At its February 13 meeting the city council voted to move forward in the next phase of improving the “Streetscape” of Grand Avenue, which will be paid for in part by a grant from San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG.)
In a staff report Julie Procopio, the city engineer, gave the council an historical review of how the vision for a new Grand Avenue has evolved.
Procopio reminded the council how In 2015 a group of merchants including the DBA (Downtown Business Association) asked the council to support a new vision for Grand Avenue, such as diagonal parking and an improved ambience downtown. At that time it was recognized that any changes needed to be well thought out and vetted in public.
The council agreed to apply for SANDAG “Smart Growth” funding for a more pedestrian-friendly Grand Avenue.
In August 2017, the city invited the DBA, residents of old Escondido neighborhoods and representatives of the Chamber of Commerce to a workshop where participants shared their vision of wider sidewalks that would allow for more outdoor dining and narrowing Grand Avenue from two lanes each way to one lane.
This was followed by another meeting on October 12, 2017. About 80 participants got creative and shared photos of features they considered great from other downtowns. At that same meeting a transportation engineer gave a presentation on Smart Growth and presented two alternative plans for Grand Avenue.
The next meeting was held January 11, 2018 at which time the committee selected the option of diagonal parking on side of the street. Rather than doing widening on just one side, it recommended widening sidewalks on both sides.
This plan also called for roundabouts at Broadway and Kalmia and removing the Grand Avenue medians from Maple to Kalmia.
SANDAG funding for “vision”
Since those meetings the city’s application for funding from SANDAG was partially successful. The Association agreed to partially fund Phase 1, without funding the roundabouts.
Procopio explained that SANDAG was offering $1,443,161—with the city required to come up with matching funds. This will come from the City’s TransNet funding, derived from sales taxes. During last year’s council meeting on capital improvement projects it voted to set aside the matching funds as part of the CIP budget, so the money is currently available.
Because SANDAG has not yet agreed to fund the roundabouts the medians will need to remain. The SANDAG funding will enable the city to add diagonal parking and do the preliminary designs for the entire Grand Avenue vision.
“This is a community-driven vision for improving Grand Avenue, including the Charity Arch, for improved landscaping and lighting,” concluded Procopio.
Project 1 includes:
• Environmental clearance for vision plan
• Lane reduction and median removal from Maple to Kalmia
• Extend sidewalks (one side) from Maple to Kalmia
• Lighting landscaping crossing points
• Bus realignment, reroute to 2nd Street
After Procopio’s presentation one member of the public, Sharon Sanders spoke. She said she felt like the residents from Old Escondido haven’t been polled sufficiently. She asserted that their opinions are not “predominantly favorable” as has been reported.
She relayed how a neighbor and friend had taken a “vote” in her neighborhood and that 70% did not like the proposed Grand Avenue plan. “Yet it was presented that the community was generally in favor of the plan. That so contradicted my impression,” she said.
Sanders added that she had gotten the impression that more community meetings would be scheduled. She thought then: “ ‘OK, so there’s time,’ and I was waiting for the next community meeting. Then I heard that the grant came in and you are ready to go.” She added, “I don’t like it all. Where was the time for the community feedback?”
Public comments was followed by comments by council members.
Councilmember Mike Morasco asked what the “game plan” was for funding the roundabouts since SANDAG had declined that grant.
“We will continue to apply for grants,” said Procopio.
Morasco was enthusiastic about the progress so far on Grand Avenue. “With the changes and removal of the problematic trees and the new focus you can see Grand Avenue again. It’s great,” he said. “I’m excited about the evolution of our Grand Avenue plan.”
Councilmember Consuelo Martinez asked if there were plans for more public comments.
Procopio said there had been previous public meetings on the Grand Avenue plan. The most recent was attended by about 80 people. “A couple of residents felt that Grand is perfect as it is and they are attached to it. I acknowledge that not everyone particularly liked it. But there were eighty people there and they [critics] were a minority. We will continue to keep the stakeholders informed.”
Councilmember John Masson recalled that Grand Avenue had diagonal parking until the 1980s, when parallel parking replaced it. He asked how much roundabouts would cost.
“It’s $2.5 million,” said Procopio. “You have to redo the entire intersection. It will be a big project.”
Masson noted that if the Touchstone project is approved in the town center money would be available from the purchase of city property. “If that goes through we could apply that to the next phase,” he said.
Councilmember Olga Diaz said she recently visited Temecula’s Old Town neighborhood. “In all my years of living in Southern California I had never been to Temecula. I expected their Old Town to be fabulous but it was run down. I was disappointed because I thought it would be more picturesque. Our downtown is nicer.”
She continued, “This is another of those projects that has taken forever. Since we can’t create more space in the urban core we need to make better use of space. I admit the change from parallel to diagonal will create spaces. But when we go from two lanes to one, one of our most notable events is Cruisin’ Grand. How do we accommodate them?
Procopio said that initially there were concerns about this issue. “We reached out to Steve Waldron [the organizer and founder of Cruisin’ Grand.] Just because it’s diagonal on a normal day doesn’t mean it has to be on Fridays. This relieved their concerns.”
Procopio said there are several kinds of “diagonal” parking. One is “back in diagonal” which is considered safer for pedestrians. The advantage of “back in diagonal” is that it creates higher visibility.
Procopio said, “Back in parking is the newest thing. The idea came up when we first discussed it in 2015 and we got a strong ‘Don’t even think about it’ message.” We can accommodate it if that is a desire of the community.”
Diaz said she liked “doing one more lap around the community,” and to float the idea of “back in diagonal” parking. “I want to support the diagonal parking and I agree that the removal of the eucalyptus trees have really exposed the beauty of the landscape and you can see Bottle Peak now. Since I had lived here I hadn’t seen that before. I’m happy that you are able to get this funding and I look forward to getting more funding,” she said.
She added, “I want to know staff’s idea for filling vacancies for buildings that have stood vacant for twenty years. Those buildings are sitting empty and we aren’t getting the leverage. I’d like to see that addressed,” she said.
Mayor McNamara asked, “Are we going to have several more passes on this for the public?”
Procopio said, “The intent would be to form a committee and let those folks drive the vision a little and reach out to the public as well. Committee feedback was specific. We will want to involve key stakeholders closely an get their feedback.”
McNamara asked the staff to let Mrs. Sanders and other Old Escondido residents know when they can offer their input on the Grand Avenue changes.
Procopio added, “We will let Old Escondido residents know as we proceed. We also have a website with the vision plan. You can go directly to that on the engineering home page will have a Grand Avenue Vision plan. That’s where to look. We will update that with new information.”
The council voted 5-0 to move forward with the Grand Avenue Vision plan.
Business community’s perspective
The Times-Advocate spoke to Downtown Business Association President Alex MacLachlan to comment on the vote and the direction the “vision” project is taking.
“This was the first big step in putting together funding sources for the Grand Vision of tomorrow’s downtown. That’s important not only for business owners and residents but it’s important for city management also,” said MacLachlan.
“It puts us all on the same side crafting solutions to issues that have arisen now that so many new developments are proposed for downtown. I think the city now has a road map that mitigates many of the concerns that used to kill projects in the past, which were lost parking and increased inconvenience for customers,” he said.
“There is still community feedback that the city will be soliciting in future months, but the key features that I believe will remain are moving the transit buses one block off Grand to Second and Valley Parkway, reducing Grand Avenue to one lane in each direction, which allows for widened sidewalks and diagonal parking to replace parking lost from the Aspire project and creates more convenience for local shoppers. We also have assurances from city staff that Cruisin’ Grand participants will be able to park their cars in whatever configuration works best for CG management, regardless of the parking striping.
“When you take all these efforts and combine them with the proposed Gateway Arch gifted to the city by the Escondido Charitable Foundation, and the Downtown Business Association’s continued beautification and lighting measures, you can start to envision a vibrant downtown fulfilling its potential with shops and cafes filled with locals and new residents living within walking distance of Grand Avenue. That success should bring confidence to more investors to come fill up any remaining vacancies downtown,” said MacLachlan.