Aerial photo by @readerandy and Chris Brake
“If some affluent influential people in Talmadge want to live in a gated community,” says Noreen Green, “then they should move where there is one.”
Green and her husband Kevin have owned a home on 47th Street in Talmadge, a little south of Monroe Avenue, since 1999. Recently, they and other property owners have been fighting an attempt by the Kensington Talmadge Planning Group (KenTal) to close their street at Monroe Avenue. They see the effort as an attempt to wall off the more affluent section of Talmadge north of Monroe from their neighbors living between Monroe and El Cajon Boulevard, the southern border of Talmadge.
This summer, however, the City of San Diego’s Transportation Engineering Operations Division put a stop to the effort to close 47th. For now, at least. “But KenTal doesn’t give up easily,” says Noreen Green.
The planning group has argued that 47th must be closed to allow the North Park/Mid-City Bikeways Project to go through Talmadge on the south side of Monroe. The San Diego Association of Governments has been planning to build the bike lane from San Diego State University to downtown.
As early as the spring of 2013, SANDAG had introduced preliminary routes of the bike lane to affected planning groups, and KenTal, in subsequent meetings that year, narrowed its choices of the lane’s route to Monroe. At that time, the group had already been working to control traffic on Aldine Drive, where it leads down a steep slope in a northwesterly direction away from Monroe. The ways in which the bike lane and several Aldine fixes took shape coalesced at the intersection of Monroe and 47th Street.
KenTal has been grappling with the traffic issue for decades. Aldine Drive is a crucial commuter feeder leading to and from Fairmount Avenue, the main access for locals into and out of Mission Valley. But Aldine was not designed to handle the volume of traffic that currently uses it. According to the city’s traffic engineers, Aldine carries 18,000 average daily trips, far more than it was originally designed for. So KenTal decided it had better do something substantial to protect the safety of drivers and its own financial liability.
At first, KenTal wanted speed humps on Aldine and Monroe, covering short sections of both streets where they converge. But the fire department vetoed the plan. The planners then convinced the city to put in stop signs at Monroe and Aldine. But as KenTal board chairman David Moty would later write in a letter to mayor Kevin Faulconer, the signs “generated thousands of emails, horn honking, and a few near physical altercations between drivers.”
No accidents at 47th and Monroe
So it was back to the speed humps, and this time the fire department relented. An additional step was taken to forbid left turns at the intersections of both Aldine and Monroe and 47th and Monroe. The left from Monroe onto Aldine is virtually a hairpin turn. But Steve Tripp, a resident of west Talmadge, orchestrated an online petition signed by 50 of his neighbors to reverse the decision.
I find Tripp reluctant to meet for an interview for fear of crossing KenTal. Still, by phone, he maintains that drivers have clear views in both directions to make the left turn from Monroe in west Talmadge onto Aldine. KenTal’s decisions, he says, take no account of the interests of west Talmadge. And he raises a question. Why would the planning group choose one of the most crowded streets in San Diego on which to make a bike lane?
Tripp’s petition to the city ended up saving the turn onto Aldine for his neighbors. But no such luck for the residents of 47th Street, even though Noreen Green circulated a petition in her neighborhood much like Tripp’s and submitted it to the city in January 2014. The petition did not include signatories from several apartment buildings, the source of most of the heavy traffic on 47th.
As justification for the restriction at 47th, David Moty cites blind spots that could occur due to a “strategically parked” car on Monroe. He also notes numerous accidents that have occurred nearby. Although he does mention one accident he witnessed personally, his evidence is vague in regard to exactly where it and other accidents have taken place and over how long a time period. To corroborate his information, he referred me to Elvia Sandoval, who lives on Aldine Drive. Sandoval assures me she can document the many accidents. And she does email me a list of 11. However, not one of the accident descriptions indicates that it occurred at 47th and Monroe, while 2 others occurred as far away as Aldine and Fairmount and the rest on Aldine Drive or at Aldine and Monroe. This leads one to believe that those accidents resulted as much as, if not more, from cars joining Monroe at places other than south 47th Street, such as the right turns from Euclid Avenue or 47th north of Monroe.
“For 14 years we made the left from 47th at Monroe every day with no problems,” says Green. She disagrees with Moty that the visibility up and down Monroe from 47th is poor. And what irks her the most is that no prohibition was ever placed on left turns coming out of the Romeo and Julieta Wine Cafe parking lot on the southeast side of 47th and Monroe, only a few feet from the intersection that was denied the turn.
An end to police surveillance
In a project status report dated May 8, 2014, SANDAG stated that “the planning and conceptual design phase of the project is complete.” The bike lane would be installed on the south side of Monroe. But, says Green in a recent email, SANDAG “didn’t reach out to the Talmadge community at large until February 15 of this year,” referring to 1500 flyers left on Talmadge residents’ doors announcing a presentation of the plan to a meeting of the Kensington Talmadge Planning Group. “It looked like a pizza-delivery advertisement,” Green tells me. “Who reads those things? And the print was so small that at first we didn’t notice what it was talking about.”
But shortly afterward, she attended the meeting, where she confirmed that the bike-lane plan would require closing 47th Street at Monroe, forever preventing any access onto Monroe from the south side of the intersection.
“The usual 20 to 30 people who go to the KenTal meetings were there when SANDAG presented the plans,” says Green.
The left turns at 47th and Monroe had remained forbidden from the spring of 2013. But now Green noticed for the first time that, at the intersection, police were daily “lying hidden in wait” to catch drivers who might make the turn illegally. On April 17, she called the ciy’s transportation and engineering department, complaining that the police action discriminated against her neighborhood. She also requested that the left turn be reinstated.
The police surveillance stopped immediately, says Green. Then, in early May, the city informed her that the left turn would be reinstated. But after no action, Green, on May 28, called again to ask when the turn would be permitted. She was told that SANDAG opposed the idea. So she reminded the transportation officials that left turns were still being permitted at Aldine and at the wine bar. Finally, in early June, the city notified her that the left turn at Monroe south from 47th was approved as safe and would go through.
On July 6, Talmadge was taken by surprise. The reappearance of left turns at 47th, except during the rush hours of 6 to 9 a.m. and 3:30 to 6:30 p.m, caused, at the monthly KenTal meeting two days later, a paroxysm of indignation over safety issues. On July 13, Moty sent a letter to Mayor Faulconer, registering a protest by the planners. He asked the mayor to remove “the reintroduced turn lanes” and return “to the previous signage.” And he wanted to know why the change “was made without input,” requesting on the letter’s third page “some explanation for why the community planning group was not notified of this change.” He also wanted assurance that the city’s action “does not interfere with the design work being done by SANDAG for the regional North Park/Mid-City bicycle route, which has the active cooperation of the planning group, local [maintenance assessment district], and nearby residents.”
The phrase “nearby residents” caught Green’s attention. “That would be us,” she says. “But never once did anyone suggest getting input from the south Talmadge residents who will be most affected by the bike lane.”
The most important thing is the bike lane
I attended the KenTal meeting on September 10. There, the group learned of changes SANDAG may now make to the Mid-City bike project through Talmadge. Danny Veeh, project manager for the bike lane, earlier informed KenTal leaders that the left turns onto Monroe at Aldine and 47th are likely to remain legal between the morning and evening rush-hour restrictions. The City of San Diego will close neither 47th Street at Monroe nor eastbound Monroe at Aldine Drive. And there may now be bike lanes on each side of the street to accommodate both directions. In the coming weeks, SANDAG will be finalizing the details of the project modification.
One member of KenTal told the group they could fight the changes as far as city hall or accept the compromise with SANDAG and the city. After all, they’re still going to get the most important thing, the bike lane on Monroe through Talmadge. But several members argued that only the closure of 47th Street at Monroe would allow the project to work.
Noreen Green is grateful to the city. But she is sure KenTal will not relinquish its original version of the bike-lane project because it is a pretext for helping insulate north Talmadge from its southern neighbors and El Cajon Boulevard.
Traffic lanes narrowed to accommodate bike lane
“Since I was the one from our neighborhood who spoke the most at meetings,” says Green, “the planning group probably thinks I single-handedly got the city to remove the left-turn restrictions. But the petition that we circulated a while back was signed by eight of nine homeowners on our street.”
Two of the signers live next door to the Greens and back her fully. Kelly Spencer bought her home a little more than a year ago. Paul Gasper lives in the house as her roommate.
Precise details about the lane through Talmadge come to me from David Moty. “At its narrowest,” he writes in an email, “the bike path will be about 8 1/2 feet wide. The traffic lanes in the road will be shrunk from 15 feet wide to 10 and 10 1/2 feet wide respectively, with about a 1 foot wide concrete buffer between the bike path and the remaining roadway.”
The single lane would have to accommodate bicyclists riding in both directions. Kevin Green, an avid biker, says that riding against traffic in the two-way lane would deter him from using it. That plan, he says, requires that the width of Monroe at 47th, already narrow, will have to be narrowed further.
KenTal members say the 47th Street residents should have been going to its meetings all along to make their views known. “But they never talk about our issues, and the meetings are uncomfortable for us,” says Noreen Green. Kelly Spencer maintains “that some of the group members look down on us.” She guesses their attitude is probably economic but that it could be a reaction to the diversity of her neighborhood’s residents. She has attended three of the most recent planning-committee meetings. At one meeting, in a small group break-out, she was taken aback by a woman calling her “you people.” “I had a name tag on,” she says.
Spencer and Gasper say they moved to the neighborhood to enjoy the diversity. But he is more convinced than she that that’s the problem his neighborhood poses for KenTal. Both residents are Caucasian, the Greens are African-American, and five other homeowners who signed the petition to the city are Vietnamese, people who are rarely willing to complain to government about anything. The area known as Little Saigon is situated on El Cajon Boulevard behind the neighborhood.
Aesthetic concerns about areas closest to El Cajon Boulevard are important, Gasper acknowledges. “And gentrification is good because there’s cleanup,” he says, “but it can go too far and then everything becomes vanilla.” He complains that “other people are making decisions for a neighborhood they don’t live in.”
Talmadge south of Monroe...
...has never belonged to the Talmadge Maintenance Assessment District. By email, I ask the organization’s current chair, Kelly Waggonner, why not. In large part, she writes back, “the blocks that extend from El Cajon Boulevard to Monroe are already included in the El Cajon Business Improvement Association. And it was in existence long before the TMAD [which was founded in 1999].” Waggonner adds that the El Cajon business improvement district will soon be adding streetlights on Euclid Avenue, something Talmadge’s maintenance assessment district does for its members. A number of businesses line Euclid, a block east of 47th, which also needs streetlights. But 47th will not be getting them. That’s because business improvement organizations don’t usually assist residential areas.
The intersection of Euclid and El Cajon Boulevard is the site of another KenTal project called the Talmadge Gateway. A February 13, 2015, article in San Diego Uptown News describes issues KenTal has discussed in regard to the project. One of the most significant was how close to El Cajon Boulevard the retail sections of the project should be located. The article quoted David Moty saying, “Bring [the project] within the comfort zone and the safety zone of the people who want it.”
The big picture, argues Noreen Green, is that KenTal is “trying to wall themselves off from south Talmadge. At a minimum,” she says, “they want to get rid of us on 47th.” If dead-ending 47th at Monroe weren’t enough, she cites a long-term plan for a park KenTal wants the city to build right where she and many of her neighbors live. The park would sit on the land between Monroe and Meade and between 47th and Menlo Avenue. The planners have made no secret of the necessity to use eminent domain to acquire the land for the “common good” of the whole community.
“I think they would like to turn themselves into something similar to Alvarado Estates,” which is a gated community west of San Diego State. “But they’re not set up to do that because they live in an urban environment. They do act like they own the streets, though. As far as I know, the city owns the streets. Some things should be shared among neighbors.”
The Talmadge sisters
Our fetching cover girls are silent-movie stars Constance and Norma Talmadge. Along with their sister Natalie, they opened the Talmadge Park real estate development in the Mid-City area of San Diego in 1927. Streets in the neighborhood still bear their names.