Some residents of Uptown fear that the San Diego Association of Governments is trying to grab money meant for pedestrian improvements in order to install a dedicated bikeway for cyclists to commute on Fourth and Fifth avenues. Objectors contend that doing so will put pedestrians in danger and put more cars on the streets, making Uptown less of a walkable community.
Tomorrow, January 15, members of the city council's Smart Growth and Land Use subcommittee will meet to discuss a request from SANDAG for the City of San Diego to transfer nearly $648,000 that had been set aside for parking improvements to Fourth and Fifth avenues and Quince and Nutmeg streets so it can be used for SANDAG's Uptown Regional Corridor project.
According to a city staff report, planners from SANDAG first approached the city in the beginning of last year, shortly after allocating the grant money, to discuss design conflicts with the two projects. Among the conflicts were the introduction of "bulb-outs" or widening the sidewalks at busy intersections along portions of Fourth and Fifth avenues. The "bulb-outs" were meant to increase safety for those wishing to cross busy Uptown streets. However, the sidewalk extensions would get in the way of the newly proposed bike path, so SANDAG petitioned the city to de-appropriate the funds and instead opt for their plan instead.
The transfer of funds isn't sitting well with some residents of Uptown and members of local planning groups.
"Bankers Hill/Park West, along with Uptown Planners, worked hard to obtain these pedestrian-oriented grants," writes community planner and Bankers Hill resident Leo Wilson in a January 10 email to interim mayor Todd Gloria's office.
"[The grants] were meant to fund pedestrian improvements, which are vitally important for Uptown [and] are now being moved, and in my view misappropriated, to the Uptown Bike Corridor Mobility Plan. This is deeply offensive; the fact that neither Bankers Hill stakeholders or Uptown Planners were informed of this action makes it even more maladorous [sic].”
According to Wilson, a vast number of residents supported the improvements to Nutmeg Street and Fourth and Fifth avenues. In 2009, more than 500 people signed a petition for stop signs and other improvements to begin.
Yet, despite the previous support for the project, Wilson says SANDAG and the city have refused to share their plans with community groups.
"The Bankers Hill/Park West community only learned last week of the attempt to defund these grants,” he says.
Cycling advocates disagree that SANDAG's plan will do anything to jeopardize the safety of pedestrians or cyclists.
“Any insinuation that the bike plan (or for that matter, any bike improvements) impacts the pedestrian experience, either in Uptown or anywhere else, is just absurd,” says Sam Ollinger from cycling advocacy group BikeSD. “Vehicle fumes, vehicles driven by drunk or distracted drivers or vehicles in and of itself — with his bulk and ability to take up far more free or greatly subsidized real estate on our city streets — impacts the pedestrian experience. San Diegans want more options in how they want to get around and between the passage of Transnet and the growing calls for bike and walking improvements, Uptown should focus on ensuring they are listening to their own community.”
The city argues that canceling the projects does not necessarily mean the pedestrian improvements will not be completed, a claim that Wilson finds hard to believe.
"It is not intended to do away with the improvements. The pop out project has not been deleted, however, it may be modified...as SANDAG moves forward with their design of the Uptown Bicycle Corridor Project," reads an email from a San Diego traffic engineer to Wilson.
Wilson is asking that the subcommittee delay the item to give the community a chance to weigh in.
The subcommittee will meet in the council committee room on the 12th floor of City Hall at 2 p.m.
UPDATE: 1/15, 2:10 p.m.
SANDAG spokesperson Helen Gao responds:
"Yes, the pedestrian improvements will be delayed as a result of the consolidation effort. However, the final results will be far superior. The combined project would actually include additional pedestrian improvements (beyond what’s included in the grant application) along the 4th and 5th Avenue corridors, consistent with community plans.
"Unfortunately, the criticisms directed at SANDAG are based on misinformation circulating in the community. There is an assumption that pedestrian and bike improvements are mutually exclusive and conflict with each other, which is not the case.
"We are taking a comprehensive approach to improving streets for both bicyclists and pedestrians in Uptown because we want to avoid wasting taxpayer money to modify pedestrian elements that are not properly aligned with the bike facilities that the community also wants to see built. A well designed corridor project will benefit pedestrians and people riding bikes, as well as improve safety for all road users.
"Case in point, curb bulb-outs. As currently envisioned, the bike lanes would conflict with the bulb-outs outlined in the grant application. We are working on a design that will incorporate similar pedestrian improvements into the bike project. Where bulb-outs were planned, we envision building pedestrian refuges/islands to improve pedestrian safety and calm traffic. Just like the bulb-outs, these islands would shorten the distance to cross the street. In fact, they will shorten the crossing distance even more than the original design."
UPDATE: 1/17, 8:25 a.m.
During Wednesday's committee meeting, city councilmembers continued the hearing to allow local planning groups time to discuss SANDAG's request. The Uptown Planners have already placed it on their February 4 agenda.