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TRANSPORTATION–City Heights Projects May Be MCTIP of Iceberg



Transportation: Hub Could Spark New Era Of Redevelopment

A series of ambitious projects planned for the area immediately surrounding El Cajon Boulevard and 40th Street could change the look of the neighborhood and not only revitalize some long-underachieving real estate, but also transform the way area residents get to work.

Some of the projects, sparked by the completion of Interstate 15 through the City Heights area, are already in progress. Others are still on the drawing board.

When I-15 was built through the county in the mid-1970s, a 2.2-mile stretch that would have run between Interstate 8 and Interstate 805 was left unfinished.

As a result, I-15 turned briefly into a city street, with as many as 40,000 cars a day barreling through the neighborhood.

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The traffic degraded the quality of life for residents and contributed to a decline in investment and property values in the immediate area, said Steve Russell, spokesman for the El Cajon Boulevard Business Improvement Association, one of the organizations backing the new plan.

Adding to the problem, the California Department of Transportation condemned a wide swath of buildings in the highway right-of-way but never tore them down. The buildings attracted squatters and illegal activity, Russell said.

Three New Parks

That began to change in the late 1990s, when construction began on the last stretch of I-15. Caltrans relied heavily on the input from the community in creating additional features for the project , features Russell called “wonderful and unique.”

Three new parks are being created , one at each end of the new freeway, and a four-acre park built atop I-15 at Orange Street.

Also, a Hillcrest Village-like shopping center could be built at one or more of the corners of the El Cajon Boulevard/I-15 interchange. Russell hopes to seek proposals by summer.

The most ambitious project involves setting aside the highway median of I-15 for a mass-transit concept called the Mid-Cities Transit Interchanges Project, or MCTIP.

When complete, MCTIP will include two bus or light-rail stops in the median of the freeway, one directly underneath El Cajon Boulevard and one below University Avenue. These transit stops would be accessible to pedestrians by escalator, Russell said.

Enormous Benefits

Funding for the final phase of the project has not yet been obtained. In the interim, city buses will travel along the freeway, exiting at the freeway interchanges to designated stops on the off-ramps at street level, Russell said.

The benefits to area residents are enormous. El Cajon Boulevard and University Avenue are among the heaviest-traveled mass transit corridors in San Diego, each carrying about 16,000 bus riders a day, Russell said.

But mass transit isn’t conveniently routed for City Heights residents. In order to get to such major job-creation areas as Downtown, Kearny Mesa or Sorrento Valley, locals could spend more than two hours on a bus, Russell said.

With a convenient connection to mass transit running along I-15, commuters could get to these areas in a half-hour, said Russell, who calls MCTIP the key to redevelopment of City Heights.

“The view of the business owners is that it’s not enough to just pretty up the street. We’ve got to get more income into the neighborhoods if they’re going to be able to support businesses at a successful level,” he said.

Caltrans has already set aside space for creating such a major transportation node in the median of the freeway. However, the funding is not yet in place, said Bill Figge, chief of development review for public transportation with Caltrans.

Plans Under Way

The decision whether to fund the transit project lies with the Metropolitan Transit Development Board and the San Diego Association of Governments, Figge said.

Dave Schumacher, senior transportation planner with MTDB, confirmed that plans are under way to turn the City Heights area into a major mass-transit hub. An express bus could be routed through there as early as January 2001.

The new bus would start at the Euclid Avenue trolley station, then get on Highway 94 to I-805, and then to I-15, where it would exit at University Avenue and El Cajon Boulevard.

From there, the bus would get back on the freeway and travel into the Kearny Mesa area. Although no decisions have yet been made, the bus could possibly get back on the freeway, eventually finding its way to University Towne Centre, where it would connect with other bus routes, Schumacher said.

The bus would run peak hours only, in both directions, he said.

Another possibility will be to reroute an already existing bus through the area. That bus, which connects Allied Gardens and Waring Road to Downtown via Interstate 8, could instead run through City Heights to give local residents a faster way into town, he said.

Helping make this possible is some grant money from federal welfare-to-work programs, in recognition of the part the city is playing in getting people to the job-creation areas faster.

The more ambitious part of the plan , bus stops in the median of I-15 , could happen some time in the next 10 years, while light rail along that corridor would have to wait , based on whether that would be feasible.

Sandag does not yet have any cost estimates or a definite plan for using the highway median, said George Frank, senior planner.

Whether or not the median becomes a priority depends on a transportation study that should be completed by some time next year. Sandag will rely on the MTDB’s report when it comes out, Frank said.

Still other plans call for a pedestrian plaza along both sides of El Cajon Boulevard, where it crosses the freeway. Coffee kiosks and other retail would provide amenities for commuters, while a parking garage will help encourage park-and-ride drivers to come into the area and use mass transit, rather than tie up the freeways with additional traffic, Russell said.

Russell expects the influx of so many more people into City Heights to spark redevelopment in the area. Businesses and home builders would be lured into locating close to one of the major transportation nodes in the city.

Finally, the Regional Transportation Center, a showcase for alternative-fuel vehicles, is also planned for the southeast corner of the intersection. The center will house an alternative-fuel vehicle education center, a showroom for alternative-fuel vehicles, a rental/demonstration fleet, and a service station, said Steve Bimson, RTC managing director.

The $7.9 million project is a joint venture between Pearson Ford, the Ford Motor Co., the U.S. Department of Energy, the California Air Resources Board, the city of San Diego and other organizations.

Groundbreaking is expected to begin May 7, with a projected opening date of January 2001, Bimson said.

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