During the past year, the monthly meetings of University City Planning Group, which once drew only a handful of community members, have become raucous three-hour affairs attended by as many as 700 people. The root cause of all the disturbance dates back to two projects proposed by the city planning department in the late 1980s when University City was still being developed. Locals refer to the proposals as "the bridge" and "the widening."
The bridge, if built, would span Rose Canyon and connect the disjointed pieces of Regents Road, which runs north and south through west University City. Rose Canyon, says Debby Knight, member of a local group called Friends of Rose Canyon, "is one of the city's six open-space parks along with Mission Trails and some others."
The proposed bridge, Knight adds, "would be taking the longest uninterrupted stretch of the park and cutting it in half. There would be no way to do this without ruining the park."
But the Regents bridge has its supporters, chiefly business interests in north University City. With them are some residents of southeast University City who oppose the widening of Genesee Avenue, the north-south artery in east University City, from four lanes to six. They feel the Regents bridge would alleviate traffic on Genesee.
Kevin Wirsing is part of a group of University City residents, known collectively as UC Golden, which opposes both projects. "The reason," he says, "is because these projects were last put in the community plan in 1987. They were based on traffic projections [for Genesee Avenue] made in 1987 for 95,000 daily trips."
That projection, made at a time when North University City was not fully developed and the interchange at Nobel Drive and I-805 hadn't been built, was never realized. According to city planning department documents, daily trip projections for Genesee have been dropping ever since. In 1994, it was 69,000 trips. In 1997, the planning department projected 52,000 trips. A traffic count done in 2002 -- after the completion of the 805/Nobel Drive interchange -- produced a figure of only 5300 daily trips.
Due to constantly falling traffic projections, the proposals lay like a sleeping giant from 1987 through 2001. Then, in spring 2002, the giant awoke. "We had a guy on the UCPG [University City Planning Group]," Wirsing recalls, "named Jesse Knighton, a former noncommissioned officer in the Navy. And Bill Ferguson, a commercial real estate agent with an office in North UC, decided that Jesse was vulnerable and tried to knock him off. His program was 'Build the bridge, you'll never have to do the widening.' "
Wirsing says Ferguson's pro-bridge campaign "put us all to sleep because we had heard all that crap before. We thought Jesse didn't have anything to worry about. Well, we were wrong. The election came down 120 to 112, and we were on the short end of the stick.
"The chair of the UCPG," Wirsing continues, "is Alice Tana. She is also the executive director of the Golden Triangle Chamber of Commerce. She has always said business needs this bridge. But you had Jesse and one other guy who were staunch opponents of the bridge. When Jesse got knocked off, these businesspeople started pitching [Councilman Scott] Peters's office with the line, 'We have to do something about the traffic, and this bridge has been held up for too long.' "
Tana, who didn't respond to phone calls, had plenty of support on the planning group. "We looked at the planning group," Wirsing said, "and we realized that she had the thing, 16 to 2."
That's because, during the quiet years, seats on the planning group had become empty and, according to bylaws, the other seat holders had appointed people to fill them.
Sensing the political momentum was swinging toward building a bridge, Wirsing and other members of UC Golden met with Councilman Peters in May of 2002. "He said," Wirsing recalls, " 'There will be a UCPG meeting in June of 2002. And if the community wants it, and there isn't any good reason not to go forward with it, yes, we are going to go forward.' He also advised us to get involved with the UCPG. Well, we got a petition together and got about 1200 signatures. And we flooded Peters's office with e-mail, with letters and phone calls. Then they had the big June meeting up at La Jolla Country Day, and we got out slightly more of our people than they got of theirs."
By Wirsing's estimation, nearly 1000 people packed the June 2002 meeting at La Jolla Country Day school's theater. "We probably had them beat 60/40," he says. Peters was in attendance, and after three hours of presentations and counterpresentations, he announced that he would not proceed with the project until it had been studied further.
After the June meeting, Wirsing and other UC Golden members decided they needed more representation on the planning board. "So in December," explained Wirsing, "we sat down to figure out what seats were available and who we could have run for them. And that is not an easy thing. It is a volunteer position, you get nothing but grief, and you've got to sit there for hours endlessly at monthly meetings. It is a thankless task."
Besides two representatives from the University of California, San Diego, the planning group is made up of members elected from three zones of University City: the south half is area one, the northwest is area two, and the northeast is area three. Each zone is represented by three resident members and three business members. In March of this year, six seats came up for reelection. "We were able to connect with and convince four people to stand for four of the six seats that were up," Wirsing says.
"The first problem that we had," Wirsing says, "was the planning group didn't want to accept [one of our candidates], Magda Remillard as a legitimate business candidate because she runs her business out of her home. The planning group secretary went to the [city] planning staff and they said, 'Yes, generally we don't allow that.' This is where Jesse Knighton was invaluable to us, because he heard about it and said, 'There are two people on there with home businesses.' We informed the city about this, and the planning department came back and said, 'Yes, Magda can run, because the secretary never told us about your practice. So for this election, yes, you can do this. But city policy is, if it is business, it ought not to be home business.' "