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Wednesday, July 19, 2006 | Deborah Knight hands one end of a yellow and black rope to a stranger – Elle Necoechea, a 6-year-old canyon fan with a brightly colored velvet sun hat.

“Hold it up high,” Knight calls, and Necoechea, joined by her friend, 8-year-old Julia Cartwright, strains upwards to hold the rope at arm’s length as Knight unwinds it down the canyon.

Once the 94 feet of cord are unfurled, Knight explains to the girls she’s just met that the rope represents the width of a proposed road bridge that might soon cut across the canyon, bridging north and south University City at Regents Road. It’s a project that’s been in the area’s community plan for 40 years and that environmentalists and community activists have been trying to kill for the last three decades. It’s also a project that, far from bridging the University City community, has split it into two camps with vastly polarized viewpoints.

“It is in the community plan, but the plan’s 40 years old and we were in a completely different situation then,” Knight said on a recent tour of Rose Canyon Open Space Park. “Forty years ago, we had nothing but open space and no roads here. Now we have nothing but roads and concrete.”

Last week, the University City Planning Group voted 10-3 against building the bridge, which would link the two dead-ends of Regents Road north and south of Rose Canyon. That vote is largely advisory, however, and the real decision on the bridge will be made at a meeting of the San Diego City Council on August 1.

Supporters of the project say a new thoroughfare is essential to ease rush-hour congestion through University City and to ease the burden on nearby Genesee Avenue. But opponents say a new road bridge will rob the community of one of its last remaining parcels of natural land.

Both proponents and opponents of the bridge say they’ve been left in something of a political vacuum as they wait for their council representative – Council President Scott Peters – to go public with his opinion on the matter. Peters’ decision will be a crucial nexus in the battle over Rose Canyon, and he knows that.

“It’s going to be on me to figure out what to do here,” he said.

In the 30 years that residents have argued over the future of the canyon, University City has seen several council members come and go. Critics said the politicians who held office prior to Peters essentially passed the buck on the issue, leaving the controversial decision for future leaders to make.

Peters said he’s spent hundreds of thousands of city dollars trying to work out the relative merits of each side of the debate. In 2003, he called a series of public meetings and called for an environmental impact report to be completed for the project. The final version of that report was released in June, but Peters said he’s not ready to comment yet, and that he still has some questions to ask of both sides. He said he’s holding meetings this week and next week with those representatives, and that he hopes to have a final decision by the end of next week.

Fred Sainz, spokesman for Mayor Jerry Sanders, said Sanders is currently working on his own recommendation. Sainz didn’t say when that recommendation will be released or what it might contain.

Describing the canyon where the bridge would pass is a lesson in diplomacy. Whether the canyon is a beautiful, serene spot in the midst of a dense urban center or merely a spoiled valley with a sewer and a train line running through it appears to largely depend on whether the speaker wants the Regents Road bridge to be built or not.

Certain facts are indisputable: There is a railway line running the length of Rose Canyon and the serenity of the valley is split every few minutes by the screech of a Surfliner or a Coaster. The sewer is there, though it’s well-shrouded by native plants, and there are power lines traipsing above the canyon.

But Taylor, Elle and Kennedy Necoechea – 8, 6 and 4 years old respectively – don’t seem to mind all that. Nor does their friend, 8-year old Julia Cartwright. The girls were out on a canyon walk with the Necoecheas’ mother, Denise, this week and their bright eyes lit up at the nature all around them.

“It’s, like, the best hike I’ve ever been on,” piped up Elle.

When they heard about the proposed bridge from a reporter, the girls’ smiles faded.

“I don’t want this to be a freeway,” Taylor said. “That would kill all the animals and plants.”

The loss of the natural canyon is the main reason cited for not building the bridge. Knight is fond of telling visitors that Peters, when he visited the canyon a few years ago, stood in the valley, spread his arms and proclaimed: “This is your best argument, right here.”

But the pro-bridge people have a few arrows in their quiver too. Marcia Munn is the president of UC Connection, a group whose website is devoted to telling University City residents how much they need the Regents Road bridge. Munn’s argument is essentially three-fold:

  • The bridge has been in the Community Plan for 40 years and much of the development in north University City was completed on the assumption that the community would get another major thoroughfare at some point in the future.
  • Traffic has gotten so bad on Genesee Avenue, the main north-south artery through University City, that emergency vehicles have difficulty getting through, posing a risk to public safety.
  • The canyon is not much of a natural resource with its train lines and power cables. Also, the bridge would sit high above the canyon and wouldn’t place much strain on the natural environment below.

All these points are, naturally, contested by the various groups that have sprouted up in opposition to the bridge. They contend that University City simply doesn’t need a second main thoroughfare and they point to the environmental degradation that surrounds the Genesee Avenue bridge through Rose Canyon as an example of what will happen to the valley below a Regents Road bridge.

A walk east down Rose Canyon is accompanied by butterflies, birds and insects galore. At the eastern end, an enterprising local has built a garden of native plants, complete with name tags for each species. But where that garden ends, the hum of Genesee’s traffic begins. There’s no litter throughout most of the canyon, but either side of the Genesee road bridge there are hundreds of discarded cigarette butts, fast food containers and beer bottles.

Where the canyon meets the road, nature gives way to something out of an urban nightmare. The posts of the road bridge are tattooed with graffiti and discarded shopping carts gather weed in a puddle of fetid water beneath the speeding cars.

But, as Munn is keen to point out, some of those speeding vehicles are ambulances, police cars and fire trucks.

Capt. Dave Connor of the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department has worked out of Station 35 in the Eastgate Mall in University City for the last two and a half years. He’s cautious about sounding too pro-bridge, but he’s unequivocal about the traffic problems he and his firefighters face right now.

“Any time that we’re trying to get from point A to point B and we have obstacles in the way, it’s a considerable risk,” Connor said.

That sentiment has been backed up by former Fire Chief Jeff Bowman. In 2004, he sent Munn a letter stating the department’s support for the Regents Road bridge and also supporting a plan that would widen Genesee Avenue.

The San Diego Police Department doesn’t seem so sure of the benefits of a bridge. Capt. Boyd Long of the Police Department’s Northern Division said his officers are normally scattered throughout the city at any one time, unlike the firefighters, who usually respond from one central location. As a result, Long said, it’s much harder to assess how a bridge might aid his officers in improving response time.

“To say it would benefit the police department would be kind of a stretch,” he said. “Other than maybe lightening some of the traffic congestion, it probably wouldn’t make a huge difference on our response.”

On the east end of University City, residents have had to deal with the congested rush hour traffic on Genesee. They say it’s time to share the burden of the traffic with their neighbors to the north. In the canyon itself, joggers, mountain bikers, trekkers and nature lovers would have to cope with the noise of the road bridge and with the litter environmentalists say it will inevitably bring. The developers and businesses in north University City would finally get the traffic artery they were promised, but at the expense of spoiling the place where Elle Necoechea had the best trek of her life.

For now, the decision could rest on the shoulders of Peters. Both sides know that on such a controversial issue the City Council will probably look to Peters, as the local representative, for guidance. Even the anti-bridge people know that their recent victory in the University City Planning Group will likely not have much of an impact.

Peters has mulled the decision for a few years and he knows that either way he votes, he’s alienating a sizable portion of his constituents – some of whom have been waiting a long time for their representative to take a side.

(Correction: The original version of this story said the rope that represented the width of the proposed bridge was 250 feet rather than 94 feet. We regret the error.)

Please contact Will Carless directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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