Artistic flourishes planned for freeway underpasses

Two of the busiest freeway underpasses in Encinitas may be gaining an artistic makeover, as well as new bike lanes and sidewalks.

A thick ribbon of mosaic work designed by a professional artist could wind along the walls approaching the Encinitas Boulevard underpass, while dozens of student-created art panels could be affixed to the walls under the freeway at Santa Fe Drive.

Caltrans began overhauling the two underpass areas last fall to create space for some long-sought bike lanes and sidewalks. That construction work is expected to continue into 2019.

In order for the city to add artistic elements to the new walls associated with the underpass projects, it needs to submit some design information to Caltrans well before the wall concrete is poured. The actual installation of the artwork won't occur until the end of the underpass construction activity, city Arts Program Administrator Jim Gilliam said Thursday, April 8.

"Our plan is to have everything ready" for installation at the end of the construction project, he said.

The art effort is still in the early stages -- project financing has yet to be identified, he stressed. However, the city's Arts Commission already has reached a few decisions on the placement of the future artwork.

The commissioners decided last week they wanted the City Council to ask Caltrans to create 60 spots for decorative art panels along the Santa Fe Drive underpass — 30 inset display spaces on a new retaining wall on the north side and 30 spots on the south side one. Each art panel is proposed to be 3 feet wide by 5 feet tall. The council is expected to discuss the commission's request at a meeting in May, so the request can be forwarded to Caltrans before its June 1 deadline.

"The nice thing about the Santa Fe project undercrossing is because of the close proximity of San Dieguito Academy, there is going to be a tremendous amount of foot traffic by students walking to and from school, and these artworks would actually be right next to the sidewalk that is protected from traffic," Gilliam told the arts commissioners.

Gilliam said the artwork could be mosaics or even photographs printed on metal plates, depending on how much grant funding they're able to collect.

Plans call for the 60 panels to be created by kids. San Dieguito Academy art teacher Jeremy Wright, who has offered to assist the city with the project, told the art commissioners that he'll definitely be seeking high school artists and might use some MiraCosta College students or even kids from nearby Ocean Knoll Elementary School.

Commissioner Kathleen Lees said she thought the mix of student-created art pieces could be "charming" and asked that each piece be labeled with the child's first name and age, so people would know that children created the pieces.

Wright, a third-generation Leucadia resident who has taught at San Dieguito Academy for 15 years, told the arts commissioners that he'd like to add one element to the project — a memorial plaque honoring the memory of a student who was killed while walking in the underpass area during a school lunch break a decade ago.

For the Encinitas Boulevard underpass area, the arts commission has been considering getting professionally designed mosaic. A wonderful example can be seen at Solana Beach's Lomas Santa Fe Drive underpass, Gilliam said.

However, he said, Encinitas' project will likely be a scaled-down version because the Solana Beach one cost that city $290,000.

"We don't anticipate having a robust budget like that for our project," he told the commissioners.

The commissioners agreed to recommend that Caltrans set aside space for mosaic work on the new entry walls approaching the underpass area and agreed that the mosaic strip would be about three feet tall and run the length of the walls.

-- Barbara Henry is a freelance writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune.

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