When I showed up in Little Italy late one afternoon last week, Anne MacMillan Eichman stepped out of her terracotta-colored townhouse in a black and gold tracksuit and big, dark sunglasses. It was an appropriate outfit for a walking tour of her chic urban neighborhood, but it also seemed to suggest she’s warming up for something.
I soon found out what.
Eichman and a few hundred of her downtown neighbors are engaged in a vehement tussle with the regional transit planners who want to install a lot where bus drivers can pull in to use the bathroom or to take a break. A big meeting’s coming tonight, when the neighborhood’s residents are invited to comment on the plan at Sandag’s downtown offices.
Councilman Kevin Faulconer stood with the residents in a press conference opposing the bus lot in February. Eichman said she hopes Todd Gloria, soon to become the neighborhood’s councilman, will do the same.
It’s a frequent refrain in uptown and downtown neighborhoods: Just because we’re living in an urban center doesn’t mean we’re not a residential neighborhood. San Diego regional planners expect downtown to absorb much of the population growth for the city’s next decades.
Most of San Diego County’s cities are car-oriented and comprised of detached homes, but development trends are shifting toward the denser urban neighborhoods of condos and townhomes. Thousands of urban dwellers have come to live in the busy downtown core over the last 10 years, meaning there are also plenty more voices to rise up in opposition of a plan.
Residents of those neighborhoods say they need their City Council representative to speak up for them. Sometimes their concerns seem like wishful thinking. Moving into a growing, changing, developing area means you might not always have the view you had when you bought your condo. And many seem to want to live the urban lifestyle without the urban inconveniences. Plus, Eichman’s position flies in the face of a central tenet of urban life elsewhere: The ubiquity of mass transit.
But Eichman said the streets of Little Italy are walkable and friendly — the kind of urban life planners try to achieve elsewhere. And buses in the middle would alter that quality of life.
“We’ve continued to absorb the sprawl that would otherwise be in the suburbs,” Eichman said. “We deserve to be heard. We deserve a real say in what our destiny looks like.”
I spent last week in uptown and downtown, learning the issues of District 3’s densely populated, urban neighborhoods that include North Park, East Village and Mission Hills. I took their concerns Friday to Councilman Todd Gloria, who’s running for re-election with no challenger. Stay tuned for a post soon from that conversation.
A fine balance between business, residences and transit is central to the uptown and downtown neighborhoods’ quality of life. Similar questions came up in a few of my other conversations last week:
• Height and Density: One of the most interesting things I noticed this week was the finely nuanced differences between — and sometimes within — neighborhoods in terms of what they want their streets and buildings to look like.
Hillcrest residents want to keep new development lower than 65 feet high, to keep the “big sky of Hillcrest” visible above the tops of the buildings, said town council chief Luke Terpstra. (Business owners there disagree.) Bankers Hill, down the road, is OK with taller buildings and density, but wants to make sure the neighborhood benefits from the fees generated by anything that’s built there.
Both want city help to update their community plans — rules for how the community will grow and what kind of buildings can go there — before the economy turns all the way around and developers decide to pick up new projects.
• Streets: It took Bankers Hill years and hundreds of signatures to get stop signs installed along 4th, 5th and 6th avenues to keep cars and buses from racing down them between downtown and Hillcrest. The city said it’s a route for commuters, said Leo Wilson, the former chairman of the Uptown Planners, who lives at 6th Avenue and Maple Street.
“The city says it’s a commuter route, but not when you approve high-density residential along it,” Wilson said this morning. “It’s the quality of life that’s going to get people to stay.”
Lots of people are excited about the possibility of an uptown streetcar that would connect the neighborhoods around Gloria’s new district. Wilson wants Gloria to keep pushing it.
Urban activist Walt Chambers lives in eastern Hillcrest and runs a blog, Great Streets San Diego, with a clear goal: Getting “more people on the sidewalks than cars on the streets.” Chambers wrote me to point out a couple of trouble spots, which I ended up seeing when I walked through the neighborhood after my chat with Terpstra.
Chambers wants sidewalks and bike lanes on Richmond Street, which connects Balboa Park to the uptown shops. He also wants the city to connect the disappearing bike lanes along El Cajon Boulevard and University Avenue in Hillcrest’s eastern portion.
The Hillcrest Town Council wants help from the city to create a joint-use park at Florence Elementary, like the new one that Jefferson Elementary shares with North Park residents. And Bankers Hill wants to bring residents together with the city to develop a plot of land near Olive Street.
It might seem a bit odd to be blocks from a giant urban green oasis — Balboa Park — and be pushing hard for a park. But it takes a while to get to Balboa Park from many of these neighborhoods, and when you’re living in multiple-story buildings, the green space is needed to break up the city blocks, residents said. And beyond the green space, the parks in different neighborhood pockets serve as a meeting place for neighbors of just that area, not the whole region.
Correction: An earlier version of this post said Leo Wilson is still on the Uptown Planners group, but he’s been termed out. We regret the error.
I’m Kelly Bennett, reporter for Voice of San Diego. You can reach me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.325.0531.
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