When Oceanside’s downtown fled inland in the 1960s, toward shopping centers that could be reached only by car, much of Coast Highway became a playground for Marines. Tattoo parlors, cheap motels, military surplus stores and an X-rated theater lined the street – and there was even that strip club by the civic center that the city bought, just to shut it down.
Now, with new breweries and restaurants peppering the road between Camp Pendleton and Carlsbad, Coast Highway is the kind of place where you can order octopus sushi at the gastropub, and get a title loan next door.
Oceanside is trying fill in the road with coordinated development, and in 2009, the city adopted a Coast Highway Vision Plan that largely calls for making three miles of it into an urban street, with more cycling and walking, and fewer lanes for cars. This spring, the City Council will vote on a final road design, based on a corridor study that began in 2013.
But as Oceanside tries to transform Coast Highway from a roadway that’s served a common citywide good to one that serves local neighborhoods, it’s meeting some resistance.
Much of it is coming from residents who live in exclusively residential areas east of I-5, and even those from the northern and southern ends of Coast Highway who feel like they are losing access to the rest of it.
“It allows downtown to go back to serving the locals and tourists again,” said John Daley, who sits on a Vision Plan steering committee and owns the 101 Cafe in the Seaside neighborhood.
His vintage diner’s whole appeal relies on the image of cruising Coast Highway, and he believes that narrowing the road would benefit his business by pushing traffic back onto I-5. That would allow people who want to patronize businesses on Coast Highway to do so.
“Other people are going to come, but it’ll dramatically cut down on pass-through traffic,” Daley said. “I’ve been able to see how traffic affects us year after year.”
The city originally had an economic development basis for the vision – build clustered neighborhoods where people can live out their day without getting in a car, and jobs and commercial activity will follow. Now cities across the state face a looming deadline to cut their greenhouse gas emissions, and even receive money for building the type of streets outlined in the Vision Plan.
But that’s also what makes people hesitate – the so-called road diet, which reduces lanes available for cars and attempts to make up for it by changing stoplights into roundabouts, seemingly does nothing but complicate access for people from other strictly residential neighborhoods, who have no alternative but to drive in.
Oceanside may be trying to build a diverse street, but it’s still is a suburban community that relies on people getting around in cars. Transit doesn’t serve Coast Highway well, and it isn’t widely used by people who are separated from main corridors near residential areas.
One view is that Coast Highway needs to be large enough to carry people through and away from it. At community meetings, some residents have argued that Coast Highway should support traffic that tries to cut through town, or let residents get out when Interstate 5 is backed up. Others believe that it shouldn’t be a bypass, but nor should it reduce lanes to the point where people with cars take side streets to avoid traffic on Coast Highway, or are dissuaded from coming altogether.
The general feeling among people around town and at City Hall is that the city finally has economic momentum and is on the verge of vibrancy, but it hasn’t tipped yet.
“Now’s the time to be judicious, and not to push it too fast,” community activist Nadine Scott said. “I think there could be more productive ways than two lanes all the way through.”
Former Councilwoman Shari Mackin doesn’t want to see a road diet in places like South O, because it would incentivize people to take side streets. She says the road should remain four lanes, and people who want to get north and south could bike on the Coastal Rail Trail, an incomplete bike path that runs next to the Coaster track.
But the trail’s limited access to neighborhoods prevents it from ever being an option for people who have a destination in mind. And it doesn’t allow for any economic benefit to places on Coast Highway.
To the critics of road diets in Oceanside, Daley points to the recently completed renovations on Mission Avenue, which intersects Coast Highway.
People thought making that road into a one-way entrance into town with wider sidewalks would kill downtown, but it didn’t end up harming the fragile recovery of the area.
“Instead, you’ve got new restaurants,” he said. “Generally, I approve of the whole plan. It’s not going to be built at once.”