In City Heights, residents and business owners are rallying behind a plan to cover a freeway extension through their community with a town center. The idea of capping a freeway to create land for new parks and buildings is not new, but this would be its first application in California.
State transportation planners have been talking about an Interstate 15 extension through the area since the late 1950s, and construction has been scheduled and postponed several times beginning in 1970. All told, the California Department of Transportation will build 2.2 miles of eight-lane freeway from just south of Interstate 8 to Interstate 805. Work is now scheduled to start in the fall, but the City Heights portion will come later.
Community members see their upgrading plan as a desirable alternative to Caltrans’ project.
The north-south extension of I-15 will slice through Normal Heights and City Heights, along 40th Street between Adams Avenue and Landis Street. The City Heights Community Development Corp. is focusing its town center proposal on the three blocks along 40th between El Cajon Boulevard and University Avenue.
Lobbying efforts on behalf of City Heights led to basic improvements to Caltrans’ original design, which contained no freeway caps. The community received commitments from Caltrans and San Diego for two block-long freeway caps with parks on top: one between Landis and Wightman streets, the other between Polk and Orange avenues.
But locals weren’t satisfied. They weren’t ready to give in to what 12-year City Heights resident Marjie Carver called a “divisive slash through our community, a hole with cars in it.” They let their voices be heard at City Hall, and, last fall, their prospects brightened considerably when City Councilman John Hartley helped City Heights receive $145,000 in city Community Development Block Grant money to study alternatives to Caltrans’ plan.
Since December, a team of consultants with expertise in freeway cover projects, led by CBT Architects of Boston, has been working with the City Heights development group on schemes for a cover over the freeway.
Last Saturday, more than 200 community members participated in a design workshop at the City Heights Recreation Center. They critiqued three town center plans, and the consultants will return in six weeks or so with a final proposal.
At the very least, community residents want a town center to cover three blocks of freeway between University Avenue and El Cajon Boulevard. Hiding the freeway would be a community center with a library and post office on a town square at University and 40th and a commercial center at El Cajon and 40th. These two centers of action would be linked by park.
“I think we learned some positives and negatives,” said architect Steven Cecil of CBT after last Saturday’s design workshop. “One positive from the community was the importance of having a community identity through a town center, with a mix of public facilities and private commercial development.
“The other thing that was almost unanimous is that transit, in particular a light rail system, is something the people would very much like to see integrated into . . . the I-15 corridor.”
The most conservative plan presented last Saturday includes three freeway caps, a new town square in a community center straddling the freeway at University, new park space and residential redevelopment. The most aggressive called for six blocks of covered freeway, a town center at 40th and University, a commercial center at 40th and El Cajon, extensive parks and multi-family housing along the freeway corridor.
Price tags ranged from $65 million (in addition to the $127 million Caltrans already plans to spend) for the conservative approach to more than twice that for the aggressive proposal. Consultants believe the project could be financed from a mixture of government sources and the new taxes and other revenues that could be generated through the creation of a redevelopment area.
The project may qualify for up to $20 million from the federal government as a Special Demonstration Project.
By Monday morning, the weekend’s input had been partly digested by consultants and community leaders, and a singular plan was beginning to take shape, one that could do most of the things the residents want for the $65-million price.
“It looks as if what’s emerging is a modified combination of the consultants’ three plans, with the main emphasis on the economic development potential,” said Jim Bliesner, the member of the City Heights group charged with overseeing the creation of an alternative freeway plan. “What it would mean is strengthening the commercial areas at both University and El Cajon, and linking these and the two area schools (Wilson Middle and Central Elementary) with parks and recreational uses.”
Instead of landscaped banks flanking the new freeway, as proposed by Caltrans, the City Heights Community Development Corporation’s consultants propose stepped, vertical retaining walls. Packing dirt behind these walls would create linear parks along the edges of the sunken freeway that would be landscaped with bike and pedestrian paths.
In short, the proposal would mean a new urban center instead of a concrete canyon.
A freeway cover isn’t a pie-in-the-sky idea. Successful covers have already been installed in such places as Seattle, Phoenix and Boston.
After the final design is ready, the community hopes to gain the endorsement of the San Diego City Council and County Board of Supervisors, which would help in the quest for state and federal money. The project would be built in phases over about five years.
A covered freeway with a new town center on top could reunite City Heights, a community that has already been torn apart by the clearing of the I-15 right of way. For San Diegans at large, even for the rest of the nation, this project could serve as a small but shining example of the difference community members can make when they speak up for what they want.
Caltrans will start preliminary construction late this year, but major improvements won’t begin until the mid-1990s, and officials of the City Heights corporation are optimistic that, in the meantime, their town center alternative will win support from politicians and funding from local, state and federal sources.
Representatives for several local politicians attended Saturday’s meeting, but it remains to be seen how hard the lawmakers will lobby for funding.
Tex Burkett, an aide to Congressman Randall Cunningham (R-San Diego), said his boss is only vaguely familiar with the evolving redevelopment plans. Cunningham could be a key figure as City Heights lobbies for federal highway money later this year.
For this vital, inventive project to succeed, Cunningham and other politicians must swing their weight behind it.