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Why No Sidewalks? First of a two-part report on pedestrian access in La Jolla

Walking around this corner of Soledad Avenue and other sidewalk-free areas of La Jolla may be hazardous.
Walking around this corner of Soledad Avenue and other sidewalk-free areas of La Jolla may be hazardous.
(María José Durán)

The streets of La Jolla’s Ludington Heights, Country Club and The Muirlands — all set in the hilly vicinities of Mount Soledad — have three things in common: they are narrow, they are steep, and most don’t have sidewalks. Few people walk on the roads, and those who do must compete with motor vehicles for the space. At the request of some residents, La Jolla Light investigated the area’s lack of pedestrian infrastructure.

The current La Jolla Historical Society exhibit, “From the Jazz Age to Our Age,” chronicles the area’s development and holds clues to its lack of sidewalks. As staff historian Carol Olten explained, the urban development of La Jolla’s coastal areas began in the 1880s. The mostly-flat land was laid out in a grid pattern that allowed for sidewalks and other amenities, but the hilly areas remained “wild” until the 1920s, when Ludington Heights, Country Club and The Muirlands were subdivided.

Hillside Drive circa 1950
Hillside Drive circa 1950
(Courtesy of La Jolla Historical Society)
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“La Jolla Hermosa had sidewalks and it was very logical land plotting. (The hilly areas) were still very wild. I found some biographies of early golfers at the Country Club and they were very concerned about rattlesnakes,” Olten said.

People used to hike or ride horses there, she continued, and so the early roads followed foot and horse paths. “People didn’t need a sidewalk to go up there because they were riding their horses,” Olten said. She said the geography and the density of the area were the main reasons sidewalks weren’t put in place.

One of the exhibit curators, Diane Kane, added that La Jolla’s 1920s subdivisions were becoming more sophisticated. “One of the ways of increasing land value was by adding in Covenants, Codes and Restrictions (CC&Rs) — certain activities that would or would not be allowed at the lot, as part of your sales contract,” she said.

Muirlands sales photo from the 1920s
Muirlands sales photo from the 1920s
(Courtesy of La Jolla Historical Society)

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For instance, the CC&Rs of Country Club didn’t allow farm animals, drilling for gas or oil, non-Caucasian residents other than servants, or temporary structures. Only single-family residences were permitted, and the minimum construction cost was $16,000. Kane added, “They were selling neighborhood, location and views, and the CC&Rs were able to enforce the neighborhood, so the area as a whole was developed as ‘very desirable.’ ”

Land-use expert Mike Pallamary said he believes those neighborhoods were designed to prohibit pedestrians. “A lot of this was intended to capture some of the ambiance of Europe, so the homes are up in the hills, and back then, in the 1920s and ’30s, the notion of people walking up to those neighborhoods didn’t exist,” he said.

Sidewalks ‘yes’ or sidewalks ‘no’?

La Jolla Light contacted Mirle Rabinowitz Busell, Ph.D., director of field research at UC San Diego’s Urban Studies and Planning program, for her thoughts on walking spaces in communities.

“There are some neighborhoods, which are more rural in nature, and they don’t anticipate the pedestrian traffic or the necessity of sidewalks. But then, there’s clearly a safety issue because if you don’t have sidewalks, how do you differentiate where pedestrians and cyclists and cars go?” She pointed out that a secondary issue involves wellness.

“We have people with obesity issues and health problems related to that because, not only do we not encourage walking, we are not creating spaces that make it easy to do. Kids now get driven from home to school, instead of walking.

“A trend that a lot of cities are investing in is called road-dieting,” Busell continued. “The idea is to look at all the pavement that we’ve been allocating for automobiles, and say, look, we need to create space so that we’re making it safer and we can accommodate pedestrians or cyclists. So, especially where roads are wider, what cities are doing is having two lanes go one direction, take one of those lanes, and make a new sidewalk, or a widened sidewalk, or a bike path with it.”

However, roads in the hilly areas of La Jolla developed in the 1920s are not wide, nor do they have any space to spare. When asked if she would like to see sidewalks in Soledad-area subdivisions, Olten replied, “It would be an interesting concept, but I don’t know how the roads would accommodate that because they are so narrow that sometimes you can’t have two cars passing at the same time.”

Trees and flower beds block the way of pedestrians in Crespo Street.
Trees and flower beds block the way of pedestrians in Crespo Street.
(María José Durán)
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She said she used to walk her dog in the vicinity and on occasion, she would be forced to step into the side bushes to prevent being hit by a car. “The area traffic can be hazardous ... especially with trucks,” she added.

Kane, who lives not far from Ludington Heights, is an advocate for pedestrian access. “I live in an area with no sidewalks, and there’s a need for a place along the street where people can walk safely. It’s hard in the hilly areas because the streets are narrow ... it’s a mess to try to bike or walk. It’s unsafe. There are heavy trucks and vehicles using the roads to go in and out of town and it’s a disaster waiting to happen. We need to do something to make this hilly area safe to walk,” she said.

Kane is trying to create a network of private pedestrian trails. Her idea involves building paths through the undeveloped areas of Mount Soledad, but the City of San Diego opposes it because the area is considered a natural habitat. “But people walk there anyway,” Kane alleges.

620 miles of sidewalk are ‘missing’ in San Diego, including some areas of La Jolla.
620 miles of sidewalk are ‘missing’ in San Diego, including some areas of La Jolla.
(María José Durán)

Pallamary said he is aware of Kane’s efforts to create a path network. “That would be a wonderful community asset; we need more interconnected paths ... but you have to understand that in contemporary public-access notions, if you are going to create public access it needs to be ADA compliant,” he said.

The same goes for the allocation of sidewalks on hilly streets. “The first problem you would have is the extraordinary expense. Can you imagine a wheelchair going up The Muirlands?” Pallamary said.

Who pays to build a sidewalk?

The City of San Diego completed a sidewalk assessment in 2015 and found 620 “missing” sidewalks citywide. “While most roads have sidewalks on both sides, there are several areas within the city where sidewalks do not exist for one reason or another,” the survey determined. It calculated that San Diego has a street network of 2,774 miles, and 4,580 miles of sidewalks.

Sidewalk assessments remind residents that new sidewalks must be paid for by the owner of the abutting land. However, the city is allocating funds for the construction of walking infrastructure. The $2,714,515 combined Fiscal Year 2015 and 2016 funding for new sidewalks will pay for approximately 3.5 miles of missing sidewalk. The cost to install new sidewalks varies greatly by location, design requirements and site conditions.

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Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s “Climate Action Plan” allocates $1,658,619 for pedestrian improvements, including building 10,000 feet of new sidewalks.

The construction of 0.1 miles of new sidewalk in La Jolla Mesa Drive is scheduled to start in 2017. For this project, the city will invest $826,000 in building a new curb, gutter, sidewalk, barrier rail and retaining wall on the east side of La Jolla Mesa Drive, south of Deer Hill Court and north of Baja Mar.

However, Pallamary said that it’s very unlikely new sidewalks will come to the hilly areas of La Jolla because the narrow roads make it extremely difficult to improve pedestrian access. The right-of-way in many streets is 25 feet wide, he said, and if you place a 5-foot-wide sidewalk on each side, there’s only 15 feet left for two cars to pass.

How much does a sidewalk cost?

The Light asked Pallamary to calculate the cost of building sidewalks in the area. To do so, he used the unit pricelist for land development from the County of San Diego, approved in June 2016. He included the grading and the curbing, and came up with $50 per foot of sidewalk. But the cost doesn’t end there.

“I would say the most significant issue is the driveway problem,” Pallamary said, referring to the placement of mailboxes, gates, walls or other constructions in the public right-of way by landowners. “You might be spending another $10 for every foot to haul things out. Not all areas are like that, but some have pretty substantial gates,” he said.

Some of these areas, Pallamary explained, would also need a retaining wall to hold the terrain along slopes. That would add another $45 per square foot. “So, you can see this cost just goes through the ceiling,” he said.

“It’s unfortunate because it would have been nice if these streets were given sufficient width, but the city approved all those developments.”

Coming Next Week: In the course of this investigation, La Jolla Light found several public right-of-ways that, although are still on the maps “as easements,” don’t physically exist in neighborhoods. The second part of this report will explore what happened those paths, who is responsible for maintaining them, and much more. To comment on this story, send your thoughts to editor@lajollalight.com


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