By Eric Wolff
Like some kind of environmental Houdini, Rose Canyon escaped damage yet again when the City Council hit the pause button on construction of a bridge through and over the canyon.
A city-designated park, Rose Canyon provides glimpses of how San Diego would look if Americans were not obsessed with lush green lawns and tall palm trees: sandy and arid, with most of its greenery along the bed of a Rose Creek tributary that runs during the rainy season along the bottom of the canyon. Red tail hawks circle low for the plentiful rabbits and field mice, and insects skitter among leaves and pebbles.
It also divides University City from itself, leaving a bastion of dense condo development on the north side, which mostly serves UC San Diego, and suburban single-family homes and quiet roads on the south. Surrounding it all is the Golden Triangle of Route 52 and Interstates 5 and 805. The only connector, besides the two eight-lane highways, is Genesee Avenue. That poses a problem for some area denizens. Since the 1960s, the community plan has included both a widening of Genesee Avenue and the construction of a bridge linking the two pieces of Regents Road broken by the canyon. The City Council voted to conduct a study of seven traffic alternatives in 2002, and city staff hired the firm Project Design Consultants to do the job. It took three years and $2.8 million to complete; in August the study and testimony from Fire Chief Tracy Jarman gave the City Council justification to certify the study as an environmental-impact report required under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The 6-2 vote also authorized "the mayor to implement the Regents Road Bridge alternative."
In an interview with CityBeat last week, City Council President Scott Peters, whose district includes University City, argued the bridge was necessary."We build a bridge to protect the canyon," he said. "First of all, our biological study says there won't be much harm; second of all, there's funds to compensate for the lost wetlands. Also, there's the public-safety issue, as Chief Jarman said. And let's face it, we're not talking about pristine land here, there's a train and a sewer line running through it."
Fans of the bridge hailed the City Council vote as a victory, while opponents despaired.
"How could they argue there wouldn't be significant impact?" asked Debby Knight, president of Friends of Rose Canyon. "They would have to move millions of cubic feet of dirt; they have to get their trucks and heavy equipment into and out of the canyon, and then there would be a 250-foot-wide bridge running over the top. Plus, there would be all the garbage and trash, like there is at the Genesee bridge."
Knight was so concerned that Friends of Rose Canyon took up a collection so it could sue the city.
But, as it turns out, everyone badly misunderstood what the council meant by "implement the Regents Road Bridge" and other bureaucratic turns of phrase. Peters sent out a memo to constituents last week saying the City Council would be considering a resolution that "clarifies the findings" of the August vote. The way City Council clarified the findings was to approve a resolution Tuesday that said the study wasn't an official EIR; it was just a study. And it withdrew attendant legal documents. And it reinstated widening Genesee Avenue as an alternative. And it authorized an actual, project-specific EIR for the bridge.
When asked why the study had been considered an EIR, George Biagi, a spokesman for Mayor Jerry Sanders, said, "It was a term of art used incorrectly."
Peters declined to comment on the impact of the lawsuit, but Biagi said it pretty much forced the writing of the new resolution, and that Friends of Rose Canyon helped shape the language.
"We got everything we would have gotten if we had gone to court," said Rachel Hooper, one of the group's attorneys.
So it was an "informational study," as Biagi called it, that cost the city $2.8 million. As if that weren't enough money spent, the City Council rejected in January a proposed settlement from City Attorney Mike Aguirre. The City Council decided Aguirre had a conflict of interest-he opposed the bridge from the beginning-and allocated $250,000 for outside attorneys. According to two sources close to the negotiations, the Aguirre proposal was nearly identical in effect to the resolution passed yesterday.
The resolution also lends credibility to allegations made by Friends of Rose Canyon in a report the group had prepared based on documents from public-records requests.
Knight recently sent the report to Greg Levin, the city's deputy comptroller. It provides evidence from e-mails between city staffers that Project Design Consultants had been promised "a large contract" if the bridge alternative were selected.
"They rigged the report to favor the bridge," Knight charged.Shortly after passage of the August vote, city officials began negotiating with PDC on a no-bid contract to be the lead consultant for the bridge at a total cost of $5.8 million, which would be in addition to the money spent on the original study. Early drafts of the contract had PDC doing yet another environmental review on the project, but Biagi said the new review would be conducted by a different company, Helix, which would make moot any conflict of interest.
That sounds nice, except that Helix bought PDC's environmental planning department in February, including the services of Bruce McIntyre, who managed the original "informational study." No one from PDC or Helix responded to calls for comment.
The Friends' report also accuses the city of lying to the California Department of Parks and Recreation on a $68,000 grant that promised to preserve the canyon "in perpetuity." In e-mails, city staffers dismissed the protections afforded by the grant as "boiler plate language" that could be ignored. Patti Boekamp, director of the city's Engineering and Capital Projects department, said the department is trying to determine which portions of the canyon are covered by the grant. Aguirre opined in a letter that the grant covers the entire canyon.
A new environmental review does not preclude the bridge from being built. "We're looking for the same thing we were looking for originally," said Marco Gonzalez, another attorney for Friends of Rose Canyon, "an honest comparison between feasible alternatives to best serve the community."
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