Building the bridge, dividing a community
by Adriane Tillman
Published - 08/10/06 - 11:49 AM | 1726 views | 0 0 comments | 3 3 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Regents Road Bridge will physically connect north and south University City, but will continue to divide neighbors and friends.

Considered the community's most controversial project, the City Council approved building the Regents Road Bridge over Rose Canyon on Aug. 1. Council members Donna Frye and Toni Atkins were the only dissenting votes.

Not all is said and done for the opponents of the bridge, however.


Legitimacy of the EIR

Adversaries of the project faulted the adequacy of the environmental impact report (EIR), not just the bridge. The EIR examined seven alternatives proposed to relieve traffic congestion in University City, including options to build the Regents Road Bridge or widen Genesee Avenue.

The document analyzed the environmental effects of each project and discussed methods for mitigating the impacts.

Numerous agencies called for city council to reject the EIR and send the document back to staff for further work, including the city attorney's office, University Community Planning Group (UCPG), California Regional Water Quality Control Board, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the California Department of Fish and Game.

"The response to our comments and the final EIR do not describe the project in sufficient detail, answer our questions, or alleviate our concerns," stated the water quality board in a letter to the city. " We urge the City not to certify the EIR until these shortcomings are corrected."

The city defended the adequacy of the EIR, which was not intended to provide project-specific details, according to a memo from the city's Engineering and Capital Projects Department.

"The City Council did not expect a full-blown, project-specific analysis because it had not yet chosen which project to undertake," stated the memo. "The [final] FEIR candidly and repeatedly acknowledges this status of the endeavor."

However, Debby Knight, president of Friends of Rose Canyon, said she believes the process was rotten. She alleges that Project Design Consultants, the city-hired firm that prepared the EIR, deliberately under-reported and underestimated the environmental impacts of the bridge. The consultants were not only hired to impartially analyze the seven alternatives prepared in the EIR; they also were tasked to design the chosen project. Knight believes the arrangement creates an inherent conflict of interest.

"If you hire somebody to do a full and fair assessment of a whole range of alternatives, you don't say, "˜Oh, and by the way, we'll give you a contract to build the most expensive one, if that turns out to be chosen,'" Knight said.

The city stands by its process. It forced the consultants to provide a realistic, feasible analysis, since they are also charged with designing the selected project, said Kris Shackelford, senior engineer with Engineering and Capital Projects.Retaining the same consultant also saves time and money. It would likely take the city another nine months to hire a different consultant to design the bridge, according to Shackelford.

Knight scoffed at the monetary motive. The bridge costs $36 million; money shouldn't be a factor in ensuring a fair and adequate process, she said.

Knight also contends it was apparent that Project Design Consultants pushed to build the bridge.

In emails between the consultants, the city and Katz & Associates Inc., the public relations firm hired to facilitate dialogue, the consultants conclude that building both the Regents Road Bridge and widening Genesee Avenue (the Community Plan) is the preferred choice for alleviating traffic congestion.

"CP [Community Plan] is the winner," consultant Gordon Lutes wrote on Oct. 21, 2004. "Other alternatives do better or worse depending on how you weigh the factors "¦ but once you get away from traffic you open it up to everyone's bias and weighing of factors. I think the safest ground is to recommend the Community Plan!"

In response to his email, Sarah Katz, owner of Katz & Associates, tells Gordon that he'll have to work to sell the story.

"But, remember, we need sound bits and solid bits of defensible data that "˜SELL' a story to those that are quite opposed to hearing what you came to say," Katz wrote.

Katz dismissed Knight's concerns. The consultants did not make any recommendation to city council. The email conversation was also not inappropriate since the traffic consultant was simply making sense of the data, she said.

"It's not inappropriate for a traffic consultant to opine which alternatives may in fact address specific criteria and how successfully it does," Katz said. "However, it wasn't a formal recommendation."


Building over conservation grants

Members of Friends of Rose Canyon are wondering how the city will rectify the state grant the city vied for in 1997 to maintain and restore the canyon. According to the city attorney, the draft EIR failed to address how it would fulfill the grant's terms.

The final EIR did speak to the grant, but it also threw in new mitigation "” a 33-foot structure "” that was not evaluated in the document.

In response, Engineering and Capital Projects emphasized that the EIR is not the final environmental review for the bridge, and that worries about the conflict are premature.

Furthermore, it was not the EIR's duty to address legal issues.

"The [final] EIR already identifies the kinds of physical impacts to sensitive resources that could occur from the Regents Road Bridge Alternative, and identifies mitigation measures to address those impacts," stated a memo from Engineering and Capital Projects.


At last, a decision is made

The Regents Road Bridge has reared its head for more than a decade now and politicians have continually passed the buck.

UCPG Chair Linda Colley wonders why the decision was finally made now.

Council President and District 1 Councilman Scott Peters promised to resolve the issue because he said the community needs traffic relief. Peters made the motion to build the bridge.

Colley said she believes a decision was finally reached because of politics "” not traffic woes.

"It's all about politics; who owes who what favor," Colley said.

Peters asked council to adopt the mayor's recommendation to build the bridge and remove the Genesee Avenue widening option from the community plan. He also proposed an additional $4 million for mitigation measures and access improvements to the canyon, and called for the city to hire an architect experienced in designing bridges over canyons or lagoons to improve the aesthetic quality of the structure.

The community cannot pick and choose the projects it likes in the community plan or else the entire system will break down, Peters said. The Regents Road Bridge and Genesee Avenue Widening projects were placed in the community plan in 1959.

"Growth should be built with the infrastructure to support it," Peters said.

The bridge will be paid for solely with Facility Benefit Assessment (FBA) fees "” dues collected over the years from developers in the area.

In the mayor's recommendation to city council, he listed five benefits that justified the unavoidable, significant environmental impacts of the bridge. The bridge would improve connectivity between north and south, opening another road to goods and services in the north. It would create an additional emergency access route. Fire and paramedic vehicles would be able reach the western portion of South University City more quickly.

Construction of the bridge would improve access to Rose Canyon, as a 12-space parking lot would be built on the southern end, and the upper part of the trail would be reconfigured to better meet ADA requirements.

Finally, the Regents Road Bridge would distribute traffic more proportionately.

The EIR concluded that it could not mitigate impacts to the local neighborhood character/aesthetics, recreation in Rose Canyon and the landform south of Rose Canyon.

Mitigation could be made for biological impacts, noise impacts and water quality impacts that would be reduced "to below a level of significance," however.

District 6 Councilwoman Donna Frye couldn't make the case for the bridge.

"I'm not convinced that it will accomplish what you believe it will accomplish," said Frye, who believes that the bridge will increase traffic.


The next step

While opponents gather forces and proponents toast the outcome, the Regents Road Bridge will circle through another environmental review to determine whether an additional EIR is needed. The bridge is considered the worst-case scenario in the EIR and Peters is hoping to pull in staff, a specialized architect and stakeholders to create a signature bridge.

"The process of designing the bridge will be a long one and I hope the community will participate," Peters said.

Construction will immediately begin on the "limited roadway changes" that will add turn lanes to the Genesee Avenue/SR-52 intersection, Governor Drive/Genesee Avenue intersection and Regents Road/SR-52 intersection.

Meanwhile, Colley has other fish to fry. Six major projects seeking community plan amendments to add density are pending before the UCPG. And San Diego's international airport is planned for UC's backyard at MCAS Miramar.
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