Posted by: cantmisssd | November 22, 2010

Golden Hill’s 25th Street Facelift

On a drizzly Saturday morning, I joined a packed house in Golden Hill for a second public feedback meeting on plans to redevelop 25th Street between Balboa Park and F Street. As with most public meetings, the group often struggled to stay on topic and keep moving, but it was the first opportunity to see the first full draft of plans from RRM Design to significantly revamp the corridor.

The most significant changes came out of feedback from the initial community meeting in October. First, 25th will be trimmed to one lane in each direction. That will create space to add bike lanes in each direction, parallel parking on the west side of the street and, new to the city of San Diego, back-in angle parking for several blocks on the east side. Combined with bulb-outs at the major intersections of the strip, and the major artery is already looking much more friendly for folks who aren’t in cars.

The plan also calls for a new roundabout at the north end of 25th, opening the Balboa Park entrance and connecting the park and the community. It potentially will also include better trail connections, dramatically improving pedestrian access to and from the park (and perhaps spurring more infrastructure investment for the south end of the park).

A number of challenges remain, many of which concern relative details: Size and placement of benches (particularly vis a vis homeless use), lighting, type and placement of trees (a much bigger deal than one might think), drainage, right-of-way impositions, long-term maintenance costs. These issues will all be fought over, but in the end they’re not essentially challenging… or interesting.

The fun challenge still outstanding is how to utilize the bulb-outs as collaborative community space. Little Italy has had some success with this, specifically at India and Date. Also noted at the meeting was South Park’s community bulletin board at 30th and Beech. Both of these examples provide good jumping-off points, but this offers a small-scale opportunity to innovate and to add individualized touches of character. The project as conceived will be focusing on the maintenance of uniformity, so creatively curated bulb-outs could break things up a bit and boost the rest of the community. For example, kiosk displays of local artists, interactive art and/or community information, permanent vendors and rotating popshops, music, structure for small events (then organizing a series of small community events). I’m sure there are many other possibilities.

More striking, though sadly unsurprising, was the split over the stages of redevelopment. The current proposal calls for the segment between Broadway and the park to be fully completed in the initial phase, with the stretch from Broadway to F Street only getting basic street changes. This would be followed by a second round of fundraising to complete the sidewalk and ambient changes along the south stretch in a second phase. The tension bubbled up briefly at the meeting, with the division between old, white, north vs young, latino and south asking who had decided to work from the north end instead of the south end.

It’s a good question in the larger scale, highlighted accidentally by the reasons it makes sense for this project. The weight of development that would benefit from (and has driven) the redevelopment project is north, and the project has always been driven by an aspiration to connect to Balboa Park in the north, not Logan Heights and Grant Hill to the south. The idea, and it’s fair if not right, is that Golden Hill is going to find more customers and more affluent residents by attracting them from the north- South Park, North Park, Hillcrest, Bankers Hill, etc. So an eye towards prioritizing better connectivity in that direction makes sense.

It does however highlight the redevelopment priorities of the city in recent years. The concerted improvements have been in Little Italy, Hillcrest, North Park, Normal Heights. It has largely skipped communities like Barrio Logan, Sherman Heights, Logan Heights. Granted, some of the gentrification successes have been driven by community initiative, but the city has certainly been deeply involved. This is beginning to change, with a big development project coming on Cesar Chavez Parkway adjacent to Chicano Park, with plans for the Sherman Heights historic corridor redevelopment, and with rumblings about finally doing something- ANYthing- with Commercial Avenue. But attitudes won’t change overnight (nor should they), and there’s still very little proof on the ground that low-income, majority-minority communities are getting any love from San Diego.

The 25th Street project has the potential to eventually help change this. If and when the full project is completed, it will provide a direct line from Balboa Park to the 94, a key component to extending all the way down 25th and Cesar Chavez Parkway to the harbor. And it sets the stage for the Golden Hill community to become a vibrant crossroads for the center of San Diego, bringing in traffic from all four directions and mixing them all. There are countless steps between beginning and end, but the initial plan is a good start. The next phase- details- will reflect whether the old-school gatekeepers are focused more on insulating the community or opening it, but the priority on creating functional, shared public space is an encouraging foundation.

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Posted by: cantmisssd | November 18, 2010

RIP Wit’s End

Went by Wit’s End last night to mark the impending passing of another Hillcrest front. Turns out the landlord is raising the rent and profit margins were already lean. So that, sadly, will be that. Last night was the final of a long run of epic karaoke Wednesdays, and the last day for Wit’s will be Monday the 22nd. I’m told they’ll be looking for a new spot, so this may not be *the* end when all is said and done, but after years of anchoring Robinson between 4th and 5th, I’m sorry to see it go.

Posted by: cantmisssd | November 17, 2010

Oh, Hillcrest

Can we all agree that University between 1st and 10th Avenue is a complete disaster? Can’t drive it. Can’t turn left. Can’t walk it, sidewalk’s too narrow and gross and it’s dangerous crossing the street. Can’t bike it, it’s too narrow and you’ll get hit. Can barely bus it, makes every stop for no reason that isn’t people-are-lazy and buses get caught in the gridlock they help create. Plus, there’s a fire station and a hospital, so emergency vehicles both make it worse AND are slower to respond because of it.

The other choice is getting stuck at the Robinson/163 bottleneck at the 4-way stop that, for 5 hours a day, can’t handle the volume out of West Hillcrest, off of 163 North, and along 10th Ave’s 163 entrance ramp and traffic release from the Ralph’s/Trader Joe’s lot. God help you if you’re trying to bike or walk through there too- the sidewalks are more narrow, there’s no room for cars to pass bikes, you have to cross 163 ramps, and drivers are already overmatched by the other cars at a stop sign, they can’t pay attention to pedestrians and bikers also.

It’s encouraging that SANDAG’s 2050 plans mostly include better public transportation for University Ave, but that’s going to take a while yet. As great as it is that Todd Gloria keeps finding private parking lots willing to rent out at night, this isn’t a solution. It’s further painful evidence that for all the strides of Hillcrest, it’s still effectively an island reachable and navigable only by car. If it’s ever going to be a neighborhood that operates in public space, at some point aggressive action needs to happen to mitigate the traffic.

Right now, it’s functionally little more than an overcrowded shopping district. There are limited options, in part because the Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and Ralphs are insane overload for the space and because so many fronts go right up to the street. But there’s room on the north side of University between 6th and 9th to eat into the parking lots in set-back developments, creating any/all of the following: a left turn lane, a meaningful bike/bus lane, seriously walkable sidewalks.

Nobody’ll like it because it reduces parking capacity, but a functional community can’t be centered around parking forever. Without significant changes, Hillcrest is topped out- density has filled in but many of the storefronts keep changing over because of accessibility issues in a tough economy. It’s already a tough job to keep track of all the openings and closings along University. And if the Hillcrest street car actually happens at some point, a lot of this will have to happen anyhow, but you can’t just drop the street car into the middle of a mess and expect things to be fixed. More mass transit means the streets have to be more functional for walkers and bikers because more people will be arriving that way. Since the general rule of thumb is that mass transit doesn’t reduce traffic, just increases capacity, the gridlock will continue.

As the in-fighting over who gets parking money carries on though, I won’t hold my breath.

Posted by: cantmisssd | November 12, 2010

It isn’t about art this time

After a week of setting a certain subculture abuzz (of which I’m certainly a part), I guess I’ll put everything down in one place about the U-T arts blogger kerfluffle. Cause otherwise, what else would you talk about all weekend? And how would I get to use the word “kerfluffle” in a sentence?

Already, this has been covered from multiple angles in various blog posts, twitter debates, and comment threads. Conversation has ranged from gradations of personal righteousness and responsibility to the general state of the arts and arts criticism in San Diego to journalistic ethics. And it’s all been more or less interesting and on point. But what I haven’t yet seen discussed in depth (maybe I just missed it), is the fundamental challenge to journalism that’s reflected through all of this.

The Union-Tribune decided for economic reasons to discontinue its arts coverage over the summer. It’s certainly unfortunate, and to some a violation of community altruistic demands that a regional newspaper has. But when it decided to replace that section with a host of unpaid non-professionals, it changed the game significantly. No matter how smart, insightful, well-connected or provocative those bloggers ever were, they would not be journalists in that space. They would not be professionally engaged in producing objectively true reports which accurately portray the reality of the community in the way that a journalist does. They would be pursuing personal agendas as self-styled critics, boosters, catalogers, opinion makers.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. When I write this blog (and in a number of other places), I’m writing as an advocate, as a commentator, as a firestarter, as a thought provoker. But I’m not a journalist. I don’t want to be. And I’m guessing that most of the UT arts bloggers weren’t aspiring to be professional arts beat journalists themselves. But when a journalistic enterprise starts replacing journalists with non-professional discussion forums (and no matter how good the writing was, let’s be clear- that’s all this was), the line between journalism and opinion is further wiped away. Which matters a great deal.

What the UT was doing- out of calculation, obliviousness, or desperation- was moving us all further away from the notion that there can be accuracy in the world; that there is an objective reality to events; that some things are true and others not; that a loud opinion shouldn’t supersede a quite fact; that there is, in fact, a difference between being a commenter and a journalist. And the further down that road we go- to where all that remains is shouting unsubstantiated opinions back and forth- the worse we all end up.

I don’t criticize any of the bloggers for this- neither those who left nor those who stay. Everyone has to pick their battles for themselves, and I’m not going to tell any of them how to prioritize the legitimacy of the UT vs elevating the arts community vs striking a small, principled blow for the legacy of Ed Murrow. But there’s certainly nothing wrong with someone, brought in as an unpaid provocateur, being as loud and public as possible in making a strongly-held point. One would frankly hope everyone would do that every time.

But if the U-T is going into the business of providing a platform for conversation instead of gathering and presenting news, let’s talk about that. And if the only economically feasible model for a regional journalistic outlet is to cover three things professionally and throw up its hands at the rest, then let’s for sure talk about that. But let’s not presume that these issues either outstrip this situation by scale or are too inevitable to bother wrestling with. In fact, it’s the one point that matters here.

Posted by: cantmisssd | November 5, 2010

The importance of resisting art

There’s a lot to be said for the value of institutional support for public art- it strengthens communities, improves public safety, boosts local commerce. I’ve discussed all of them several times. But there’s also a danger in overly-gentrifying street art that risks undercutting relevance and restricting boundaries.

Despite the many important opportunities for communities to be involved in and reflected by public art projects, it’s important to remain conscious of art’s need to challenge institutional authority and push back on society’s preconceived notions. In other words- the art is failing if it isn’t changing perspectives about the status quo.

So while local institutions and government can promote a community that generally respects and seeks to create art, a laissez-faire policy is vital, giving artists the opportunity to create freely and also, at times, ensuring that local artists have something to react to.

An excellent (if indirect) reminder came earlier this week (thanks Kelly) in an article about the Underbelly Project. Street artists from around the world came together to create a collaborative installation in an abandoned New York City subway station that virtually nobody will ever see. Why? To push boundaries:

But Workhorse said: “There is a certain type of person that the urban art movement has bred that enjoys the adventure as much as the art. Where else do you see a creative person risking themselves legally, financially, physically and creatively?”

In this case, there was no outside institutional or governmental support. In fact, it’s a direct reaction to the increasing mainstream popularity of street art. But the government isn’t absent either. It’s a rebellion against the legal restrictions imposed on both art and access, and against the institutionalized support for street art that perhaps waters down its impact if not its content.

But the reason this sort of anti-establishment project is possible is because there’s a functional, established art community with government support. Without it, there would be nothing to rebel against, no boundaries to challenge, no lines outside of which to color.

The opposing possibility is tremendously depressing. As the local San Diego government wrestles with major cutbacks in arts funding, the weak economy (supposedly) driving those decisions is also drying up private philanthropic support for the arts. And while many people might not mourn the specific passing of a particular arts group or art project, the cumulative impact of an eroding arts community would negatively impact the community in all the ways that more art could help.

The key is simply to not be absent. Whether fostering art directly or provoking artistic reaction, never give up on the relevance.

(You can see video of the Underbelly Project here)

Posted by: cantmisssd | November 5, 2010

Horton Plaza gets a new chance

New plans are in the works to finally do something about the gaudy Robinson-May building on the north side of Horton Plaza. A proposal is apparently gaining steam to demolish the underused, gross building and open it up as shared public space for several hundred events annually. The plan would also go a long way to addressing the closed-off design of Horton Plaza (incidentally, loved this throwaway line: “Limited access was designed into the building to increase the sense of security for shoppers unfamiliar with urban conditions.”).

The article goes to great pains to highlight the significant decline in patronage and revenues in recent years at Horton Plaza, and the damage that decline is doing to the city budget both short and long term. Put briefly- fewer people are going to Horton Plaza, and so the profit-sharing agreement between Westfield and the city is producing less revenue for San Diego. At the same time, Horton Plaza is descending into an economic black hole for the adjacent Gaslamp businesses when the two should be mutually reinforcing.

Personally, I’ve always hated the design of Horton Plaza, and it was nice to be reminded that I’m not alone. It’s terribly difficult (to the point of insulting) to navigate, the parking garage is an aesthetic/architectural nightmare from the outside, and as noted, it’s walled off from the rest of the neighborhood. Taking out the functionally vacant building makes Horton Plaza more accessible to the walking traffic in the Gaslamp (and opens shoppers to the Gaslamp), provides a chance to meaningfully connect the Gaslamp and Horton Plaza with development to the north and west like the Civic Theatre, MCASD and Anthology, and even makes the trolley from America Plaza to 5th Avenue more useful.

In short, it would remove a black hole from the middle of downtown commerce, boost foot traffic, keep visitors in the area to dine and shop more, and provide a new and consistent draw for people to come downtown. But I was sadly unsurprised to dive into the comments and find kneejerk freakouts about spending money on civic space.

The crux of the comments was that it’s reckless to be spending money on a park when the economy is struggling and the budget is facing serious challenges. Certainly the current state of the economy and city finances demand careful analysis of potential projects and strongly-supported projections of positive impact.

But to abandon development on principle during economic downturn is expressly stupid. Doing nothing isn’t going to solve problems. Cutting city services eventually (if they haven’t already) reaches a tipping point where residents and businesses flee a hostile environment that can’t provide basic support for safety and providing an attractive setting to make and spend money.

Many like to compare the notion of development spending in a weak economy to buying luxury items while unemployed. But that’s false. Abandoning development plans during a weak economy is actually the equivalent of refusing to spend money on the gas to go to job interviews while unemployed. Problems don’t just work themselves out if you wait long enough. They require proactive pursuit of solutions. But it’s been a long time since San Diego has had a political or societal infrastructure strongly advocating for the principles that a strong economy requires. This city (and the nation) tried the dramatic prioritizing of private investment, and look where it got us. Doubling down on the fundamentally failed economic policies of the last decade is lazy and counterproductive, and this potential project provides yet another potential jumping off point for leadership on how to build a robust, resilient local economy.

Posted by: cantmisssd | October 27, 2010

Case Studies in Public Art

The MuralsDC program is rolling out seven new public murals, making it 27 completed projects since starting in 2007. It was begun to attack illegal tagging graffiti, hiring local street artists and community children to paint full murals over the tags. A BBC report earlier this year highlights the ways that the group public art projects have provided an opportunity for neighborhoods to learn about and honor their heritage- particularly helpful when so many children are involved in the process.

Meanwhile, in New York City, a similar project has sprung up organically without government- a group of street artists has recently begun a project paying tribute to early innovators of the genre while adding a philosophical, educational twist. Replicating signature works from the early days of street art, they add references to Plato, Gandhi, Spinoza, and others. Echoing the aspirations and achievements of MuralsDC,

In New York the idea is to use the pieces to try to teach a two-part history lesson. The first is about the glories (as the collective sees it) of the early days of graffiti and the invention of a vernacular art form that has swept the world. The second lesson is about world history itself, in neighborhoods where education remains low on the list of priorities for many struggling teenagers.

As one of the artists explains, “We hope that the people who see the words help each other figure out what they’re about, and that these things start a conversation that keeps going on the streets.”

Two sides of the coin in a debate over the role of government in public art. But both highlight the importance of public art- sparking and driving conversations about personal and community identity, education, organizing, fighting back against graffiti tagging- and generally helping to push people to take a more active interest in their neighborhoods.

One hopes that it’s true that the creative impulse cannot be contained, and that those who are moved will find an outlet for their art no matter what. But in both DC and New York, it’s clear the role of a supportive infrastructure cannot be overlooked. In the case of DC, the government has helped provide support to organize projects that give children a productive way to get involved and improve their community. In New York, a long-standing artistic tradition is inspiring visual remixes in a communal setting that test the boundaries of how far public street art can push people. In both cases- structure (even rebellious structure) breeds new levels of achievement.

Public funding for public art is hardly a new concept, and around the world it is consistently used to beautify, to inspire, and to strengthen communities. But like anything, it can be done well or it can be done poorly. When that support is designed to give people a new avenue to be productive and to contribute to their community, it can go a long way.

Posted by: cantmisssd | October 26, 2010

Principled Pearl Clutchers Unite

I wrote last week about the process being a lame scapegoat for complaining about the actual results. It’s been on full display lately as sniping and positioning has continued at high gear over Nathan Fletcher’s last-minute move to open up the CCDC cap- potentially clearing the way for a new Chargers stadium. To take just one example, Supervisor Dianne Jacob waxing indignant about trust:

“The biggest issue here is, how can we trust those public officials that have been a party to circumventing the process?” Jacob asked. “Actions speak louder than words, and so far it’s just words.”

What is the lack of trust that’s driven her to call for the fainting couch? Fletcher’s move that, by all indications thus far, violated neither the law nor legislative or procedural rules in the legislation. How indeed can we trust our politicians to operate explicitly within the rules to achieve their long-standing stated goals? Someone bring the pearls, we need something to clutch.

Indeed, the horrified reaction to the process working out exactly as designed has been widespread. Tim Sullivan termed it the “Sacramento Surprise”, and

Meanwhile, time after time after time the deal is declared pork. Fletcher’s deal isn’t any more cravenly political than the posturing surrounding it. Words may be cheaper, but drawing a line between posturing you don’t like and posturing you do like is kinda silly, especially when it’s supposedly over principle.

While there’s plenty of easily-presumed political motivation behind the last-minute maneuver, it’s only a de-facto stadium deal if people let it become such. CCDC now has much more leeway to make any number of fantastic improvements to the downtown area, and if there are better options than the stadium, go get it done.

I get it. Being anti-incumbency, anti-establishment, anti-government spending money on things- it’s so hot right now. Anything unanticipated is tricky, anyone else’s success is shady. But it isn’t the fault of politicians who play by the rules and produce results other people don’t like simply by being more successful. Winning isn’t corrupt in itself, even if you win at the last minute. You don’t like what Fletcher did? Fine. Learn a lesson and next time, play by the rules and do it better than him. That’s all that happened.

Now we’re 3 million San Diegans in a mess, and so far all the chatter is about who’s going to feign enough outrage to get (re)elected. If you don’t like the process, start telling me what you want to change and how you propose to change it. If you don’t like the potential outcome of a huge government project to build a stadium- tell me how you propose to stop it and tell me what you want instead. Demonizing a perfectly fair play though- it’s simple, it’s lame, and it sells short the opportunity to discuss the future.

Posted by: cantmisssd | October 20, 2010

The policy is the principle

From the local to the national level, one of the perennial debates of the left is whether it’s right and proper to get down in the mud tactically (both during campaigns and while legislating). The argument tends to go that if one has to debase themselves to win an election or pass a law, it isn’t worth it. That the ends don’t justify the means.

Whether it’s arguing over filibuster reform in the Senate or the spending cap related to the Chargers stadium, what matters are the results achieved (for better or worse). There are a set of rules in place, and you can use them to your advantage or not, but it isn’t unethical to work within the system. There’s no separate section of legislative regulations that don’t count or that everyone’s agreed to just not recognize. This is the framework in which work is done, and we can pursue changing that framework from time to time, but there’s nothing dirty about participating in the system.

Because in politics, in governance, the ends are the means. Behavior in the electoral or legislative process is a degree removed. The “ends” are the impacts of laws. The “means” are the laws. How those laws are passed, how the people are elected who pass those laws- doesn’t enter in. How we elect lawmakers and how they then make laws are important and needs constant vigilance, but it doesn’t reach the level of actual laws and their impact.

People who want to win the “right way” presumably want to then do good things. If those good things need doing, that takes precedence over feeling good about the road to get there. Losing with honor won’t save any lives. It won’t feed the hungry, heal the sick. It won’t stop wars, it won’t achieve equality. Getting bogged down in the minutae of process misses the point on a forest/trees level.

In this case, the ends are the means, and the policy is the principle.

Posted by: cantmisssd | October 18, 2010

Commercial St.

Commercial Street has a rather short life. It begins at the 12th and Imperial Transit Center near PETCO Park, and runs east with the Orange Line Trolley until 32nd Street, where the trolley line bends north towards Imperial Avenue and Commercial ends just short of the 15. In that space is the trolley station at 25th and Commercial, and another at 32nd and Imperial. It’s twenty blocks if you’re feeling generous, and for the most part, it’s a wasteland.

Junk yards, salvage stations, auto repair shops dot the trolley line. Wooden pallets and junked cars stacked several stories high behind chain link fences. And even beyond that, vacancy after vacancy. As Adrian Florido reported several months ago, it was once imagined to be much more- and might be inching towards a resurgence.

That streak of the trolley line is at the center of a long-term plan to transform the street from an industrial thoroughfare into a dense corridor bustling with affordable apartments and storefronts.

The plan is in its earliest stages, but city officials and active residents hope it will provide jobs, housing, and stores in a poor neighborhood that has long needed them. The trolley, which replaced the freight lines in 1987, will play a central role.

With the pending mixed-use development centered on a commercial boost in Barrio Logan, the Commercial St corridor and the existing trolley anchor, is primed for redevelopment. Objectively, it’s an area with much more recommending it than neighborhoods like Hillcrest or North Park. Those communities rely on freeway access and a general centralized location. The Commercial Street corridor already has the trolley and road shooting straight into the heart of downtown, PETCO Park, buses and blue line transfer at 12th & Imperial, an East Village on the upswing and potentially a new Chargers stadium. At either end it has the 5 and 15 freeways. There’s easy access to Chicano Park, Coronado, Golden Hill and Balboa Park.

The opportunity- and challenge- is to reconcile growth and redevelopment with the existing character of the neighborhood. Unlike an area like North Park that was a bit of a blank slate before revitalization plans, the Logan Heights/Sherman Heights/Grant Hill communities already have a distinct flavor and personality. So while Commercial itself is mostly blank space, the supporting community isn’t and should be reflected in development plans.

Voice’s article mentions that community meetings are expected to begin in 2011, and it will be important to take cues from what the neighborhood generates. This area doesn’t need huge buildings or super-density, just a functional strip that allows people to live and work largely without a car. Walking to restaurants and basic shopping, parks and functional shared space, community services, simple addition of a bike lane to get in and out of downtown. It’ll also take commitment to local hiring, and in a dream world would also include outreach and institutional support to help existing local residents take advantage of new retail space and upgraded residential units.

The money and the commitment might be hard to come by, but it’ll be crucial to aim high as the plans begin to come together. This is an opportunity to establish a model of new goals and priorities for development throughout the city, and it will be an important case study on how to redevelop a cohesive neighborhood in a more nuanced way than simply papering over everything.

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