There’s a wild place in the heart of San Diego that only a few people know about — visited by even fewer — and if San Diego State has its way, it may share the demise of other erstwhile pockets of quasi wilderness in the county.
Adobe Falls is no Niagara, to be sure; it’s a series of gentle cascades, situated in and well hidden by rugged terrain featuring house-sized boulders and thorny brush, not to mention a healthy population of rattlesnakes, aggressive bees, and prolific mosquitoes. But it’s the only year-round cluster of waterfalls within the city limits, and George Janczyn thinks it’s special. Chances are good that if you live in San Diego, you’ve been close to the falls. Anyone who travels Interstate 8 through Mission Valley past SDSU will whiz right by the place. However, no matter how hard you stare from the freeway, you’ll get no inkling of what gurgles and splashes a few hundred yards away.
On a recent, unseasonably cool July afternoon, Janczyn showed me around the vicinity, which consists of an undeveloped (save for a sewer trunk line) swath immediately north of Interstate 8, situated between College Avenue to the east and Waring Road to the west. He began by leading me to the terminus of Mill Peak Road, from whose vantage point one can follow the line of Washingtonia palms that marks the path of Alvarado Creek. But even from here, all I could see, looking down, was a modest green gorge punctuated by rocky outcrops. I suggested that a nearby trail looked usable, but Janczyn cautioned, “It’s a pretty rough hike. To get to the falls, you’ve got to climb over some large boulders. It can be dangerous.”
For a different perspective, he then led me down the hill, where the eastern segment of Adobe Falls Road dead-ends behind the gates of the Smoke Tree condos. Here, at the canyon bottom, the creek — no more than a few inches deep and a few yards wide during the scant flows of summer — is modest, to say the least. To make things even more prosaic at this spot, there’s a view of three-foot-wide, gentian-hued sewer line access portals that emit occasional whiffs of stench. Nevertheless, Janczyn assured me that, a half mile or so upstream — shielded by 15-foot-high thickets of bamboo and cane, as well as eucalyptus, palms, and other trees I couldn’t identify — sit the falls, which form the heart of a 32-acre parcel purchased by San Diego State in 1939. (San Diego State also acquired an easement through an adjoining 4-acre patch retained by the City of San Diego.)
Janczyn, a UCSD retiree with a penchant for studying San Diego’s water-delivery infrastructure, first took an interest in the falls in 2009; as a Del Cerro denizen who lives “just over the hill” from the site, he’d been aware of Adobe Falls for years, but when he learned that San Diego State had plans to build a large residential complex there, he delved a bit deeper into the waters. What he found was SDSU’s 2005 Master Plan, under whose rubric Stephen Weber and fellow Aztecs were intent on developing its land — modest cataracts be damned — by erecting condo-style housing for faculty and staff, with a total of 540 units wedged into the craggy arroyo.
By late 2007, SDSU’s bid to give Adobe Falls a suburban makeover had been the subject of several separate lawsuits by public entities (the City of San Diego and the Redevelopment Agency of the City of San Diego; San Diego Association of Governments; San Diego Metropolitan Transit System) as well as by a local homeowners’ group, the Del Cerro Action Council. Later consolidated into one suit, the actions alleged, in part, that the environmental impact report prepared by SDSU pursuant to its 2005 Master Plan and approved by the California State University board of trustees had failed to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act. The plaintiffs charged that, in essence, SDSU had neither identified the deleterious environmental impacts likely to be caused by the project nor offered ways to reduce such impacts, much less finance mitigation efforts.
The Del Cerro Action Council, comprising for the most part residents living between Waring Road and College Avenue north of I-8, is led by Jay Wilson, whose day job is executive director of Mission Trails Regional Park Foundation. Wilson says that the extensive grading required to build even the smallest of the contemplated complexes would “destroy the environment around the falls.” Further, he strongly seconds George Janczyn on the matter of traffic mitigation, to wit: there’s no feasible, cost-effective way — even if San Diego State were amenable to funding it — that the anticipated traffic tie-ups could be avoided. He also contends that despite the evident, even daunting, logistics of building at the falls, San Diego State has failed to seriously consider alternative sites. Wilson says, “San Diego State owns property near the Alvarado trolley stop. The transit district owns adjacent land. Part of the area is privately owned, but apparently, they [SDSU] never seriously looked into working out a deal to build housing there. It would have been ideal from a traffic and environmental standpoint because the project wouldn’t have put more cars on the road.”
Notwithstanding the aesthetic value of the falls — and putting aside the potential for light-duty recreational uses — opposition to SDSU’s project has always centered on traffic impacts, which don’t appear susceptible to mitigation. As both Wilson and Janczyn point out, the only current access to and from the site is via a series of narrow residential streets, some of which are steep and winding and whose terminus — Del Cerro Boulevard at College — is already a major-league bottleneck, especially when Phoebe Hearst Elementary School is in session. The alternatives discussed so far have proven to be either improbable — such as a deal with the Smoke Tree Homeowners’ Association to use part of their property — or outrageously expensive, e.g., building a tunnel under I-8.
No matter the ultimate fate of the falls, George Janczyn says that there’s been little citywide interest in the matter. He characterizes local media coverage as scant at the outset and nil by 2007. The general assumption, he notes, was that the falls would be preserved. (Indeed, when he contacted Councilmember Marti Emerald’s District Seven office in 2009, he was assured that the project was dead.) But master plans have a multitude of pathways to resurrection, including court-approved revision, and SDSU pressed on in its quest to civilize a parcel of land few San Diegans had ever inventoried as wild to begin with. Although the San Diego Superior Court was persuaded to set aside the original master plan, it allowed SDSU to present for judicial imprimatur its new and improved edition — the ’07. As the litigation wound through procedural oxbows, Janczyn embarked on an informational campaign, writing extensively about the proposed project on his blog, groksurf, setting out a timeline of developments. He also posted a slide show and numerous photographs of the falls.
On February 11, 2010, Judge Thomas Nugent, presiding in Vista (the litigants — objecting to the roster of available downtown judges — had moved the case up-county), approved the 2007 Master Plan. In pertinent part, Nugent ruled that SDSU’s revised plan had satisfied applicable requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act and provisions regarding mitigation. After protracted procedural wrangling and copious outlays of attorneys’ fees (the Del Cerro group alone spent around $60,000), SDSU had won, at least temporarily, the right to put up a scaled-down version of its project with 172 units. As for the latest ruling, Janczyn says, “I have mixed feelings. Currently, no one really uses the falls because access is so difficult. But if the project goes through, the wildness will be lost. Right now, we have an unmaintained site. Ideally, I’d like to see a minimally maintained site with trail improvements, maybe a few places to sit, and parking for, say, about six cars.” However, according to Janczyn, the mere presence of the faculty/staff housing — even consisting of 172 units rather than 540 — would turn this patch of wild into a manicured scrap of mild. On the other hand, he muses, “With the state of the economy, it could be ten years or more before it’s built.”
No matter when the project is built, and regardless of its scale, San Diego State doesn’t want to fund mitigation. The university contends that its only obligation is to request funds from the State of California, a stipulation, says Janczyn, that is tantamount to nothing at all. On June 1, 2010, the City of San Diego, still fighting SDSU’s apparent attempts to evade paying for mitigation, filed an appeal to set aside approval of the 2007 Master Plan. The Del Cerro Action Council, however, has dropped out of the fight due to lack of money.
Given the logistical roadblocks to building at the falls — tortuous road access, grading nightmares, unavoidable environmental degradation — one might think that SDSU has a supportable reason for choosing the site, a reason it would elucidate. But when I called the university for comment, Greg Block, director of media relations and new media, refused to comment, sputtering, “We don’t talk to the Reader.”