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Battle royal over bicycles: Hillcrest vs. Mission Hills

SAN DIEGO, California – It’s Hillcrest vs. Mission Hills in a battle royal.

San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) has long been trying to finalize plans for the Uptown Regional Bike Corridors Project, but the proposed closure of the eastbound off-ramp from Washington Street to University Avenue is provoking tension between the surrounding communities.

The idea itself is simple: Create a regional bike corridor that will enhance the biking and walking experience. When it is completed, it will link “key community destinations” such as commercial and transit centers, parks, schools and commercial centers.

Although it’s safe to say that many in the area support such a plan, the primary contention point lies in how the bike corridor will connect Five Points to Hillcrest. That proposal involves adding a sidewalk and protected bikeway on the uphill side of Washington Street; at the top of the hill, the eastbound access point to University Avenue would be close to vehicular traffic and would be reserved for walkers and bicyclists only.

The Hillcrest viewpoint

On one side of the proverbial boxing ring you have the Hillcrest business community. They believe losing the traffic flow will deliver a serious blow to their profits. Hillcrest Business Association’s executive director, Ben Nicholls, said it’s turning out to be quite a hot-button issue.

“Part of the proposal suggests closing off the eastbound ramp that links Washington Street to University Avenue and making that throughway accessible to bikes and pedestrians only by creating a cul-de-sac effect; businesses on that end of town are saying that’s crazy,” Nicholls said. “Just the prospect of this has lot of people are already saying that when their leases come up they’ll start to look elsewhere.”

Members of the Hillcrest Town Council (HTC) also question why the closure is necessary.

“Business in the old part of Hillcrest would like to see that kept open and I agree with that,” said Luke Terpstra, chairman of the Hillcrest Town Council board of directors. “If I were a leaseholder with a business in that area, I would be thinking about taking my business elsewhere too.”

The Mission Hills viewpoint

On the other side of the boxing ring you have organizations such as SANDAG and the Mission Hills Town Council (MHTC) that seem to support the change.

In a recent report, SANDAG officials said they have heard from many residents that the portion of University Avenue that runs through the western end of Mission Hills is being used as a cut-through from people who are exiting Interstate 5 at the bottom of Washington Street.

“University Avenue, a two-lane residential street in this area, is carrying more traffic than it was designed for, and at higher speeds,” SANDAG wrote.

MHTC officials agree and feel that if a full closure is implemented, Washington Avenue could easily accommodate the additional traffic.

Opponents, however, question why Mission Hills residents have any say in the matter, with business owners pointing out “they don’t have any real skin in the game.”

“Our skin in the game is that while the Fifth and University corridor of Hillcrest is commercial, the west end is residential,” said Mike Zdon, Mission Hills Town Council president. “We have all these residential homes, houses and apartments in this area that have all these commuter trips driving past them every day. Closing the off-ramp would bring the residential neighborhood back to what it was prior to the World War II era, when University Avenue ended near where Florence Elementary is today; it would also help accommodate bike and pedestrian traffic and can help eliminate vehicle trips from Five Points into the Mission Hills/Hillcrest area.”

What SANDAG is saying

SANDAG officials have acknowledged the issue is contentious and has said they are trying to listen to as many viewpoints as possible.

“We’re trying to explore all the different ideas that are being presented by the community and are seeing how we can integrate that into the overall goals of the project,” said Chris Kluth, SANDAG‘s Acting Transportation Manager, noting that many other proposals have also been considered.

SANDAG is still doing the traffic study, and weighing all options. There will be another opportunity for public comment, but that won't come until sometime in 2015. After that, the agency will present its feasibility options to the City of San Diego for consideration.

Walt Chambers, director of Great Streets San Diego, just wants to see a solution that works for everybody.

Closing the off-ramp would not only create a safe environment for bikes, but it would also make thing safer for autos by calming traffic along University Avenue, he said.

“This will reduce the amount of through traffic and create a bicycle boulevard that will make things a lot safer for bicyclists and pedestrians,” Chambers said. “It’s not a great solution, it’s the least worst solution, and it’s the best one that is available.”

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