists.
Andy Hanshaw, executive director of the San Diego County Bicycle Coalition, said his members fully support the project because it would help reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and benefit the city’s ambitious Climate Action Plan — which aims to slash those emissions in half by 2035. He, too, wanted “the gap” to be upgraded for bikers.
What the project proposes
The Uptown Bikeways project is a high priority portion of SANDAG’s $200 million Regional Bike Plan Early Action Program, a decade-long effort to expand the regional bike network throughout San Diego County. Building bikeways is part of a larger goal of increasing transportations choices by making biking a viable, safe and attractive alternative to driving vehicles.
For bicyclists, the Uptown Bikeways project will link up with other ongoing projects to provide connectivity to Downtown, Old Town, Balboa Park, North Park and Mission Valley.
For community members, the goal is to promote active living and healthy lifestyles, making streets safer not only for bicyclists, but for pedestrians and motorists and public transit.
Planning began in 2013 and the preliminary engineering and environmental clearance began in 2014. Dozens of public meetings were conducted along the way to get community feedback. The final design begins this year.
Phase 1 of construction is expected to begin in 2017. The first segment includes Fourth and Fifth avenues, from B Street in Downtown through Bankers Hill and Park West to Washington Street in Hillcrest.
To read more about SANDAG’s Uptown Bikeways project, visit bit.ly/1CZmHnJ.
To add public comments on the project, email firstname.lastname@example.org before the June 24 meeting.
—Ken Williams is editor of San Diego Uptown News and can be reached at email@example.com or at 619-961-1952. Follow him on Twitter at @KenSanDiego, Instagram at @KenSD or Facebook at KenWilliamsSanDiego.