At Home in San Diego: University City Print E-mail

20041230(San Diego Reader December 30, 2004)

University City encompasses the Golden Triangle (Highway 52 on the south and the I-5 and I-805 merge on the north) as well as much land around UCSD, the biotech firms on North Torrey Pines Road, and portions just east of I-805 near Mira Mesa Boulevard. According to San Diego magazine, three times more people live in north University City than in south University City. (In group terms, that's students/researchers versus families/retirees.) Traffic tie-ups are regular now at Genesee and I-5 and on Genesee from Nobel Drive south to the 52. Along this stretch, condos grow unmercifully.

Every weekday afternoon, the cars flee the offices and the malls of UTC, Costa Verde, and Eastgate. Seventy-five percent of the traffic on Genesee is "through movement," that is, nonlocal. Cars nose toward freeways and queue; in the argot of traffic engineers, intersections fail. It's gotten so bad that the community is polarized: you're either with the traffic-congestion relievers or you're with the traffic congestion.

To ease the crush, a bridge to connect Regents Road over Rose Canyon is being studied, a possibility most who live on the south and west sides of University City oppose. Including Debby Knight. Knight, who chairs Friends of Rose Canyon, meets me where Regents dead-ends on the south side of the canyon, just two blocks north of Governor. Knight is a tanned and talkative woman who leads walks into Rose Canyon Open Space Park, one of only ten such parks in the city. She has me look across the canyon to the other end of Regents, just above the railroad tracks, home of the Coaster. The breach is a good quarter mile.

Before us is a great dinosaur-back hill on whose mesa top sit several homes. To build the bridge, the city must cut a 70-foot chunk out of that hill and shore up what's exposed with a massive retaining wall. The bridge will be built on pilings sunk into the canyon. In all, it's a cut-and-fill road-and-bridge project estimated to handle 27,000 cars a day, at a cost of $28 million.

As we descend into Knight's "pristine Rose Canyon," I ask what'll be lost. The habitat of red-shouldered hawks and great horned owls; a five-year native-plant restoration project; field trips for elementary schoolkids; paths worn by joggers, bikers, hikers.

Instead of this bridge, other proposals seek to widen Genesee from four lanes to six or to build a "grade separation," a tunnel that shunts north-south traffic under the intersection at Genesee and Governor. Knight abhors these alternatives. In fact, alternatives only ensure the community will battle itself over a cynical rationale: "Don't give us the bad-road project; give another part of the community the bad-road project."

Developer George Lattimer is past president of the University City Community Planning Group, an advisory body of 18 members split between residents and businesspeople or landowners, 5 of whom live outside the community. Lattimer lives in La Jolla and, with his wife, owns an office building in north University City. He tells me by phone that the congestion is unstoppable for now, since the community—95 percent "built out"—must abide by its 1987 approved community plan. Already in the wings are 2100 new dwellings (the majority condos), 3.25 million square feet of nonresidential buildings, and a half million square feet of structures at UCSD, whose student population will top out at 30,000. University City, he says, is San Diego's biggest success: the 150 high-tech and telecom businesses and the research done at UCSD are "the engine of this region's economy."

And yet, like Knight, Lattimer has seen traffic issues "massively divide" the community. He, too, favors none of the bridge or road-widening solutions, because for him the primary problem is "getting onto and off of the freeways." He points out that the Regents bridge may shift cars from one part of University City to another, but it won't improve traffic flow onto 52. Drivers will still have to stop at a ramp meter, the cars will back up into University City, and the Governor-Genesee problem will have been largely reproduced in another location. In short, the problem is the number of cars, not how they are routed.

Lattimer contends that in University City "through movement" is remaking our idea of community. University City has morphed from a suburban enclave into an urban one; only 46,000 people live there while 80,000 nonresidents arrive daily for jobs or shopping. University City now serves that regional identity, facing—as much as downtown San Diego does in its boom—a new self-definition: home is no longer the place we sleep but the place we work and the roads that get us there and take us away.