After claiming a downtown roadway as an “area blighted and full of problems,” the city of Vista launched a $18.8-million renovation program to transform a mile of South Santa Fe into “Paseo Santa Fe.” The goal was to rejuvenate the mile stretch from Main Street to Civic Center Drive, with undergrounded utilities, new sidewalks and landscaping, and pretty new roundabouts.
Most of the businesses contacted say the redevelopment program, now in its fifth year, is meandering along at a leisurely clip and ravaging small businesses who have noticed a drastic reduction in traffic due to piles of dirt, massive trenches, and warzone-like storefronts.
“Before I used to do between $700 and $1500 a day,” says Angel who owns the Vista Sewing and Vacuum Center. “Now I do maybe $200 a day.” He says the inaccessibility and apparent lack of parking repels would-be customers. “People just drive off. This has taken way too long. It’s like the city is saying ‘Who cares about the businesses?’ The city needs to do something to help us survive.”
The Paseo Santa Fe project is now in Phase Two which includes the part of Santa Fe south of Slicks Liquor to Terrace Drive. Phase Two impacts about 30 storefronts. The Flying Pig restaurant opened in Phase One (Main Street to Slick’s Liquor) just as Phase One kicked off in 2014. Phase One is completed now, but Browning says the lengthy construction which has moved just south has taken its toll on his fledgling gastropub. “After five years of this we have been forced to rebrand our restaurant.” He says the Flying Pig's replacement will debut next month.
But the most dramatic news of the Paseo Santa Fe project came August 19, when one property owner says the city of Vista used the threat of eminent domain to get his property because it was needed for one of the three roundabouts.
“This was supposed to be my retirement,” says Roy Reyes, owner/operator of Battery World which has been at 740 South Santa Fe for 23 years. “I told them right off the bat I did not want to sell this property because this is what I wanted to leave my kids. But they told me they needed this property for a roundabout...that my building was in the way.”
Reyes said he gave them a huge price thinking the city of Vista would pass. “I couldn’t believe it when they came back and said they would pay it. I was very surprised. But they were going to get it either way. They told me if I didn’t sell it to them, they were going to get it through eminent domain.”
Reyes could move Battery World somewhere else in Vista. “There is no way I’m going to find a location as good as the one here.”
Governments often use eminent domain as an absolute last resort, usually to get land to build a train station or a major traffic artery.
Condemnation for roundabout seems to be a new concept in city planning introduced by the city of Vista according to Reyes. “This is Vista,” says Reyes. “This isn’t Del Mar or Carlsbad. I’m from a farm in South Texas. This is not the Vista I have known."
Bottom line, Battery World is a victim of Paseo Santa Fe. "This is not what I wanted. I would have rather kept this place for another 20 years.”
“It’s hard to get people to apply to work here,” says Frank, the manager of Fresh Cut Barber Shop who just wants to use his first name for this article. “It’s gotten real bad in the last two to three months.” He says potential barbers are repelled by the deep ditch demolition out front. “There is just no curb appeal. People just don’t want to work here because it looks like a war-zone. The minute people do a google search on us, they get turned off by the way it looks outside…If the finish line is March or April [for Phase 2 completion], I’m not sure if we can survive that long.”
Frank says his day job is in construction management. “The way this construction is being done as far as safety and cleanliness and appearance is way subpar.”
Jesse Gomez of Car Quest agrees that the Phase Two work crew seems to be unmotivated. “Sometimes they only show up twice a week. It has really put a big strain on all the businesses here.”
Steven of Tri-City Pawn says the South Santa Fe slowdown and piles of dirt has certainly caused a drop in business. “It is my understanding that the owner of [restaurant] Partake sold out partly of all this…And why do we need roundabouts? This is not La Jolla.”
Erubey Lopez hangs his attorney shingle on South Santa Fe. He says the property owners will score big time when the project is completed. “The owners should be very happy when this is finally over. But their renters who are getting killed while this is all going on, will get rewarded by getting huge increases in rent.
“People are very upset how slow this is taking,” says Lopez. “And it is my understanding they have not even secured the financing for Phase Three.”
“If anything, I feel like they just wants us to move,” says Mike of The House Skate Shop about how he says Vista is snubbing the existing businesses. "They don’t even clean up their work. They leave piles of asphalt on the sidewalk. If someone trips, they can sue the city. This just looks bad for business.”
Anthony Armenta of Vista Tire Pros says his shop has seen a decrease in business of 45 to 40 per cent from a year-and-a-half ago. “We had to lay off a mechanic.”
City of Vista spokeswoman Andrea McCullough says Phase Two should be finished in the Spring of 2020. She responds to the complaints from unhappy business owners: “The city is listening closely to the concerns of Santa Fe merchants.” She says the city has a project manager who works onsite to resolve issues on a day to day basis. “The Paseo Santa Fe project, now coming to fruition, has been a City vision for over 20 years and, when completed, will increase the value of business owners properties.”
McCullough says Vista is currently trying to secure financing for Phase Three which will cover Terrace Drive to Civic Center Drive.
Dan Villasenor’s family has owned and operated the much-loved Pepper Tree Frosty for 60 years. A distant cousin of author Victor Villasenor, Dan’s ice cream and malt shop has been a Vista landmark since the 50s. “It definitely affected us for a couple of years" says Villasenor. "It didn’t affect us as much as other businesses, but I know it’s been very difficult for others. It’s a total mess. The road is so dusty and dirty, it’s horrible. I just hope they can get through this and survive.”
Villasenor agrees with other businesses who claim that Phase Two work crews are taking their sweet time. “It seems like [Phase Two] is taking a lot slower. They just aren’t working as fast and are taking up a lot of space. What gets me is how the city buys up property with our tax money and then gives it to developers for a really cheap price and lets them do what they want.”
“We have always said no [to offers to purchase the Pepper Tree property]. In the last five or six years we have been approached with all kind of new offers. I’m not sure where we will go in the future.”