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La Jolla to see some utility undergrounding this year as ‘legacy projects’ resume

Projects to place utility lines similar to these underground are expected to be done this year in three areas of La Jolla.
(Rob Nikolewski / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The San Diego City Council’s Environment Committee took a step toward reviving the city’s stagnant utility undergrounding program this month when it approved a memorandum of understanding between the city and San Diego Gas & Electric.

That likely means progress in three areas in La Jolla, though other parts of the 92037 ZIP code will have to wait until 2023 at the earliest.

The city is in the process of moving overhead utility lines associated with SDG&E and communications companies such as Cox and AT&T underground. The program started in 1970, but more than 1,000 miles of overhead lines still need to be put underground.

“Our city has many older neighborhoods with overhead utility lines and this program is focused on making progress each year to upgrading these to underground systems,” Gene Matter, an assistant director in the city Transportation Department, told the Environment Committee on Jan. 20. “It’s an ambitious program, with 1,200 miles of future undergrounding work remaining.”

Last year, the 50-year franchise agreement between San Diego and SDG&E expired, necessitating a new agreement and causing a temporary and “unprecedented” shutdown, Matter said. In fiscal 2021, only 8.7 miles of undergrounding was completed.

A new franchise agreement was approved in May.

“Coming to these agreements took a tremendous amount of effort and compromise on both sides,” SDG&E said in a statement at the time. “And we believe the result is a positive outcome for the city of San Diego and its citizens and positions San Diego as a national leader.”

The agreement led to the signing of an administrative memorandum of understanding in which the city and SDG&E agreed on how to proceed with construction in the public right of way. That triggered preparation of an undergrounding MOU, which the Environment Committee unanimously approved with some amendments.

The new MOU is expected to go into effect in 2023, said committee chairman and City Councilman Joe LaCava, whose District 1 includes La Jolla.

“The undergrounding MOU document is a very good, strong document that gives the city the upper hand,” LaCava said. “SDG&E was cooperative in agreeing to stronger terms, but it asks for them to do contracting differently, which is going to take six to nine months for them to figure out.”

So, with few exceptions, there will be no undergrounding in 2022, LaCava said.

“We lost another year in a program that is already behind schedule,” he said. “We have to go slow before we go fast. Once SDG&E reconfigures its internal process, we will see a smoother process in 2023.”

La Jolla projects

In the past few years, several projects were started across San Diego and in La Jolla, notably in La Jolla Shores, and then stopped.

La Jolla Shores art gallery owner Andrew Perry said undergrounding began outside his home and business in January 2020, “digging up the street and trenching it” to lay cables. The work stopped around Memorial Day, since there is a beach-area construction moratorium that ends on Labor Day. But the undergrounding didn’t resume after Labor Day.

The La Jolla Shores area is one of 10 citywide “legacy projects” that can continue under the terms of the old MOU to “just get wrapped up,” LaCava said.

“The good news for some La Jollans is three of these projects are in La Jolla,” he said. “It will be of some comfort for those that have been waiting for a long time.”

The three areas that will be completed are broken into “blocks”:

This area in La Jolla Shores is set to have utility undergrounding this year.
This area in La Jolla Shores is set to have utility undergrounding this year.
(City of San Diego)

Block 1J Phase 1 includes La Jolla Shores west of La Jolla Shores Drive from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography south to Avenida de la Playa. Work will continue as soon as SDG&E gets its permits renewed with the city Development Services Department.

Block 1J Phase 2 includes La Jolla Shores east of La Jolla Shores Drive from Scripps Oceanography south to Nautilus Street (except for West Muirlands Drive), with pole removal slated to begin in February.

Block 1M Job 1 and Block 1M Job 2
The city of San Diego’s undergrounding project called Block 1M Job 1 includes West Muirlands Drive, Aranda Avenue, Michaeljohn Drive, Avenida Mirola and Avenida La Reina in La Jolla. Block 1M Job 2 includes Avenida Manana and Avenida Wildredo.
(City of San Diego)

Block 1M Job 1 includes West Muirlands Drive, Aranda Avenue, Michaeljohn Drive, Avenida Mirola and Avenida La Reina, with pole removal slated to begin in March.

Block 1M Job 2 includes Avenida Manana and Avenida Wildredo. In this area, an issue with soil conditions put the work on pause.

“The new MOU with SDG&E addresses the issue of trenching in the moist soil, and hopefully we will now see the project move toward completion,” according to Steve Hadley, LaCava’s field representative.

“For the rest of La Jolla and the city,” LaCava said, “it will take until 2023 to roll out.” ◆