Ramon Garcia used to board the bus right before El Cajon Boulevard as it came up the off-ramp from the 15 freeway. After picking up its passengers, Rapid 235 waited for a green light to cross the Boulevard and descend the on-ramp to get back on the freeway heading north as far as Escondido.
Now Garcia waits at freeway level instead of on the streets above. In the newly transformed Boulevard Transit Plaza, he takes an elevator down 22 feet to the platform where he boards. Having avoided the signal on the Boulevard, the bus quickly resumes its freeway speed in a bus-only lane on the freeway median. After a short stretch, it joins regular traffic.
The new development, called Centerline, includes identical infrastructure on the other side of El Cajon Boulevard and on both sides of University Avenue, where State Route 15 — it’s no longer an Interstate this far south — intersects it. Construction was completed for public use on March 11. It has been a $65 million joint project of CalTrans, the San Diego Association of Governments, and the Metropolitan Transit System. It was funded by TransNet, a local transportation half-cent sales tax, and by the Federal Transit Administration.
A 40-minute bus trip delivers Garcia to Rancho Bernardo, where he works full-time for a janitorial and security service company. I ask him about the advantages of the new arrangement versus the old.
“It’s not only avoiding the signal on El Cajon Boulevard,” he tells me as we await the next bus under a large half-roof slanting down toward the wall in back of us. “During rush hour, especially when I’d be coming home from work, the bus used to become trapped in the traffic backing up on the off-ramp. The new system saves me a lot of time.”
Since its first installation a few years ago, Rapid 235, like Route 7 on University Avenue, has used buses twice as large as most other MTS carriers. And they’ve always had cushioned seats and seatbacks. During the early morning weekday commutes, the bus is almost always full, with passengers sleeping for the longer rides.
Joanna Moctezuma uses Rapid 235 for shorter trips to Kearny Mesa and downtown. “The old bus stop’s shelter was too short and narrow,” she tells me.
I wonder how far she has to come to reach the transit plaza. “I just jump on the [Rapid] 215 that comes down El Cajon.” She is lucky to live across the street from the bus stop.
Connecting housing to transit has been the dream of Gary Weber since he wrote the Mid-City Communities Plan on a contract from the city in 1985. (The plan was updated in 1998). Previously Weber had worked in the planning department, where he designed the city of San Diego’s first community plans, those for several beach neighborhoods.
“It does rain here once in a while,” Weber tells me as we chat in his Normal Heights living room, “and for a long time, I’ve advocated better shelters at the bus stops.” But his Mid-City plan suggested the germ of a much more comprehensive vision, expressed in this sentence: “A mixed-use ‘Mid-City Center’ is recommended as a new hub for the community at the interchange of El Cajon Boulevard with the new State Route 15.”
CalTrans first proposed State Route 15 in 1968. Eventual construction of the highway tore into the Mid-City neighborhood of City Heights in more ways than one. It started with the demolition of countless neighborhood houses, then gouged out a ditch in the earth alongside 40th Street and wounded the community’s spirit in ways that have inspired the collaboration of many local activists ever since then to fight back. High on their list of goals has been replacing what was destroyed with new residential structures, especially affordable and low income housing.
In the early 2000s, says Weber, “I founded the El Cajon Boulevard Business Improvement Association.” By 2003, the organization had designed a Boulevard Marketplace project as one of Mayor Dick Murphy’s Pilot Villages. Expanding on a small parcel of land left over from the freeway construction at 40th and El Cajon Boulevard, the Marketplace was intended to provide “serious infill development,” according to Weber.
“We proposed building up to two blocks’ worth of mixed-use development from 40th Street west to 38th and practically all the way north to Meade, almost two city blocks,” he says. “The idea behind the plan was you put new development on the transit corridors and take pressure off the neighborhoods so that they’re not just ripped to shreds. After the rezoning of this area in the 1980s, the zoning on El Cajon Boulevard was very low density, 29 units an acre. Back in the neighborhoods, the density was very high, up to 140 units an acre. Our plan was to flip that. It put high density on the Boulevard, about as high as you wanted to go, and cut it back in the neighborhoods so that, instead of someone tearing down a single family house and putting up an apartment building, there would be an economic incentive to buy the house, build a couple of units in the backyard and maintain the neighborhood character.
“Here’s the irony. The city keeps harping about wanting to infill, and none of these neighborhoods want any of it. The El Cajon Boulevard group has long promoted serious infill development along the transit corridor. But the city has done nothing, and it’s been fifteen years.”
As the Reader’s Marty Graham documented in a November 14, 2017 story, the Boulevard Marketplace project eventually fell through, and more modest approaches to building housing near the freeway are now circulating among community leaders. According to the city’s real estate assets department, a total of five city-owned properties (called “surplus” from freeway construction) are situated adjacent, or close, to the 15 at the transit plazas on El Cajon Boulevard and University Avenue. Two are under the control of Civic San Diego; the one that would have anchored Boulevard Marketplace is actually two separate Normal Heights parcels, although city real estate maps show it as one. The other site has the Sally Wong Building on it, at University and 41st Street in City Heights. Senior project manager Jeff Zinner told Graham that Civic intended to sell the parcel at 40th and El Cajon, although it had yet to develop “concrete plans for it.” They would be free to sell it with or without defining any project it could be used for, he said.