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City Heights Is Still Waiting on That Art it Was Promised

City Heights has slowly gotten most of the things it asked for to make up for being cut in half by a freeway expansion – except the art that was supposed to adorn two transit plazas. A new neighborhood group is working to make sure that promise is kept.

When Interstate 15 was extended through City Heights in the mid-1990s, it leveled homes and businesses and cut the community in half. Irate residents demanded concessions from the city and transportation officials, asking for additional infrastructure that might help weave the community back together.

Over the years, City Heights has gotten most of its freeway reparations, but a new neighborhood group is still working to get the last piece the community was promised – the art.

Teralta Park, a four-acre park built on top of a cap stretching over a chunk of the freeway, is the most noticeable attempt to reduce the impact. There are also the two large transit plazas built on bridges extending El Cajon Boulevard and University Avenue over the freeway. And now there’s the under-construction Centerline project, which will add two bus rapid-transit stations to the freeway medians underneath the two decks.

The two transit plazas on University and El Cajon actually house elevators and other amenities that have been locked and unused, waiting for the bus stations to open below. Centerline stalled for three decades before finally breaking ground this summer after a long, hard push from residents.

But even when Centerline eventually opens and the elevators, bathrooms and kiosks on the two transit plazas are finally unlocked and activated, a piece of the community’s consolation prize package will still be missing.

The original design for the plazas included artful and interpretive design elements like tile mosaics framing historic photos on large cement planters, colorful metal banners mounted on flagpoles, a timeline detailing the community’s role in building the connective infrastructure over the interstate and a large ground mosaic. Officials lopped those off when construction bids on the plazas came in over budget.

“Everyone considers art not to be a very essential element, but to me, if you’ve got a $40 million project, art can make a big difference on that huge investment,” said Michael Singleton, principal at KTU+A, the planning and landscape architecture firm that contracted with the city for the design of the Caltrans-funded transit plazas, which were constructed in 2005. “Taking it out saves so little in comparison. But what it can do is instill a sense of community pride, place-making, beautification and all that.”

Singleton and others saw the construction of Centerline as an opportunity to remind stakeholders of the artful design elements they were originally owed when the transit plazas were built. Centerline is managed by the San Diego Association of Governments, or SANDAG, which oversees regional transportation planning. At a SANDAG transportation committee meeting in April, a handful of residents said they wanted the artful elements added back into the transit plazas as part of the construction of Centerline.

SANDAG agreed at the time, and ponied up $200,000 ($100,000 for each plaza) to add the original artistic elements back into the two transit plazas.

“But then the construction bids came in and were higher than the budget, so the artful elements fell off again,” said Dave Schumacher, a principal planner at SANDAG. “When things are over budget, the money only goes so far, so there’s always something that’s got to give. Artful elements are nice, but they’re not necessary or integral to the project.”

Singleton, whose firm is also a subcontractor on Centerline, which does include two large transportation-themed wall relief murals, said he’d still like to see the original design intent restored to the two plazas. But at this point, he’d be happy to see just about any art added to the two plazas –whether it honors his firm’s original design or not.

“Something should be done,” he said. “Those plaza decks deserve something. It feels so empty there. For example, to me, it’s really silly to have all these banner polls, the ones on the University transit plaza, sticking up everywhere without any banners on them. … Even if someone was just putting up new banners every few years, that would be important. That would be something. I mean, that’s $20,000 worth of banner poles that sit empty. That’s the shame of it.”

♦♦♦

The transit plazas are two of many targets in City Heights that the newly formed Fairmount Corridor Arts Collaborative has set its sights on.

The group, which launched a few months ago with a public event and unveiling of a new sculpture on Fairmount Avenue by Arts Collaborative member Jim Bliesner, is mainly focused on transforming Fairmount between El Cajon and University into a more walkable and beautiful corridor by using public art and place-making tactics.

Fairmount Avenue is about a dozen blocks away from the transit plazas, but the group’s energy and arts advocacy has spilled over to the barren transit plazas.

I recently met a few of the core members of the arts collaborative at the University Avenue transit plaza. Bliesner said, as a starting point, they’ve looked at KTU+A’s original plans for the art and interpretive elements.

“We wanted to see what the original intention was, but maybe try to do something even bigger and better,” he said. “These freeway caps have been dormant for too long.”

Arts collaborative member Enrique Gandarilla, who heads the City Heights Business Association, has independently been thinking about improving the transit plaza on University for a long time. He said when the plaza was first built, there was an additional maintenance budget provided by The Price Philanthropies Foundation, which used to have a building located nearby. But for the past few decades, the City Heights Business Association has been tasked with maintaining the plaza without any extra funds.

He said the lack of resources is why most of the trees and plants in the large planters on the plaza have died off. He said his group can only manage very basic upkeep and that easy-to-maintain art added to the plaza could make a big difference.

“Each column surrounding the plaza was supposed to have a piece of art that reflected each of the four neighborhoods around here,” Gandarilla said. “But the old design is too much money. We’re looking at things that are more practical, affordable and easy to maintain.”

He said he’s already solicited a proposal to get art on the cement columns on the plaza from Jason Gould, who’s heading up another City Heights BIA project and painting all the trash cans and electrical boxes in City Heights.

Beryl Forman of the El Cajon Boulevard Businesses Improvement Association has ideas for sprucing up the transit plaza in her neighborhood, too. She wants to make the El Cajon Transit Plaza more bike-friendly and is also eyeing the vacant lots surrounding the plaza as places for future pop-up events.

Ultimately, anything the group decides to do on either plaza isn’t likely to see any funding from SANDAG or the city, but it will have to get city approval. A spokesperson for the city said the approval process could get complicated since it’s possible that the Metropolitan Transit Development Board or even Caltrans would have to sign off on anything that happens on the plazas.

Bliesner, who’s long been an advocate for making City Heights more livable, said he’s not intimidated by bureaucratic barriers. He said the Fairmount Arts Corridor Collaborative’s strategy is simple – just pick a place that deserves art and do it. The method’s proven to be successful so far on Fairmount, so he thinks it’ll work on the transit plazas, too.

“It’s time for us to put the frosting on the cake of the development of these transit plazas,” he said.

“it’s past time,” Gandarilla added. “The community was promised certain things in order to accommodate the freeway and a lot of it was never delivered. That’s a shame.”

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