Sara Butler | Contributing Editor
The Uptown community had a pretty late night on Tuesday, March 5. Following the Uptown Planners board election from 6–8 p.m., community and city representatives presented the plans for the anticipated Normal Street Promenade to seek approval for the project from the Uptown Planners board.
Normal Street Promenade is a proposed community space in Hillcrest located along Normal Street between University Avenue and Washington Street. The project will create a “public promenade and pedestrian throughway” by closing traffic lanes, eliminating parking spaces, and incorporating bike lanes. Once constructed, it will host the weekly Hillcrest Farmers Market every Sunday, as well as many other community, art and entertainment events yet to be determined.
Though community outreach, including public meetings, began in 2015, the project was conceived back in 1988. So far, the project has received letters of support from many organizations and city representatives including Hillcrest Business Association, Uptown Community Parking District, Hillcrest Town Council, among others.
The decision of Uptown Planners drew a large crowd of residents, business owners and media to the Joyce Beers Community Center for its March meeting, which was kicked off by District 3 Councilmember Chris Ward.
“We have an opportunity to create an asset for this community — two acres of an asset — a place to allow people to come together and build a sense of community that is Uptown,” Ward said, contributing the effort to coordination and cooperation between the effort of the city, SANDAG and community partners.
“This opportunity is a strike of lightning,” he continued. “It’s not going to hit in the same place a second time.”
Previously, the city asked SANDAG to incorporate the Normal Street Promenade into its Eastern Hillcrest Bikeway plans. Project manager and SANDAG representative Chris Romano discussed this collaboration and provided a comprehensive overview of the project, including an outreach timeline and recent changes based on community input.
Benjamin Nicholls, executive director of Hillcrest Business Association, addressed one of the biggest challenges on the space: security. For the former, Nicholls said they are seeking to create a Maintenance Assessment District (MAD), which entails the property owners within the MAD zone of East Hillcrest would pay a fee — an average of $1,000 — on property taxes to be spent on security. Potentially this would include a full-time security guard stationed on the premises, weekly landscaping and trash removal, and monthly pressure washing on the space.
“I know there are some property owners in the room that have concerns,” Nicholls said. “The phase where we are with this Maintenance Assessment District is the place where property owners can look at the plan and tweak it and say, ‘This does not work for me’ or ‘This does work for me.’ So it’s still in a draft phase. It’s been developed enough so you can tweak it and make it work.”
If the MAD does not pass, he added that the HBA will work with the Hillcrest Farmers Market to try to cut the security and maintenance costs.
Following the presentation, the audience had a chance to voice their opinions. Many business owners in the affected area pointed out the negative impact the project will cause to their establishments, especially the closing of the street and nearby parking spaces.
In its current design, the project would reduce the parking spots on Normal Street between University Avenue and Harvey Milk Street. To offset these losses, angled spots will be added on all three blocks within the project footprint, providing a potential net gain of 37 to 63 spaces in the surrounding area.
Business owner Antoine Chahine, who has owned Salon Antoine on 3917 Normal Street for 20 years, said that the project would drive him out of business. Christopher Michael and David Snider, who both own businesses in that strip mall, echoed these concerns and said they were not solicited until recently.
Dr. Darren Farnessi, who operates a medical facility in the area, noted his frustration of not being a part of the conversation as an impacted community member.
“We want to work with you to collaborate with you to make this project go forward, but I feel we haven’t really been at the design table,” Farnessi said. “I’d like a chance to make my concerns part of the design … I haven’t seen a plan to protect my business during these events.”
“It’s not quite cooked yet,” business owner Lou Railing added. “I know that timing matters, but it doesn’t have to be tonight.”
Brittany Bailey, Chris Ward’s council representative, assured business owners that support from Uptown Planners would not cease the discussion of the plan. She vowed to continue to work with them prior to construction to find ways to mitigate any problems they anticipated.
However, Bailey said she did not think moving the spaces up the street would cause a major negative impact or decrease business, adding that the project currently has the most parking out of all of the others she is working on with the city.
Many other attendees expressed their support for the project and urged the Uptown Planners to do the same. Supporters included residential homeowner Chris Olsen; Hillcrest Community Development Board member Sharon Gayle; Uptown Bicycles store owner Curtis Allen; and Paul Jamason and Patrick Santana of BikeSD.
“It’s an alignment of the stars. You may not see all the pieces that come together to make this possible come together [again] for quite some time,” Santana said. “I would consider it a great loss if we fail to seize this opportunity. This is not the time to put a kibosh on the project just because a few people aren’t happy with the design.”
Matt Ligeras of Hillcrest acknowledged the concerns of business owners but argued that the project may actually help these stores.
“I’ve done a little research on understanding foot traffic and bike traffic versus parking spaces — and we create such a more vibrant business community by having that foot traffic and that bike traffic frequenting the front of your businesses and stores,” Ligeras said. “This [project] is providing that. We should see situations of a huge business uptick from this type of a project.”
After public comment, the board offered their thoughts and posed a few questions before the final vote.
Multiple board members, including Kyle Shertzing and Soheil Nakshab, said they think it is important to support the project now to avoid any additional delays. They encouraged concerned residents and business owners to continue the dialogue with the project representatives to work through any problems before construction begins.
William Smith Jr. of University Heights added that he did not feel that the outrage from business owners should hold up the project which benefits the overall community.
“I’m pro-business but have little sympathy for someone who buys property along an under-utilized boulevard in a fast-growing city, and is surprised by change,” Smith Jr. said. “Furthermore, you have benefitted from low-cost, nearby public parking for years, which allowed you to devote less of your property to parking and more to revenue generation, as well as choose tenants who sell to out-of-area customers.”
Dennis Seisun of Hillcrest noted that he was initially against the project, but that the presentation changed his mind. Though Seisun wished it included a grassy park, a view also shared by other board members, he hoped the topic could be revisited later and did not want that alone to get in the way of creating a public space for the community.
“This could be a case of perfection getting in the way of good … yes, it should be a park, it should be a park space, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. Let’s face reality,” Seisun said.
“To me it’s very simple — there is more good than bad, so I support the project,” Tim Gahagan concluded.
Though the majority of the board was in favor of the project, Mat Wahlstorm of Hillcrest was strongly against it. Wahlstorm presented a letter to the audience that he sent to public officials, which urged a request for delay and reconsideration of the project.
“It is an improper and arguably illegal effort to divert a public right of way designed for a City park to the private benefit of a City contractor [the HBA],” he wrote, adding that involved agencies might be furthering their own agendas through the project. (Read the full letter at rescuehillcrest.com.)
In the end, Uptown Planners made a motion to support the project, which was supported in a 10-2 vote, with Walstrom opposing and William Ellig abstaining.
With the final letter of support in hand, construction for Normal Street Promenade is slated for 2020, with a projected completion date of 2021 or 2022. For more information, visit bit.ly/2TvGbVd.
—Reach Sara Butler at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Editor’s note: Visit our website at sduptownnews.com for additional photos and artist renderings of the project.]