Rose Canyon Open Space Park is a great place to walk the dog.
Debby Knight, head of Friends of Rose Canyon since the group's inception, doesn't drink or smoke cigars the way Civil War Gen. Ulysses Grant did, but she's leading the troops opposed to the bridge in Rose Canyon Open Space Park, a rugged University City venue between Regents Road and Genesee Avenue offering trails, wildlife views and bird watching.
“I moved here in 1998,” she said. “I didn't know what a canyon was. I just wanted a place to run off the urban roads. Then I discovered the peace of the canyon, a wonderful natural place to get away. As a magazine writer on environmental places, the last thing I wanted to do was get tied down with community activism. I grew up in Bethany, Conn. and loved to play in the woods as a kid.”
But one thing led to another, and the bridge issue – initially fueled in 1960, when the City of San Diego proposed a a bridge to link Regents Road southern and northern dead-ends – took form in 2002, when Friends of Rose Canyon was founded in Knight's living room. Since then, Knight has educated herself about canyons and watersheds in San Diego. She is paid a modest salary for her efforts and has brought many people to Rose Canyon, especially children. The latter come to the canyon to explore, pick up bugs and get a hands-on lesson in nature. Kids from Spreckels, Curie, Doyle, University City High School and several others are regular visitors.
“When I grew up in Connecticut,” she said, “it was a time when you could go outdoors and feel safe. I wanted that for San Diego children.”
Volleys have been shot across the pro-bridge and anti-bridge trenches, and the war of words has been pretty straightforward.
Proponents of the bridge formed U.C. Connection, a group of residents promised relief from traffic on Genesee and a second surface street evacuation route in the event of a catastrophe such as the 2003 Cedar fire, although UC has 805 and 52 available. In the opinion of Marcia Munn, UC Connection president, development in North University City continues at an alarming rate, and the proposed trolley stop will not benefit South University City: “It will be a magnet to attract traffic on Genesee.”
In 2006, the City voted to certify an Environmental Impact Report on the project and build the bridge. The report took three years to complete at a cost of almost $3 million. Friends of Rose Canyon sued over the adequacy of the report, along with San Diego Coastkeeper, San Diego Audubon Society and Endangered Habitats League. In the settlement, the City agreed to withdraw certain essential elements of the report and agreed not to proceed without doing a new study.
In 2007, with no report, the City voted to approve a contract for final design of the project, a violation of state environmental law. Friends of Rose Canyon sued again. The City put the contract on hold and eventually withdrew it in order to settle the lawsuit.
When Councilmember Sherri Lightner got elected in 2008, she ran on a platform that opposed the bridge. In her opinion, the bridge would be an on-ramp for Route 52 and ruin the community as well as the canyon without providing traffic relief. She said she felt a fire station in South University City was the real answer for the community.
Munn thinks Lightner has turned a deaf ear to anyone who wants the bridge.
“In 2006,” Munn said, “the issue went to the City Council, resulting in a 6-2 vote in favor of the bridge. Three fire chiefs, starting with Jeff Bowman, have favored the bridge as the best safety measure for this community. A fire station would be a welcome safety trigger, but it would solve neither the evacuation problem nor the problem of reaching a medical facility when Genesee is blocked.”
A few weeks ago, Mayor Kevin Faulconer held a press conference at the dead-end of Regents Road overlooking Rose Canyon Open Space Park. He talked about Regents Road improvements, with Lightner slated to announce his intention to take the bridge out of the community plan, along with the widening of Genesee. He's said he feels a South University City fire station is the answer.
Meanwhile, Knight thinks the bridge's time has passed.
“It is estimated to cost $35 million to build,” she said, “and the City would need to do (a new environmental impact report), and it is likely the bridge would not be able to meet today's strict environmental standards. The fire station would cost a lot less to build, and there would be money left for parks and libraries. We are in a completely different situation today than 50 years ago.”
“Genesee is not congested except for peak hours in the morning going north and in the evening going south,” according to Knight. “The facts are seen in the 24-hour traffic count, which is flat. The count is the same as in 1987.” Knight is also working to get rid of the widening of Genesee in the community plan.
Munn feels the negotiations to remove the bridge were carried out without input from U.C. Connection under a cloak of secrecy.
“U.C. Connection was never told about the mayor's Sept. 25th press conference at the rim of Rose Canyon,” she said. “We represent hundreds of stakeholders.”
At a Sept. 29 City Council meeting, at which around 100 people showed up to voice their support for and against the bridge, the City Council unanimously approved an amendment to the University City community plant to study taking the Rose Canyon bridge and the widening of Genesee Avenue out of the community plan.
Hopefully, this latest controversy will end in 2014, but has defined the University City community for a long time. Still, Knight and Munn have been dedicated leaders of their troops, and the war of words may be winding down.
Sandy Lippe regularly contributes her View from the 52 column to the San Diego Community Newspaper group.