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Cyclists traveling from downtown to Old Town have a couple options: traverse bike lane-less Pacific Highway, climb through Mission Hills or wiggle through India Street between parked cars on one side and hurried drivers on the other.

None of these options are appealing, but most importantly, they aren’t safe either.

This is why the San Diego County Bicycle Coalition is fighting to add bike lanes to India Street for northbound riders and Kettner Boulevard for southbound riders between Laurel and Washington streets. The lanes would eliminate 137 parking spaces — a detail that has pitted the Five Points/Middletown and Little Italy communities against the Coalition.

“The plan’s impact is extreme to small businesses,” said Leo Wilson, who heads uptown’s community planning group, which provides land-use recommendations to the city that can make or break the outcome of a proposal. The uptown group represents Bankers Hill/Park West, Middletown, Mission Hills, Hillcrest and University Heights.

The controversial proposal to add bike lanes to India Street and Kettner Boulevard is representative of the tougher hurdles the city will have to overcome in implementing the citywide Bicycle Master Plan. The plan, adopted in 2002, is a part of its blueprint for growth and intends to make bicycling a more convenient transportation method by establishing a network of bike lanes throughout the city.

But nearly every street that can accommodate a bike lane already has one, said Kathy Keehan, the Coalition’s executive director. The trouble now is making room for lanes on narrow roads or in older, established areas such as India Street.

Improvements on India Street that would assist bikers traveling north and south have been under discussion for years, but in 2009, the city of San Diego hired a traffic engineering firm to figure out a way to add a bike lane. The firm soon realized India Street is not wide enough for moving cars, parking and a new bike lane.

John Keating, president of the consulting firm, proposed eliminating 37 parking spaces on India Street and 100 spaces on Kettner Boulevard to fit in a bike lane on the road between vehicle transit and the sidewalk.

“The spaces on Kettner are not as valuable,” Keating said. One hundred spaces could easily be eliminated without affecting nearby businesses because most of the spaces are against Interstate 5 or near airport parking structures, he said.

The spaces lost on India Street, on the other hand, will directly affect small businesses, Wilson said. He and other business owners in the area say without these much-needed spaces, consumers will have nowhere to park and will be dissuaded from shopping in the Five Points/Middletown or Little Italy neighborhoods.

Both the uptown group and the North Bay Community Planning Group unanimously voted against the proposal.

“There was a unanimous feeling on the board that any project which eliminates that much parking in commercial and retail areas is unacceptable, no matter how worthy the objective,” wrote Melanie Nickel, the North Bay group’s chairwoman, in a letter to Councilman Kevin Faulconer. Faulconer has yet to get involved in the issue.

During a meeting last month, uptown’s community planning group heard heated public comments from owners of rental car businesses, condominium landlords and restaurant owners who claim their employees would be forced to park blocks away and their customers would be driven off.

Similarly, bikers argued that they would feel safer riding down India and more would be drawn to the area, increasing business, not hurting it.

But the turnover for every metered space is high, business owners argued, and restaurants and shops get numerous customers throughout the day from just one parking space.

However, both sides are open to compromise. Business owners suggested using Pacific Highway for north and south transit since it is wide enough for a completely separate and raised lane.

But when Wilson suggested this to the San Diego County Bicycle Coalition, they said high vehicle speeds on Pacific Highway wouldn’t be as safe to bikers as a lane in Little Italy.

The Coalition’s Keehan said bikers are open to modifying the plan with options such as slowing down the traffic speed on India Street and Kettner Boulevard to protect bikers or buying space to create a parking lot.

“The issue is that this is a regional need versus a community need,” Keating said, although it “would be rare for the city to override the wishes of the community.”

As of now the city does not have the budget to add bike lanes, said city of San Diego bicycle coordinator, Jim Lundquist. In the meantime city officials are figuring out how to balance the needs of bikers and drivers, while looking for alternatives. Alternatives will be sent back to community groups for recommendation, and based on what the community agrees on, new lanes could be built as soon as the money becomes available.

Please contact Ashlie Rodriguez directly at ashlie.rodriguez@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0525.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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