For years, the quickest way to start a knife fight at Home Depot was to mention Highway 56.
It was the grand issue dividing the hard-workin' suburbanites in the vast growing sea of pseudo-Mediterranean tract homes of the I-15 corridor and the hard-workin' suburbanites in the pseudo-Mediterranean homes on the coast.
If you live in, say, Poway, you can't wait for Highway 56, which will provide a desperately needed route to the west connecting I-15 to I-5. These days, if you want to go to Del Mar to frolic in the water and bet the ponies, you are doomed to the living hell that is Mira Mesa Boulevard. Poway-ites curse the politicians who have held up development of the great Highway 56, which will bring them a blessed path to the cool air and Rubio's of the west.
If you happen to live in, say, Del Mar, Highway 56 is a huge spear pointed right at your sphincter. There's no way around it. The day it opens, thousands of unbathed inlanders with their plastic water toys and country music will flood the coastal streets. Del Mar-ites see this huge highway allowing quick and easy access to their already clogged roads, and they curse the politicians who have blindly allowed developers to run amok.
The common ground between east and west is the regular cursing of San Diego politicians who ranked Highway 56 with abortion and teen sex on the list of dreaded campaign topics. Sometime this year, Caltrans is scheduled to finish the road, ending one of the county's longest bureaucratic struggles, a marathon of backroom maneuvering, lost funding and political pressure.
In one sense, the decades-long delay of the project is testimony to the political power of the environmentalist movement along the North Coast, where slow-growthers once threatened to seize control of the county. It was Del Mar money, a good chunk of it the residue of J. David Dominelli's Ponzi scheme, that helped elect former Del Mar city attorney Roger Hedgecock mayor of San Diego in 1983, with former Del Mar mayor Tom Shepard as his Karl Rove.
Scandal and arrogance sent Hedgecock into the talk-show scam, but for a brief moment in history it looked like little Del Mar was going to take over La Jolla's traditional role as the region's power base. A few years later, slow-growth leader Peter Navarro, who lived within spitting distance of Del Mar, almost was elected mayor, a sure sign that the suburban serfs were storming the stained linoleum halls of the city's bureaucracy.
Yes, those were the dreamy days of free love for Del Mar, which now wields only slightly more political influence than Alpine. It's the I-15 corridor, with its open hills ripe for new high-density condo complexes, that has all the juice these days.
When Highway 56 is finally completed later this year, it will signal the end of an era, the final nail in the coffin built for the North Coast in the '70s when then-San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson pushed through the plans for North City West, a little gift for his developer pals. That laid the groundwork for 40,000 people to move in just east of Del Mar, squashing any hint of the region's charm and turning the I-5/I-805 merge into one of the worst traffic screw-ups in the country.
Anybody who believes Highway 56 will actually improve the traffic situation is smoking crack. That's a joke. Maybe it would have helped 20 years ago, but now it will simply dump westbound traffic into the merge, a vortex of commuter doom.
The new road may help people going east, but who the hell wants to go east? And all those people going east will now spill onto I-15, creating a new hot spot for drivers who just escaped the Mira Mesa Boulevard and Miramar Road bottlenecks. And who actually believes that Mira Mesa Boulevard and Miramar Road won't remain hellholes?
More than anything, Highway 56 will spawn a new wave of fashionably generic office parks and high-density condo complexes-and that will, of course, simply add more cars to the existing freeways, creating even more long afternoons stuck in the car listening to Hedgecock rant about evil liberal meter maids.
Highway 56 has never been about traffic. It's always been about opening up one of the last remaining green belts in the urban core for a new corridor of strip malls and California Pizza Kitchen outlets. Commercial and residential building projects will be pumped into barren lands, sending out new veins into the hillsides. It's a developer's wet dream.
It all starts with the ribbon cutting on Highway 56, which will be met with cheers and much Lord-thanking by the legions of San Diegans who agree with George W. Bush that smart people are icky. They will smile and nod their heads when the politicians say the new road will be a "key cog in the region's growth," confident that their leaders will bring many new Home Depots to their communities.
Of course, if they want to get to the ceremony on time, they'd better leave early. Traffic is going to be a bitch. And while they're sucking fumes, they may pause for a second and contemplate the future, when the planned communities of Del Mar ooze into Mira Mesa and the only signpost marking the border between Peñasquitos and Carmel Valley will be a nicely decorated Del Taco just off the freeway.
Write to MsBeak1@aol.com and editor@SD citybeat.com.