Where the sidewalk ends, on an unpaved section of 32nd Street in Golden Hill, adjacent to westbound 94, the city’s Public Utilities Department recently drilled a well in order to explore the possibility of tapping the groundwater as a resource for the City of San Diego. Imagine, our very own aquifer, right under downtown. That’s an amazing prospect, considering this town’s chronic water shortages. The 32nd Street Test Well Project, which the city announced in summer 2012, and which it is still conducting, is one step closer to determining if it will come to fruition.
My husband and I have been curious about that undeveloped patch of ground since we stumbled upon it while out for a walk shortly after we moved to Golden Hill. How, in the midst of this cityscape, only a mile or so from downtown, could there be an unpaved street? That would be 32nd Street, at the south end of which lies one of San Diego’s oldest developments, the 32nd Street Naval Base, commissioned in 1922 by Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.
The street doesn’t run continuously from the base to its northern terminus in Normal Heights: it takes several hops, skips, and jumps — as do many of the streets that San Diego has tried to conform to a grid despite myriad canyons and freeways. The particular section that goes through Golden Hill picks up just north of Highway 94, but the pavement doesn’t. For two whole blocks, from B Street to Broadway, 32nd Street is not paved.
Tershia d’Elgin, community organizer and longtime Golden Hill resident, lives only a half-block away, and she doesn’t know for sure why it hasn’t been developed but surmises that the street remains unpaved because no homeowners on the block have demanded it be graded and paved. It seems to still be covered with macadam, which was state-of-the-art road material before about 1920. Macadam, named for Scottish surveyor general John McAdam, comprises several successive layers of small angular paving stones left to bind together as a solid mass by the compaction of horse, wagon, and foot traffic trampling it. With the advent of the automobile, along came tar-bound macadam. That’s a layer of tar sprayed over the top layer of stones. This method of road-building was meant to keep the dust down, a major concern in the days of transition from wagon wheel to car wheel.
And dusty it is on that patch of undeveloped urban ground, where a few unkempt houses sit perched at the edge of a wide canyon. At the end of B Street, at the intersection with 32nd, a rutted dirt driveway befitting a more rural route meanders down to a sloped lot that hosts a two-story ramshackle house patrolled by an unleashed dog. Cars parked willy-nilly on the surrounding grounds lend the scene a country feel. A hiking trail leads north into unpaved territory. Way down the canyon, seemingly in another place altogether, with smooth concrete surfaces, sleek glass windows, and bright lights, sits Golden Hill Elementary, opened in 2006. From that vantage point, at the southeastern edge of the neighborhood, on one of the many hills that make up Golden Hill, one can look out at night and see the lights of Tijuana twinkling in the distance.
From B, proceed another two blocks south along unpaved 32nd and there find the location of the city’s test well. As of now, it’s an inconspicuous concrete slab about 4´ x 4´ with a nondescript manhole cover set in it. During the drilling, test equipment, a 30-foot drill, sound -barrier walls, lighting rigs, and trucks occupied the site.
When we drove by on westbound 94 one summer day in 2012, I commented to my husband that it looked as if they were filming a movie there. We found out later that it was the test-well operation, and that the city had erected the walls to block the neighbors from hearing the constant grind of the drill. The drilling went on 24 hours a day for 12 days, to a depth of 1220 feet. If residents became weary of the noise, which project manager Greg Cross of the city Public Utilities Department compared to “a diesel truck idling,” they could retire to the Marriott Residence Inn Mission Valley on the city’s tab. No one elected to do so.
That’s one of the reasons d’Elgin surmises that the city chose the 32nd Street spot: residents of Golden Hill, a neighborhood teetering on low-income, wouldn’t put up too much resistance to a potentially problematic project. According to Cross, “since the property was undeveloped, it helped with avoiding common underground infrastructure — namely sewers — that could constrain flexibility in siting future municipal production well(s).” The property adjacent to the 94 is currently for sale, and is rumored to be difficult to develop possibly due to dumping that occurred during freeway construction. The “For Sale” sign was covered in graffiti shortly after it went up in the spring of 2012, and no one has bothered to put up a new one.
If the city were to tap the aquifer at that site, Cross says it would purchase the land to build a pumping station. It’s not clear if the lot advertised by the sign is the same property that might house the municipal facility, and the test well itself is on a dirt section of 32nd Street that reads “ST CLSD” on the San Diego County Assessor’s parcel map. The city did not respond to requests regarding the possible purchase."
The area contains seven separate parcels under four different owners: Michael Ramsey Trust owns two, 32nd Street LLC owns two, various members of the Starcevic family own two, and Rudenberg Family Trust owns one. Only one of the seven parcels, owned by the Ramsey Trust, is listed for sale, at $175,000. But at Golden Hill Planning Committee meetings, Cross and community members have also talked of a joint-use designation that would establish the area around the pumping station as a park. The whole group of seven vacant parcels has been deemed “moderate to high priority” by city park planner Howard Greenstein on a list of proposed park sites for Golden Hill.