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Del Mar’s downtown revitalization slides into a stall

Faced with higher-than-expected construction costs and pressed to avoid the tourist season, the $6 million facelift of downtown Del Mar is on hold for at least six months while city officials reorganize the project’s multi-year schedule and funding plan.

Downtown Streetscape, the city’s package of long-awaited infrastructural and aesthetic upgrades to Camino del Mar’s six-block course through downtown, will bring a new roadbed, sidewalks, trees, streetlights, four-way crosswalks at every intersection, a color-coordinated landscaping scheme, street furniture, “pocket parks” and spaces for public art.

As city officials and consultants hashed out the details last year, their plan was to break up construction into several annual phases. Phase 1—the 900 and 1000 blocks of Camino del Mar—was supposed to have gotten underway as early as last month, with the rest of the work broken out into two or possibly three annual phases progressing north along Camino del Mar until reaching just past 15th Street.

But the lowest of the six bids received last month—which ranged from $1.67 million to $2.2 million—exceeded the Phase 1 budget by $500,000, leaving the council with the choice on May 7 to reevaluate the entire project or to approve the low bid and begin Phase 1 after Labor Day, followed by Phase 2 in January.

Increasingly impatient with the unfulfilled promise of a 1997 precursor to Streetscape, business owners are clamoring for the city to breathe new life into Del Mar's aging commercial and cultural hub.

Longtime developer Jim Watkins said the project is “vitally important” to rescuing downtown from a growing irrelevance he’s heard from dozens of residents over the past six months, especially for the stretch from 9th Street to 13th Street.

“The area is dull, quite frankly. … It really is not a very inviting situation right now. Nothing can do more to change that situation than the Streetscape,” he told the council on May 7. “Nothing would do more to enhance the warmth, the charm, the village character than the completion of the Streetscape. Nothing would do more to enhance the economic viability and the vibrance of the community than the Streetscape.”

Zach Groban, chairman of the city’s Business Support Advisory Committee, urged the council to hold to its commitment to fund the project, which in February received the first $400,000 outlay of Measure Q funds, the 1-cent sales tax increase approved by voters in 2016.

Groban, who was speaking on his own behalf, urged the council to keep Downtown Streetscape from falling behind the other two projects queued up for Measure Q funds; the redesign of Del Mar Shores Park and the citywide effort to underground utility lines.

“I don’t want this project or the business community to get penalized… This project is ready to go essentially, and the business community has sort of been burdened with the 1 percent tax. We’ve been the ones with the higher prices … and in a lot of ways we should go first,” he said. “… We’ve been waiting for the project for 10, 20, 30, 40 years. We’ve spent tons of staff hours at this point, tons of community outreach time, subcommittee time. Everybody has a ton of time and energy and money put into it and I’d like to keep the momentum going.”

While Measure Q has not raised enough revenue to pay for Streetscape’s full construction costs all at once, reevaluating its schedule in the fall—and presumably combining some or all of its phases—should allow the city to consolidate expenses and find a range of financing options.

Part of that funding could come from a grant from the San Diego Association of Governments. SANDAG’s decision on the $665,000 request to fund Phase 2 is expected in the next two months.

“It’s disappointing that we have to delay it, but I understand why,” said Councilwoman Ellie Haviland. “But I think given the current environment and construction costs, rather than trying to phase it in as we originally decided, it makes more sense to me now to get it all done at once and see what we need to do with financing to make that happen sooner rather than later.”

Councilman Dave Druker insisted on setting the council’s discussion for September in order to ensure construction can start after the winter holidays. In the meantime, the city’s finance committee will take first crack at a roadmap for financing and how the funding fits into Measure Q.

“We will get it done,” said Mayor Dwight Worden.

In a separate outlay, the council approved the purchase and installation of four streetlights on the west side of Camino del Mar, which would light the soon-to-open city hall and civic center. The lights are expected to cost between $40,000 and $45,000.

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