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Behind the Competing Plans to Make Over Hillcrest

After SANDAG’s plan to add more bike lanes in Hillcrest met big backlash, the group reached out for help in creating alternatives. One has taken off with local business owners. But there are parking spots at stake, which means no one agrees completely.

Until a few months ago, Jim Frost was just an architect enjoying his retirement in Bankers Hill.

Then he got a phone call from SANDAG, the agency that plans San Diego’s transit future.

SANDAG was having problems with its plan to add more bike lanes along University Avenue in Hillcrest. To get there, the plan would cut way down on street parking, a possibility that inevitably angered business owners.

So, SANDAG asked Frost and a few other designers to take a fresh look.

His response, Frost said, surprised SANDAG. He completely redesigned much of the plan: Instead of narrowing travel lanes, he deletes them altogether. And instead of gutting parking, he adds more of it to the north side of  University Avenue.

“I think they were a little bit taken aback because it was so different from what they had,” Frost said. “But it was certainly never ruled out.”

Photo courtesy of A. Hutchinson

Photo courtesy of A. Hutchinson

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the groups that hated SANDAG’s plan love Frost’s. They’ve formed a group called the Hillcrest Community Collaborative to back his version.

“Not only do we support it but we support it so much that we formed a community collaborative … to make sure that they take a look at the plan that has gained so much support,” said Elizabeth Hannon, chief operating officer of the Uptown Community Parking District.

“To see the level of support for this concept, and to see things unite and come together, it’s amazing,” said Kathleen Ferrier, the policy manager for the alternative transportation advocacy group Circulate San Diego.

This is a parking issue, though, so of course not everyone agrees.

Ben Nicholls of the Hillcrest Business Association surprised people at a meeting that included SANDAG and Frost by introducing an alternative plan called the Hillcrest Jog. He said he was wary of Frost’s plan to remove some parking between First and Fifth avenues on University, even though Frost’s plan would add parking overall.

The Plans

Most people in Hillcrest seem to agree on one thing: University Avenue needs help.

“Hillcrest is kind of like a small town with a lot of people, but where we lose that is in those wide streets, and crossing those five lanes [on University Avenue] to get across the street,” said Hannon. “If we can have a little bit less of an urban feel, but appreciate that we are in the heart of the city, I think that’s important for the economic viability for the business community as well as the quality of life for its citizens.”

The SANDAG Plan

SANDAG’s original plan came as a part of the 2010 Regional Bike Plan, which set out to make San Diego more bike-friendly. A half-cent sales tax called TransNet – approved in 1988 and extended in 2004 for transportation projects in San Diego – allocated $200 million to implement the plan, and one section of it came to be known as the Uptown Regional Bike Corridor, which includes renovations to Washington Street and University, Fourth and Fifth  avenues.

The SANDAG plan buffers bike lanes on either side of University. To accommodate the lanes, SANDAG would shrink the width of the traffic lanes, hopefully slowing down traffic. In some bottle-necked areas of University, including the section between First and Fourth avenues, the plan would remove parking spaces to bring in the bike lanes.

Transforming Hillcrest

Frost’s plan, called Transforming Hillcrest, is much different: It cuts traffic lanes and adds parking.

Image courtesy of SANDAG

Image courtesy of SANDAG

Essentially, his plan would close down through traffic on the northern side of University Avenue, instead dedicating that space to a single driving lane that would mainly be used to access angled parking.

On the southern side of the street, which currently has two lanes going eastbound, Frost’s plan would have one lane going east and one lane going west, with parallel parking to the south of the lanes.

The purpose of this  “road diet” – as it’s known in planning circles – is to divert some through traffic (many cars use this section of University to get to North Park) to streets with higher capacity, like Washington Street, and make University a destination in itself, Frost said.

Frost’s plan could add 40 more parking spaces along University, according to Uptown News. But it does cut parking spaces on University between First and Fifth avenues, and it would make the street one-way going westbound from First to Fourth avenues.

That’s the change that’s been hardest to swallow for business owners. Nicholls, the interim chair of the Hillcrest Business Association, said business owners on the west end of University Avenue “almost universally support” a tweak to Frost’s plan that wouldn’t reduce parking or make University Avenue one-way.

The Hillcrest Jog

That’s where Nicholls’ alternative, the Hillcrest Jog, comes in. It’s considered a “jog” around University.

It maintains Frost’s proposal for the eastern half of University, but would divert the bike route onto Washington Street from Eighth to First. That would give business owners the parking they want, and would connect Mission Hills to bike lanes through Washington Street, Nicholls said.

SANDAG, for its part, had already ruled out using Washington even before Nicholls unveiled his plan, saying it would be too disruptive to traffic and public transit.

Though Nicholls favors the Jog, other members of the Hillcrest Business Association aren’t on board.

Dalour Younan, the group’s vice president who owns a Shell gas station on Washington, wrote in an email to Councilman Todd Gloria that he hadn’t even heard of the Hillcrest Jog until Nicholls introduced it at the Sept. 17 meeting.

“This plan has not been briefed or endorsed at any of the Hillcrest Business Association or the Uptown Planners meetings.” Younan said in the email. “This plan essentially calls for preserving parking spaces on University Avenue at the expense of losing an equal or more parking spaces on Washington Street.”

Why It Matters

Just as everyone pretty much agrees University Avenue is a problem, they also agree on the point of fixing it: to lure more San Diegans to Hillcrest. The neighborhood already has things people want: bars, quirky shops, a thriving culture.

All it’s missing is the infrastructure to accommodate people, Frost said. He believes his plan offers that.

“It’s a vision for the future that really is a once-in-a-lifetime possibility,” Frost said. “It’s a possibility where we can have the chance to use the bicycle plan to implement a much bigger vision. It offers us the backbone and the structure to do all this other development that is positive for the community.”

What’s Next

SANDAG is still just in the “preliminary engineering” phase of developing the bike infrastructure.

Officials will go over all of the plans again in a meeting sometime this month, and Gloria’s office and SANDAG plan to rehash why the Washington Street idea was scrapped.

Ultimately, the decision of where to put the bike lanes and which infrastructure to include resides with SANDAG. It won’t finalize a plan until sometime in 2015, and construction will likely begin in 2016.

Correction: An earlier version of this post mischaracterized an element of the Transforming Hillcrest plan. It would cut parking spaces on University between First and Fifth avenues, and make the street one-way from First to Fourth avenues.

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