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Trolley Upgrades Pivotal to C Street Revitalization Plans

The forgotten street.

That’s how Todd Voorhees, vice president of public policy and communications for the Downtown San Diego Partnership, refers to C Street. The hodgepodge of trolley tracks and vacant and underused property has been the bane of businesses, while putting a damper on development.

“We want a plan to come into effect to incorporate businesses that want to move down here, and take part in revitalization efforts,” said Voorhees, whose organization works with private and governmental entities to promote economic growth and revitalization in the area.

The C Street Master Plan , initiated by the city’s redevelopment arm, Centre City Development Corp. , has been designed to revitalize the corridor from India Street at One America Plaza to Park Boulevard at City College’s new trolley station.

The plan is being done in cooperation with the San Diego Association of Governments and the Metropolitan Transit System.

A major focus is how best to balance the operation of the trolley with the needs of area businesses and residents. With so many moving parts involved, everyone seems to be looking for some common ground.

“What will be done, what it will cost to get it done, and how MTS will contribute to the solution remains to be seen,” said Rob Schupp, MTS director of marketing and communications. “We are trying to coordinate this with CCDC.”

Eventually, MTS would like to operate state-of-the-art three-car, low-floor models, which, he said, would make passenger access easier than having to climb the steep steps of the current cars.

“It’s difficult for able-bodied people,” said Schupp, while the lifts that come down to accommodate the disabled “take a long time.”

“We have put into our 10-year capital budget the purchase of 35 low-car vehicles for $112 million,” he said. “Combined with our current low-floor fleet, this would allow us to operate low-floor vehicles on both the Orange Line and Blue Line, which both operate on the C Street Corridor.”


Options And Obstacles

Every day, some 35,000 passengers use the C Street Trolley Station, said Schupp.

“And by 2030, we anticipate that the demand for public transportation will triple,” he said. “This is driving our need to have more cars on C Street to meet the demand for public transportation.”

Why the rise?

“There are more people living downtown, going to the ballpark,” said Schupp. “The visitor market is huge and the Convention Center market is huge.

“They all love getting on the trolley. We want to make it as convenient for all of our riders as possible. We need all of us, including the city of San Diego and the stakeholders downtown, to weigh in, and someone has to make a decision on priorities.”

But, there are challenges to overcome, he said. For one, the three-car trains would extend beyond the blocks, and into the intersections.

The narrowing of Sixth and Seventh avenues is one of several options developed by CCDC to accommodate three-car S-70 trains, said Schupp.

According to Sachin Kalbag, senior urban planner and designer at CCDC, the ability to operate three low-floor cars would require eliminating lanes and reducing the size of sidewalks adjacent to the station.

“Also, a signal system would have to be customized for the unique situation of running trolleys that are longer than the block,” he said.

Kalbag has been involved in the C Street Master Plan for more than a year and a half, with much of that time spent working with the transit agency to “figure out how to operate the trains more effectively,” he said, adding that, “We are analyzing other cities.”

San Diego, among other metropolitan areas, missed the mark in how they integrated their light-rail systems a few decades ago, when “downtowns weren’t doing so well,” said Kalbag. Now that downtown San Diego is bustling, the challenge is to find a way to balance public transportation needs and still attract businesses to the corridor.

“We have to make tough decisions,” he said. “Our main goal is to bring in private investment, to make people feel safe.”


In The Loop

The Downtown San Diego Partnership, a privately funded, nonprofit business organization, favors a trolley loop that would use existing trolley tracks as a base. In May, the group sent a letter to CCDC President Nancy Graham, commending her for agreeing to study this option.

In the letter, Barbara Warden, partnership president, said that such a loop would connect residents, workers and tourists with downtown attractions and neighborhoods “in a quick and inexpensive manner , all without need for a car or parking;” allow MTS to operate the trains that are in scale with existing block sizes; and increase MTS efficiency by eliminating the need for the Blue and Orange lines to make “frequent and unnecessary” Centre City traffic signal and station stops.

According to Kalbag, the loop would use up to two cars that would fit on a city block and would circulate in a continuous loop. The longer trolley configurations , three or more , would run along the bayside. Compared to the existing configuration, there would be no blocking of streets or pedestrian crossings, he said.

A study of the downtown loop is now under way, along with a peer review of the plan in Portland, Ore., and Denver. Both cities have had experience in these types of projects , and have “no active stake” in the proceedings,” he said.

“The challenge is that no one wants to say bad things of the transit agency,” said Kalbag, who expects the study to be completed by the fall.

Carol Beres, who has owned property in the corridor since the mid-’70s, favors a loop.

“It makes sense to me,” she said. “It would revitalize the retail, and for people who live there it would be really convenient.”

William H. Sauls, whose law office is located in the stately Marston Building at 427 C St., agreed.

“You’re not changing the trolley system at all,” he said. “I think it’s potentially terrific. This could be a really wonderful opportunity to have a whole dimension added to the trolley system, and continue to function well with ridership.”

But Schupp disagreed.

“We have serious doubts that it would be an effective solution,” he said. “It requires transfers, and it would be a capacity nightmare. Logically, we don’t think it will work.”


A Trolley Named Dissent

Business people with property in the C Street corridor continue to have mixed feelings about the trolley, which has been operating there since 1981.

“The trolley did bring an element of crime in and attracted not only drugs, but homeless activity,” Beres observed. “It ended up being more blighted, and a transportation corridor than a neighborhood or community.”

Prior to the trolley’s arrival, Beres admitted that C Street was “not one of the most beautiful streets.”

“It’s narrow, and not like Broadway or Market,” she observed. “A lot of things have changed, and it’s not just the trolley. But the trolley was not a positive influence.”

Mom and pop stores and other retail businesses have come and gone, she said, but her flock has managed to survive, for the most part. She now actively manages on her property a half dozen retail businesses , Octopus Clothing, Downtown Fish Joint, and New York Pizza & Deli, all on C Street; and The Local Eatery and Drinking Hole, Maria’s Mexican Food, and Downtown Dental San Diego, all on Fourth Avenue.

“People have come and gone,” said Beres. “I have been very fortunate. My tenants seem to enjoy being there, and have worked as a team. I have great tenants. I don’t know what City Hall would do at lunch time if these restaurants closed up. They are ordinary folks doing a great job.”

But, she is pragmatic.

“The trolley is not going to go away,” said Beres, who also serves on the board of the Downtown San Diego Partnership. “It’s there and needed. But it should complement that urban environment. The needs of the trolley shouldn’t be imposed on that neighborhood.”

What Beres is not in favor of is a three-car format that would overlap the street, and reduce sidewalks.

“This is not conducive to creating revitalization in the neighborhood,” she said.

Sauls agreed, saying that adding three-car trolleys would be an “unmitigated disaster.”

“It would completely disrupt traffic, and further impede the intersection,” said Sauls. “There are some talented and bright people over at MTS, and they should be able to come up with some solutions.”

In the meantime, Beres is taking a wait and see approach, gratified that the corridor and its challenges are being studied.

“I care about my tenants and their success as business people,” said Beres. “We have dealt with some interesting things over the years , urban blight, homelessness. For us to thrive in this 10,000-square-foot space is amazing. We have all worked very hard at it, and we want to see something that works.”

San Diego City Councilman Kevin Faulconer, whose 2nd District includes downtown, also wants to find some balance.

“I believe that it’s essential that we have a trolley system that’s working well, but also we have to have an environment that is conducive to pedestrians and the people using it,” he said. “How do we make it a corridor that everyone will be proud of? People are excited about the transformation that is needed to make this happen. I am convinced that we can figure it out. We are going to have to. Transportation is essential for business and the people who live downtown.”

Sauls has been a downtown denizen for almost three decades, and an active one. He has served on numerous civic and planning organizations over the years, currently sitting on the executive committee and the board of the Downtown San Diego Partnership.

“I’ve seen an enormous number of things happen downtown in the past 10 years,” he observed. “I’ve seen it change completely. In the rest of downtown, you have major retail, restaurants, new activity of some form. But, very little of change has touched on C Street.”

Why?

“There have been a variety of reasons,” said Sauls. “The origination in the ’70s of a pedestrian corridor, originally designed as a Civic Center mall, never worked. Then, there was the location of the trolley , a transit mall. This never functioned well. Redevelopment has not touched in any meaningful way on the C Street corridor. Much of the area remains blighted, has a lot of crime, and is underused. There are those of us who think very strongly that unless we fix the trolley, we are not going to fix C Street.”

Sauls said that a first step would be realigning the trolley to the north side of C Street, opening up the south side lane to traffic , especially police cars.

“It’s difficult to drop people off,” he added. “Nothing flows or connects. It doesn’t work. By having a continuous west-to-east lane of traffic all the way down C Street, it will really open up the street and its uses, and provide for more visibility of pedestrians and businesses that want to do business here. It’s a big step in the right direction.”

In this regard, MTS is keeping an open mind, said Schupp.

“While we do not think that the northern alignment is optimum in terms of operations,” he said, “we do not oppose the idea.”

Everyone does seem to agree that there are undesirable areas within the C Street corridor, including the backside of the Westgate Hotel and the newly renovated US Grant Hotel on Broadway , a stretch that Kalbag describes as “dead, empty.” Adding to that is the long-abandoned California Theatre at Fourth Avenue and C Street.

“There are a lot of empty properties,” said Sauls. “It’s not simply a matter of putting some bricks in the sidewalk and planting some trees. We need meaningful transportation changes. We won’t attract development dollars in this environment until those parties see something happen first. Look what happened at East Village when the ballpark moved forward.”

Any solutions will require the commitment of both the public and private sectors, said Kalbag.

“We’d love to see development there get built,” he said. “The big question is, ‘How do we make that happen?’ We can plant seeds and fix the planning mistakes, but it’s up to the private sector to come in and make the investment.”

But C Street has to contend with what Kalbag calls the “broken window” theory.

“They see boarded-up buildings, the heaving of asphalt on the track , it’s not a great smelling place,” he said. “You don’t want to go there. You have some businesses that are struggling and trying to do good. It makes it tough for businesses to survive.”

Mark Dibella, director of sales and marketing for the US Grant, has been a longtime observer of downtown.

“If you look down the C Street corridor, it gives a mixed impression of anyone wanting to go into development,” said Dibella. “Do we want to have better than empty space? The corridor is a hodgepodge of one-lane traffic and trolley lines. Before anyone wants to make a big push for development, we need cleanup and continuity. This is outside our back door, and it is an extremely dangerous stop.”

Kalbag also is concerned with the “very, very poor” quality of the trolley tracks, due to what he calls the “cheap rock base that was used during construction.”

“It’s heaving badly, and it looks terrible,” said Kalbag.

Then there are physical impediments , such as planters , that “foster illegal activities,” he added.

“People congregate around the planters, use them as restrooms, put stuff in there,” said Kalbag. “They use the trolley for their activities , doing their deals at one station, and jumping on and jumping off at another.”

But there are no simple answers, said Victor Barothy-Langer, general manager of the US Grant, who also sits on the C Street Advisory Board.

“At times, there seem to be simple solutions, but there are also unique complexities to it, given the physical size of the city blocks,” he said.

Dibella knows what the corridor doesn’t need.

“We already have the Gaslamp,” he said. “We don’t need another district with restaurants and nightclubs. Retail would be a good draw for residents and the hotel environment, and would make the street more active in the daytime. The amount of residents in the Marina District, Little Italy and the East Village support all of that.”

The refurbished US Grant also has about 16,000 square feet of retail space, over two levels, along C Street that remains vacant.

“The owners haven’t had enough confidence in what will happen to C Street,” said Dibella. “Prior to the renovation, there were retail clients that didn’t fit the demographics of our customers. We would prefer to wait for the right tenants.”

Meanwhile, the California Theatre building is a site that could stir some synergy in the neighborhood, he observed.

“It looms behind us,” said Dibella. “The California Theatre presents great opportunities.”

Such as?

Another signature hotel, said Dibella, who believes that downtown also benefits from smaller, more classic inns such as the US Grant.

“The city built itself around this hotel,” he observed. “We offer accommodations not available in newer, shinier hotels.”


Civic Affairs

Another opportunity being considered is the possible redevelopment of the 5-acre, four-block Civic Center, which includes City Hall, another main anchor in the area. Graham said she hopes the CCDC can get a request for qualifications on the Civic Center project “on the street” by month’s end.

“We’re looking for development teams that have experience in public-private partnerships,” she said. “We’d like to have someone who has a track record.”

The project would have to be a “win-win” for everyone involved, said Graham.

“The possibilities for that site are absolutely awesome, with the right folks,” she said.

In the meantime, the Downtown San Diego Partnership is looking at the possibility of stringing lights , possibly solar-powered , along C Street, and placing speakers in the trees, dispensing classical music, to help make the environment safer.

“This has been done in Sacramento, and it keeps away vagrants,” said Voorhees, adding that the project possibly could be funded through private donations.

No matter what is ultimately decided, there will be no quick fixes. A lot remains to be done, including preliminary engineering, environmental impact reviews, and working with property owners in the C Street corridor “to get them on board,” said Kalbag.

“Meanwhile, we have to get funding,” he said, noting that the whole project could run as high as $100 million, with the possibility of tapping into state and federal money, as well as CCDC funds.

“Everything comes down to dollars and cents,” said Kalbag. “Transit agencies are so under-funded. If people in downtown want to see this happen, they need to talk to the council people. We are competing with a lot of others in the county. We are just a little blip on the screen. It will depend on political will to fix up C Street.”

Schupp remains optimistic.

“C Street has the potential to be a great corridor through the middle of town,” he said. “There are ways to embrace the trolley and achieve CCDC’s goals to revitalize the area.”

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