There are 57 million square miles of land on earth, including the 4,206 square miles of San Diego County. Even as our population grows, spaces in the midst of our concrete jungle lay strangely fallow. This is an occasional series to explore those mysteriously unused or seemingly untended bits of land.

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What’s that lot? We’re talking about two related lots, each abutting Interstate 15 in City Heights. One is at the southwest corner of University and 40th Street, the other is at the northeast corner of El Cajon Boulevard and Central Avenue. Each lot is about a quarter acre – about as big as an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

What's That Lot by Ry RivardWho owns those lots? The city of San Diego’s Real Estate Assets Department – for now.

How’re those lots used? Both lots are part of the long history of City Heights and the interstate, which physically divided the city’s midsection. They’re unused for now, although the University Avenue lot will be used to temporarily store construction equipment as work continues on the bus station in the middle of I-15.

The thing is, city officials have been thinking about selling off both pieces of land as surplus property.


We Stand Up For You. Will You Stand Up For Us?

Sales talk prompted opposition from City Heights residents who believe the sales would renege on promises made over the years, dating back to the I-15’s construction two decades ago and the razing of houses and businesses that preceded the road work.

One promise involved plenty of public transit, including the rapid buses that will run down the middle of the interstate. That interstate bus stations will be accessible by elevator and stairs from University and El Cajon bridges, and each lot is right next to those bridges.

Residents are now worried the lots will end up being turned into a KFC or, ironically enough, a gas station useful primarily to people with cars.

“You’d have these great transit places, and then you’d have to walk by gas stations to get by them,” said Stephen Russell, board president of the City Heights Community Development Corporation.

'You’d have these great transit places, and then you’d have to walk by gas stations to get by them.'

He and others are pushing for something else, perhaps a beer garden akin to the Quartyard in the East Village, or some place for bikers to stash their bikes and have a coffee.

The city, for its part, has for now backed away from plans to sell the lots, but that could change. One option would be to sell the lots with strings attached, ensuring they couldn’t be turned into a gas station or a fast-food joint.

“Some of the conversations we’ve had with a handful of community members, a lot of it leads not to just what they want to see but they do not want to see there,” said Ralph Dimarucut, a policy adviser to City Councilwoman Marti Emerald.

    This article relates to: City Heights, Land Use, Must Reads, Transit

    Written by Ry Rivard

    Ry Rivard is a reporter for Voice of San Diego. He writes about water and land use. You can reach him at ry.rivard@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665.

    16 comments
    wadams92101
    wadams92101 subscriber

    This quote from today's CityLab (Atlantic Cities Magazine) pretty much says it all about the transit hater logic in the comments below: 


    As Robert Puentes of Brookings points out, the urban mobility report itself speaks to this process of “induced demand,”whereby commuters take to their cars once more lanes are available:

    Since 1994, all but one of the top 100 places studied by the Texas A&M researchers saw congestion get worse, as measured by their Travel Time Index. Yet during that time, 92 of these places saw an increase in the amount of roadway miles per capita. … Yes, more road building in order to try to move vehicles faster often makes traffic worse.

    Relying on highway expansion creates problems beyond more traffic—namely, a strain on transportation funding. Building new roads not only costs construction money now but it costs maintenance money later; a general failure to prepare for this full lifecycle of expenses explains much of America’scurrent infrastructure crisis. Additionally, in allotting so much money to the few-hour window that is rush-hour, local government finds itself without sufficient resources to provide mobility to the other 80 percent of travel that occurs outside the peak."

    http://www.citylab.com/commute/2015/08/why-rush-hour-traffic-isnt-the-best-way-to-rank-urban-mobility/402706/

    Greg Martin
    Greg Martin subscriber

    Mixed use development on either or both of those parcels would help to strengthen the city's tax base relative to low density, auto-oriented uses such as a gas station or fast food outlet as well as strengthen the transit corridors.


    Allowing auto-oriented Sonic to be built a block from the 30th and El Cajon Rapid stop was a mistake that should not be repeated on either of these parcels.  I'm not anti-restaurant, or anti-Sonic.  Either would be fine as part of a mixed use development.  But more surface parking near key transit stops along key transit corridors is not the way forward.

    paul jamason
    paul jamason subscribermember

    I was at the Kensington-Talmadge community planning group meeting when the east lot was brought up by the city representative.  Rather than recommending uses for transit users such as mixed-use residential and retail, the planning group members detailed all the things they *didn't* want (as Dimarucut mentioned), and suggested a dog park for the site.  I'm guessing none of the members use public transit, so why should they consider the needs of anyone who doesn't drive for every trip?

    At this same meeting the KenTal members requested El Cajon Boulevard be widened at Fairmont (wiping out a planned pedestrian bulb-out and traffic calming project) and were openly hostile to a state affordable housing proposal to reduce off-street parking requirements near transit.  

    A group of largely white, older residents acting against the interests of their younger and minority neighbors: welcome to your typical San Diego community planning group.  Let's stop electing planning group members during a 5-6 PM window once each year, and put these seats on our election ballots so everyone has the opportunity to vote.




    Sean M
    Sean M subscriber

    90% of San diegans drive to work. Very few people use public transportation, unless they have to, because it takes 3x as long unless you live AND work or go to school somewhere next to a trolley stop.

    I would rather the city not turn any more automobile lanes into dedicated bus lanes that sit unused 90% of the time.

    Edward Teyssier
    Edward Teyssier subscriber

    @Greg Martin @Sean M  Which freeways in the City of San Diego are "used well under capacity 90 percent of the time?"  I cannot think of any.  I routinely drive the 5, 805, 78, 52, 54, 56, 15, 76, 94, 125 (occasionally)  and the 8 freeways.  I see all of those are busy and doing their job.  The only other freeway  that I can think of, and which I don't hardly drive, is the 905, but even then, I don't think that one as underused.  I'm asking because I'd like to know on those really busy days if there are alternative routes.


    When it comes to building better transit facilities, those are heavily subsidized by gas taxes.  Therefore, we need more and wider freeways to allow more cars so that those drivers will drive more, buy more gas and pay more gas tax, and thereby provide the money for so-called "rapid transit" (so-called even though it takes 3 x longer) are truly not used or not operational 90% of the time. 

    Greg Martin
    Greg Martin subscriber

    @Edward Teyssier That 90% was in keeping with that percentage from the previous posts, but is a bit of an overstatement.  Many of the freeways are heavily used for roughly 8 hours a day on weekdays during the morning and evening commute periods, about 20 percent of the hours of a week  Most of the freeways are similarly lightly used for a similar number of hours overnight 7 nights a week or 20 to 25 percent of the time over a week.  The remaining 55 to 60 percent of the time is a mixed bag depending on the freeway.  The 5, 8, 15, and 805 do have some occasional heavier periods outside of the peak commute times, especially the 5 on weekend days or during events at Del Mar.  But the main point is there's a significant amount of time that the freeways are used at less than full capacity and not insignificant amounts of time at far less than full capacity.

    Moving people by whatever means, beyond maybe walking or biking, is rarely profitable or even cost neutral and hence requires a subsidy of some sort.  That applies to people who drive as well.  Gas taxes don't begin to cover the full cost of building and maintaining streets and highways.  For example, local projects that use direct SANDAG funding use sales tax, not gas tax revenue.  At the federal level, transportation funding is increasingly from sources other than gas taxes.

    Shifting away from gas taxes and towards VMT fees and congestion pricing would more properly account for road usage costs and help to manage capacity issues by providing an economic incentive to spread out the peaks in usage.  Vehicles that carry more people, mass transit for example, also make more efficient use of existing capacity, but by a different means and with a different cost structure.

    Edward Teyssier
    Edward Teyssier subscriber

    @Greg Martin @Edward Teyssier I disagree with everything you say.  What do you mean that these freeways are only heavily used "roughly 8 hours a day during the week?"  What the heck?!  I'd say they're heavily used _most_ of the time, including weekends.  I sometimes drive late nights, early mornings, weekdays and weekends.  Not every night or day, not every weekend, but when I see even just one lane is closed (due to an accident or scheduled road maintenance), even in the very wee hours, the effect is noticeable.  Last night, I happened to be driving north on 805 at about 3:30 a.m.  That's way out of the "rush hour", about as far away as can be.  It wasn't "heavy" traffic, yet there were still plenty of cars on the road. 

    What do you mean by "lightly used"?  Just because traffic isn't backed, and stop and go for  up for 5+ miles doesn't mean the freeway is only being  "lightly" used !  And the freeways are open for traffic 24/7/365...compare that schedule to the Coaster or the trolley!

    Because whenever I see a Coaster train or the trolley I look to see how many people are riding it. If it's  not a  weekday rush hour, they're usually empty.  That is, if they're running at all.   


    And please justify how my car (which is my primary form of transportation) is being subsidized?  Does the government subsidize me for my car payment, my gas, my insurance, my auto insurance, or my car maintenance?  No. No. No. No. And No.  Instead I pay taxes for buying the car, registering the car and every year thereafter, every time I buy gas, and even when I sell the car.  Whereas the typical rail passenger is subsidized to the tune of 'bout 70- 80% every time they board.  Automobile owners, on the other hand, pay for those subsidies through taxes.  MOST transit subsides come from automobile related taxes....the taxes are allegedly collected for roads, but then diverted to subsidize pork.  


    ISTEA, TEA-21, etc. have been some of the largest government spending programs and have been largely  funded by gas taxes.  Presently, there is about 50 cents a gallon (state and federal tax) on every gallon of gas sold in California.  And about half of that money is diverted away from roads, bridges and highways to subsidize rail projects. 

    What subsidies do the so called "mass transit" passengers pay to subsidize car owners?  I can't think of any.  

    Freeways and cars are the true "mass transit."  Rail passengers only  account for a tiny percentage of the total transportation.  


    If the public transportation passengers would just pay their fair fare, I think that would really open people's eyes at just how inefficient that transportation is.  They'd be looking at alternatives, pronto!  


    About 1995, REASON foundation did a study on LA's metro, and determined the cost of each boarding at somewhere between $17 and $20 !!  And that was 20 years ago...it's almost certainly more today!   How many people would ride the trolley if they had to pay $20 for a ride across town?  


    Compare those true costs with UBER, a private market supplier of transportation...Much cheaper.  On demand.  And guess what, it uses the roads, not rail. 



      

    Edward Teyssier
    Edward Teyssier subscriber

    @Greg Martin @Edward Teyssier 

    I'm looking again at your original statement wherein you said "we have freeways that are _well_ under_ capacity_ 90_ percent of the time."  You've still not identified any.

    paul jamason
    paul jamason subscribermember

    @Sean M I agree that public transit often takes too long.  Part of the reason is because of folks like yourself, who oppose dedicated lanes for buses.  What are your alternative suggestions for making public transit faster?  I'm guessing you're not too concerned about that, since you drive exclusively.

    The dedicated bus lane coming to University is actually a shared bus/bike lane, which means it will hardly ever go unused.  And the city can always increase the frequency and number of bus routes.  What evidence do you have to support your 90% unused number?


    Greg Martin
    Greg Martin subscriber

    @Sean M What dedicated bus lanes does San Diego have beyond a short stretch on Park between El Cajon and University and a slightly longer stretch planned along parts of University through North Park?  That's a ridiculously tiny amount relative to the total street mileage or percentage of people using transit.


    Transit is well-used in certain corridors and predictably not well-used in low-density sprawl areas.  Those higher-density corridors with heavily-used routes and/or multiple bus routes should have dedicated bus lanes where feasible. 

    We have freeways that are used well under capacity 90 percent of the time.  Should we remove lanes on those freeways to reduce the maintenance cost of that excess capacity?

    Sean M
    Sean M subscriber

    Buses usually come by about every half hour at each stop. The bus lane is idle and unused until the next bus comes, so in my view that space is wasted. I would support measures that would somehow clear the way ahead of buses allowing that space to be used when no bus is nearby, not sure how that would be done. Bus traffic will always be slow and the dedicated bus lanes on park is no exception.

    Sean M
    Sean M subscriber

    Glad you brought up the park blvd "rapid" bus. It took almost 4 years to build that dedicated bus line, about as ling as its supposed to take to build the nee trolley line. According to kpbs ridership increased 16% on park after the rapid bus line was completed, which is pretty poor ROI on the $44 million investment. It is also 10 minutes slower than promised. It's clear to me that dedicated bus lanes is more of a means to discourage driving than to make it easier for people to go where they need.

    There are always people driving on the freeway but I have seen lots of empty buses, I have even seen an empty bus following an empty bus.

    Greg Martin
    Greg Martin subscriber

    @Sean M There's no room to complain about it being 10 minutes slower than promised when two of the primary means for making that happen, dedicated lanes and payment before boarding, were taken away.  

    Current traffic volumes on El Cajon would support a four-lane street, not a six-lane street, so there was and still is room for dedicated bus lanes.  Dedicated bus lanes are not are a means of discouraging driving, but a means of providing other options.  Streets are for far more than just cars - people who walk, people who bike, people who ride transit, etc. 

    A trolley line could not have been built on that route for $44M and it's doubtful it would be any faster without dedicated lanes and without dedicated lanes would likely be slower.  

    I have been on a standing room only 235 in the evening, along the 15, when the 15 was exceedingly free flowing with lots of excess capacity.  So the idea that buses are always empty and freeways are always packed is a myth.


    Greg Martin
    Greg Martin subscriber

    @Edward Teyssier Maybe you should reread my clarification above:

    "That 90% was in keeping with that percentage from the previous posts, but is a bit of an overstatement.  Many of the freeways are heavily used for roughly 8 hours a day on weekdays during the morning and evening commute periods, about 20 percent of the hours of a week  Most of the freeways are similarly lightly used for a similar number of hours overnight 7 nights a week or 20 to 25 percent of the time over a week.  The remaining 55 to 60 percent of the time is a mixed bag depending on the freeway.  The 5, 8, 15, and 805 do have some occasional heavier periods outside of the peak commute times, especially the 5 on weekend days or during events at Del Mar.  But the main point is there's a significant amount of time that the freeways are used at less than full capacity and not insignificant amounts of time at far less than full capacity." 

    Greg Martin
    Greg Martin subscriber

    @Edward Teyssier "I'd say they're heavily used _most_ of the time, including weekends."

    You have no idea what you're talking about.  Yes, they're used.  But they're hardly heavily used most of the time.  I do have an overnight view of the 15 freeway in North County.  The next time I see more than a trickle of traffic at 3 AM on any night of the week will be the first time.  

    "
    And please justify how my car (which is my primary form of transportation) is being subsidized?"

    The direct costs of ownership, the ownership of the vehicle itself and associated maintenance and insurance costs are not being subsidized.  But the use of it on public roads, streets, highways, etc. is.  From a report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and Frontier Group:

    http://frontiergroup.org/sites/default/files/reports/Who Pays for Roads vUS.pdf

    "
    The report cited Federal Highway Administration statistics from 2012 that said drivers paid 48 percent of the cost of road maintenance and construction through gas taxes and other fees. General taxes paid 42 percent and the remaining 10 percent were covered by highway revenues."

    So while it's easy to assume because one is paying gas taxes, registration fees, etc. that one is paying for the full cost of driving if not more, that's simply not true.

    For local comparison, farebox recovery for MTS is 40 percent, which is quite good for a transit system even if that doesn't seem like a good cost recovery percentage.  But it also shows the level of subsidy for transit users versus people who drive isn't all that different.

    And beyond the cost issues, there are significant land use advantages to transit over single occupancy vehicles not the least of which is the estimated 3.5 parking spaces per vehicle.  That's a lot of space sitting vacant much of the time, space that could be used a lot more productively.