Aug. 26 2015 11:58 AM

Lobbyist hired to fight bike lanes, preserve parking

In Hillcrest, a biker and pedestrians cruise through the neighborhood
Photo by Joshua Emerson Smith

Are bike lanes good for business, even at the expense of parking spots?

The question has created tension between cycling advocates and businesses in Hillcrest, the neighborhood at the center of a multi-million-dollar plan to improve bicycle access in the city's Uptown region.

Both bike advocates and business-community representatives recognize studies showing that while cyclists spend less money than drivers each time they visit a local business, over time, they spend more.

However, the two sides disagree over whether that's good for the neighborhood, a hot-button issue as Hillcrest faces adopting bike lanes that will inevitably displace some parking.

“I think the piece that's missing for a lot of bicycle advocates is business might be better, but it's not the businesses that are here now,” said Benjamin Nicholls, executive director of the Hillcrest Business Association, “and those businesses that are here now might just go out of business.”

The types of businesses that flourish in a more bike-friendly atmosphere, studies show, are inexpensive cafes and gastropubs, not fancy sit-down restaurants or the higher-end shops that have long populated Hillcrest.

“Hillcrest has always had good homewares retail, but you can't buy a rug or a lamp on a bicycle, and so those businesses will suffer,” Nicholls said.

Bike advocates counter that cyclists' spending habits are fast evolving and that more people biking would mean fewer people fighting for parking spaces.

“It's not going to get any better using the same tools that they've used, because right now, it is heavily impacted by a lack of parking,” said Kathleen Ferrier, director of advocacy with Circulate San Diego. “Instead, they may just die a slow death because North Park and all these other communities around them are adopting the change.”

Still reeling from the recession, many in the Hillcrest business community aren't ready to take that chance, even if they serve the types of folks most likely to jump on a pushbike. The idea of trading parking for bike lanes is less than appealing for Larry Malone, owner of Empire House, which serves reasonably priced comfort food.

“If there was some kind of guarantee, I'd be all for it,” Malone said, “but I don't think I'm going to have 25 cyclists parked out in front of my shop because of a bike lane.”

“It's not just hipsters,” he added. “You have elderly. You have families. You have the whole nine yards here.”

At a board meeting this month, the Hillcrest Business Association rehired one of the state's most powerful lobbying firms, California Strategies and Advocacy, to continue to fight bike lanes that threaten parking.

While there's room to discuss how to mitigate lost parking, lobbying won't remove bike lanes from the approved plan, said City Councilmember Todd Gloria, who chairs the SANDAG Transportation Committee.

“I have to think that these are good for communities as a whole and businesses specifically,” he said. “But I recognize that many businesses have yet to be convinced. Part of my job is to put forth the best project possible to convince them.”

Still, Nicholls and the business association seem determined to fight, especially since the plan will be rolled out over the next five years, long after Gloria leaves office.

“If your livelihood is based on it, it's extremely scary,” Nicholls said. “We basically have to go a political route.”

That strategy has worked in the recent past.

In June, after lobbying by the business association and California Strategies, SANDAG's Transportation Committee removed a significant stretch of bike lanes planned for Hillcrest. The change to the Uptown Regional Bike Corridors Project, which consists of about 12 miles of bike-lane improvements, preserved roughly 50 on-street parking spots between First and Ninth avenues along University Avenue.

Officials with SANDAG faced criticism from bike advocates, who argued that University Avenue is one of the most heavily trafficked and accident-prone bike corridors in the city. After CityBeat reported that Supervisor Ron Roberts, a Transportation Committee member who championed the change, failed to disclose a financial partnership in a prominent local eatery, advocates unsuccessfully called for a revote.

This time around, lobbying efforts will focus on improvements to bike lanes along Fourth and Fifth avenues, said Nicholls, who estimated roughly 130 parking spots could be lost.

“So we are continuing with California Strategies,” he said. “The Fourth and Fifth corridor is the big picture for us now. We got a good compromise on University that the business community likes.”

While the two streets, which connect downtown and Hillcrest, currently have bike lanes, the project would push parking away from the sidewalk to use parked cars as a barrier between riders and moving vehicles—a so-called protected bike lane. SANDAG has yet to release an official estimate of how much parking is expected to be lost under the project.

In an effort to win over the local business community, BikeSD and the San Diego County Bicycle Coalition have proposed using parking spaces along University Avenue in Hillcrest for a temporary bike lane—a pilot project that, they argue, would provide convincing data showing bike lanes benefit local businesses.

“Hillcrest as a whole, as a business community, is losing out to other business communities neighboring them in terms of being attractive to all types of customers and patrons,” said Samantha Ollinger, executive director of BikeSD. “The idea of putting together a temporary test case to see how people respond to it is a really good interim step.” However, rejecting the pilot project as a distraction, Gloria said, the city and SANDAG would focus on the approved bike lanes.

“That's where the conversation is and where the advocates and those who are skeptical ought to spend their time, rather than advocating for additional projects or trying to stop them,” he said.

“Once this is implemented, people will see that this is a good thing, and my hope would be that they're going to ask for more,” he added.

In 2017, construction is expected to start on protected bike lanes along Fourth and Fifth avenues between B and Upas streets. Following that, bike lanes are scheduled for University Avenue east of State Route 163 and between the Washington Street Trolley Station and University Avenue.


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