ENCINITAS — A drive down two of Leucadia’s main streets reveals a growing schism in the community over a plan to modernize and improve the neighborhood’s main drag, Coast Highway 101.
Driving along Neptune Avenue, which runs parallel to Coast Highway 101 and is dotted by an eclectic mix of homes, a number of those homes have the same sign on their lawns. It depicts a four-lane road being choked by a clenched fist, with a two-lane road emerging on the other side, with the slogan: “One Lane, Insane!”
No such signs are posted along Coast Highway 101, Leucadia’s retail and business hub.
The proposed North Coast Highway 101 Streetscape, which goes before the California Coastal Commission Oct. 11, is the latest in a series of public works projects in the city that has electrified the beach community known for its funky, laid-back vibe.
Supporters, which include a number of business owners, residents east of the railroad tracks and several prominent residents who live west of Coast Highway 101, believe the proposed reconfiguration of the main street will reclaim it for the community after years of being used by motorists to bypass traffic on nearby Interstate 5.
They also see it as a potential boon to the retail district, as the street will be beautified, traffic will slow down and possibly attract more people to local businesses. After decades of wait, the project is long overdue, they said.
Opponents, however, have mounted a furious campaign, including a lawsuit filed against the city and an appeal to the Coastal Commission, which will be ruled on the same day.
They argue that the streetscape will choke traffic along Coast Highway and force motorists onto residential streets like Neptune and La Veta Avenue, and will deter people from visiting the beach.
Additionally, they argue that the proposed changes are subject to Proposition A, the 2013 voter initiative that empowered the public to vote on major land use changes.
The concept of the proposed streetscape dates back to earlier in the 2000s, when the city moved forward with a similar project along Coast Highway 101 in downtown.
First officially proposed in 2008 and approved in 2010, the city has taken nearly a decade to reach this point, after delays over questions about the cost and scope of the project.
Those details have been discussed and debated since 2008 over a series of public workshops, outreach events and council and commission hearings.
The project will dramatically transform the stretch of 101 into a bicycle-, pedestrian- and transit-friendly enclave complete with six roundabout intersections.
Streetscape plans call for six roundabouts between A Street and La Costa Avenue, bike lanes, pedestrian paths, wider sidewalks and crosswalks, bus facilities, on- and off-street parking, and the planting of more than 1,000 trees to restore the street’s famed tree canopy.
At least 80 of the nearly 400 mature trees — mostly eucalyptus — will be cut down as a result of the project, but officials said the addition of 1,000 trees more than makes up for it. Those trees, however, will be a mix of different variety and sizes, meaning the canopy will look different.
The California Coastal Commission is prepared to weigh in on Oct. 11 and is recommending approval of the city’s plans with an amendment that will require the city to study travel time along any major coastal access roadway with significant congestion prior to modifying it. If the study shows that the project will impact coastal access, it “should be avoided,” according to the staff recommendation.
It also requires the city to submit an annual traffic monitoring plan for five years after the project’s completion to document the actual travel time in the project.
Additionally, the amended approval stipulates that any future roadway modifications include public access benefit enhancements that promote different transportation methods, including improved walking and biking access and increased public parking.
Finally, the commission is requiring the city to prohibit paid parking in the three parking bays proposed in the project, to provide three “ride share” drop-off and pickup points adjacent to three public beach access points and obtain an amendment from the commission in the future if any parking spaces are removed.
Since the council’s approval in March, a groundswell of opposition has emerged to the project. However, many of the voices driving the opposition have voiced concerns about it and other projects for years.
The Encinitas Residents Coalition, composed of several Leucadia and Encinitas residents, includes a number of people who regularly attend Encinitas Council meetings, including Doug Fiske, Christine Wagner and Leah Bissonette.
Fiske, who writes columns that appear in The Coast News, summarized the opposition to the project in a recent column.
“We don’t want one traffic lane in each direction and six dinky little roundabouts, five of them stuffed at the north end,” Fiske wrote. “We don’t want a traffic and public safety nightmare, monster buildings lining the west side and more alcohol soaking our neighborhoods. We don’t want the Mom & Pop merchants pushed out, and we don’t want to lose our big old trees, especially the iconic eucalyptus at Leucadia Boulevard.”
Bissonette echoed Fiske’s concerns, saying the objection to the project is clear cut.
“These changes will make car traffic go more slowly in Highway 101 and increase congestion,” Bissonette said. “If you are in a car or truck and have to travel on Highway 101 you will be sitting in heavy traffic much of the time.”
According to city traffic studies, the average trip through the impacted area would increase by two minutes, which according to city and California Coastal Commission staff reports is negligible. The residents group, however, said the city is underestimating the delay, citing their own traffic studies.
The group’s membership argues that these changes will result in cars seeking other streets to detour to avoid Coast Highway 101. Bissonette, citing the city’s staff report that states that 8,000 vehicle trips will be diverted to Interstate 5 and another 4,800 onto Vulcan Avenue, said that the city didn’t study the impact to residential streets on the west side of Coast Highway 101.
“We think these numbers are significant and we think the real numbers will be much higher than this,” she said. “If cars find Highway 101 is very difficult and time consuming to use and I-5 is also jammed at the exits and entrances, they will naturally choose to use Vulcan, Neptune, or other alternative routes. We think there will be a huge negative impact on the community.”
Bissonette said she fears the streetscape will backfire, citing a recent failed project in Playa Del Rey, where the L.A. City Council reversed course on a lane diet after resident uproar.
Bissonette and others also argue that by narrowing lanes, the project will make it harder for first responders to access the area in the event of an emergency.
Additionally, the group has attacked the veracity of the plan itself, which they argue was changed from the 2010 approval without an additional public hearing and without a vote of the people.
In a recent supplement submitted to the California Coastal Commission, Wagner states that the city was obligated under Proposition A to bring the changes in roadway designation — which will change the plan that guides development in Leucadia — to a vote of the people.
That didn’t occur, so they are asking in their appeal to the Coastal Commission to halt approvals until it takes place.
“The (commission) Staff Report was prepared prior to receipt of the (memo) so, unfortunately, this perspective is not included in that report,” Wagner wrote in an email to The Coast News. “Had it been, perhaps the Staff Recommendations would be different. In any case, the arguments will be made to the Commission if the hearings are conducted as scheduled.”
Opponents also argue the $30 million price tag is too much, and will siphon money away from other deserving projects citywide.
Supporters look to clear up “misinformation”
Supporters, however, see the project as part of the evolution of Leucadia and the main strip that supports it — a vision they said was supported by the community at large.
“This was a community-driven effort,” said Kellie Shay Hinze, executive director of Leucadia 101 Main Street Association. “As you know, it (Coast Highway 101) was built as a freeway in the ‘20s, the community popped up around it, the businesses popped up around it. So now the function that is serves needs to change. It needs to act more as a gathering place, not a thoroughfare.”
Hinze said that this is a critical difference between Leucadia and Playa Del Rey, which was driven by a council-driven action with very little public participation.
She and other supporters liken this project to what happened along La Jolla Boulevard in the community of Bird Rock.
“Bird Rock’s five-lane road with five traditional intersections became a two-lane road of smoothly moving traffic that no longer has to stop,” Hinze said. “Bird Rock also saw average daily trips decrease from 21,000-24,000 to 19,500. Bird Rock was a more heavily used corridor than ours.”
Project supporters argue that the opponents have used misinformation to divide the community, which they say has largely supported the project.
“This really should be a consensus project,” said Charley Marvin, a former attorney and longtime Leucadia resident who lives on Neptune.
The “One Lane: Insane” crowd is largely isolated to the west side of Coast Highway 101 along Neptune and La Veta, Marvin said.
Marvin said that support extends beyond the west side and across Coast Highway 101, where residents have long looked for a safer roadway for pedestrians, cyclists and access to the beach.
Marvin and Brian Evans, who runs the Coastal Animal Hospital and lives on the east side of Coast Highway 101, said that many residents on the east side are afraid to bike or walk along the street, which they said has a reputation of being one of the most dangerous pedestrian and bicycling stretches in all of San Diego.
“Bringing your family down to that area is not possible,” Evans said.
The opponents, they said, also inaccurately depict the project only having two lanes, failing to cite that the project includes a full third center lane and pedestrian and bike lanes that emergency vehicles will be able to use.
“It’s really a three-lane road, and that third lane will always be open for emergency vehicles,” Marvin said.
The only people, supporters said, who would be averse to using the street are commuters, who they argue should be using Interstate 5.
“This is simply taking the street back for the residents,” Hinze said.
Hinze and other supporters also said that while the price tag might seem like a lot, the city will likely defray much of the cost through state grants specifically targeted at “complete streets” projects like this one.
After much delay, they said, now is the time to move forward.
“It’s our turn,” longtime resident and art gallery owner Morgan Mallory said at a planning commission meeting earlier this year. “I support now 1,000 more trees, calmer street traffic, safer bike lanes, safer intersections, wider sidewalks, more markings and a more attractive and efficient North Coast Highway 101 corridor for future generations.”
The California Coastal Commission meeting starts at 9 a.m. at the Wyndham San Diego Bayside, Pacific Ballroom – D, 1355 North Harbor Drive San Diego, CA 92101.