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Lara Gates wants to show me how difficult it is to get from the top of her neighborhood, Mission Hills, to the bottom. Our route: the neighborhood’s forbidding connecting vein, Washington Street.

“Hi, I’m Lara, I’m a pedestrian and I’d like to walk down Washington,” says Gates, the mom of twin 6-year-old girls, make-believing. “How am I going to do that? I’m not.”

On top of the hill, past the island where cars merge from Ibis Street, the sidewalk ends.

A few feet down the road, Gates points out a patch of new pavement off to the right side. It’s a bleak spot. University Avenue crosses over and turns into Washington Street, and cars merge onto the raging thoroughfare.

“There’s a crash here once a week,” she says.

I’m spending the week in the uptown and downtown neighborhoods of District 3, a densely populated, urban City Council district that will include Mission Hills for the first time after the next election. I’m spending time with people who live and work in these neighborhoods to get to know the issues and questions they’ve encountered. Later this week, I’ll take them to the district’s representative, Todd Gloria, who’s running without an opponent for the seat he already holds.

Photo by Sam Hodgson

Gates is the president of the Mission Hills Town Council, and an enthusiastic tour guide of the neighborhood she’s lived in for more than a decade.

As commuters race down Washington beside us, Gates plugs an idea she wants Gloria to champion. The community wants to widen the road down the canyon, she said, and add a protected bike path. As it is, there are a few stretches of Washington where a bike lane emerges out of nowhere. And just as quickly, the lane ends.

“Oh! No more bike lane! Sorry!” says Gates sarcastically as dotted lines indicate cyclists should merge back into the flow of vehicle traffic.

Photo by Kelly Bennett

“We are supposed to be a City of Villages and you can literally not walk down Washington,” she says. “It’s so scary.”

At the bottom of the hill, under Interstate 5, we’ve technically left Mission Hills. She wants to convert the armpits of the freeway bridges into parking lots for Mission Hills residents who want to take the trolley.

Gates has an interesting perspective on these issues. Her day job since 1996 is as a city planner. She worked on Barrio Logan’s community plan and is starting to work on a plan for southeastern San Diego. At work, she’s envisioning long-term, 30-year planning policies. In her home neighborhood, she tends to think project by project.

Here are some of the other projects that Gates and other Mission Hills residents are thinking about:

Parks: Gates walked me through the neighborhood’s new pocket park at West Lewis Street and Falcon Street overlooking Goldfinch Canyon. Even though Gloria hasn’t been representing Mission Hills in his first term, he’s a known quantity — he helped the neighborhood get going on this native-plant-landscaped park with benches and a sign to identify the birds in Goldfinch Canyon years ago.

“He’s been a friend to Mission Hills already,” she says.

Now the neighborhood is trying to connect that park to the end of nearby Goldfinch Street. We walk through brush at the end of that street where a pathway will go, near a public art piece of copper-covered wooden posts looking a little long in the tooth.

Planning: A proposed 40-bed rehab center for veterans has drummed up opposition.

Crime: Recently, the neighborhood endured a spate of historic plaque thefts.

Libraries and Rec Centers: Beyond the idea for the bike and pedestrian path down Washington, Gates has a couple of pet projects she hopes Gloria will take up. A banner flaps from the side of an old labor union building at Washington and Front streets, declaring it the site of a new Mission Hills library — a site the city bought in 2003 and said it would finish by 2008. And Gates would love for the city to help buy property on the edge of Mission Hills and Hillcrest to build a rec center and pool.

“We are an urban neighborhood, evolving,” Gates says. In Mission Hills, residents are established and affluent, she says.

The big place the city comes in is maintaining and augmenting what is already there, providing what Gates calls the “amenities our community deserves and needs.”

Update: I tried to look into Gates’ claim that the stretch of Washington Street results in a crash per week. The San Diego Police Department provided statistics for the last 60 days. At least in that time period, the number of reported collisions has been fewer than one a week. But it’s also possible that more collisions happened that weren’t reported.

I’m Kelly Bennett, reporter for Voice of San Diego. You can reach me directly at kelly.bennett@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0531.

Kelly Bennett

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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