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Guy Preuss is something of a sidewalk savant.

He knows, for instance, that the ideal width for a sidewalk is five feet. Five feet of sidewalk, Preuss says, allows for two baby carriages to go in opposite directions without bumping into each other.

“Or two fat guys,” Preuss said, laughing.

Preuss traveled the country examining sidewalks. For a time in the 1990s, Preuss figured out that he could fly just about anywhere in the United States, stay in a Motel 6, rent a car and buy groceries, all for $1,000 a pop. He took about 20 trips in four years.

Preuss’ inspiration came from a multi-part video series called “Pride of Place” that he found in the Chula Vista library. The series highlighted American communities designed for walkability. Preuss visited the towns of Celebration and Seaside, Fla., King Farm, Md., and others. He brought a rolling wheel tape measure with him.

Armed with his new knowledge, he returned to his Paradise Hills neighborhood in San Diego’s Fourth City Council District, where he’s lived since 1977.

“If it can happen somewhere else,” Preuss said, “there’s no damn reason it can’t happen here.”

Over time, he’s railed against the piecemeal sidewalks that dominate his community. They often go on for a few blocks and then abruptly end. A corner at Cumberland and Morningside, for example, allows for wheelchair access, but there’s only grass on either side of the curb.

Preuss has done much of his work on Paradise Hills’ center, a three-block stretch of Reo Drive. He helped push for wider sidewalks in front of the stores and succeeded almost a decade ago. Small businesses like La Palapa Market, Mike’s Giant New York Pizza and Bread Basket Bakery reside there now.

But there’s still plenty of room for improvement. Preuss spoke of broken down or stolen trees, crosswalks that had to be ripped out when they didn’t align with the new sidewalks and constant fights over whether to add a store that sells liquor.

He envisions the street as a true town center. A lot next to the post office would become a two-story library with a parking garage underneath. The shops would grow vertically to accommodate so they apartments and retail. Street lights would line the road so the community could string banners to advertise farmer’s markets and parades.

The kinds of changes Preuss wants for Reo Drive happen to be all the rage in urban planning. Today, everyone wants to design walkable communities.

The neighborhoods in southeastern San Diego, however, are at a disadvantage. Their community plans, which govern neighborhood development, are outdated. District 4 has four community plans. Three were last updated during the Reagan administration; the fourth during Bill Clinton’s tenure. The city just began updating plans in the Southeastern and Encanto areas, but they’re not scheduled to be completed until 2015.

Once those two are finished, Preuss’ neighborhood will have the oldest plan in the district. But that doesn’t bother him so much. He believes the city hasn’t followed through on everything the community plan called for a quarter-century ago. To him, that’s a bigger issue than planning.

“If they just did what they promised in the late ’80s,” he said, “it would be great.”

Liam Dillon is a news reporter for Voice of San Diego. He covers how regular people interact with local government. What should he write about next?

Please contact him directly at liam.dillon@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5663.

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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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