Del Mar takes first step to revamp its downtown corridor

Decades of unmet promises are at last giving way to a nearly $5 million overhaul that will bring construction crews to downtown Del Mar in four months’ time.

Backed by the full support of Del Mar’s business community, the Del Mar City Council on Monday, Sept. 18 signed off on a $300,000 outlay to pay for construction documents and environmental review of the city’s so-called Downtown Streetscape plan, a sweeping vision for transforming Camino del Mar from 9th Street to 15th Street.

The decision puts the city on course to break ground in January on Streetscape’s initial wave of infrastructural work and its highest-priority projects.

Drawing from months of outreach, surveys and community input this summer, city planners and consultants compiled a comprehensive plan made up of dozens of separate pieces — everything from infrastructure upgrades to the kinds of decorative flourishes needed to revitalize the corridor’s retail and restaurant experience.

All told, the plan carries a $4.9 million price tag, of which $4.1 million will be for construction and the rest for design and administrative costs. The most intensive transformation will come in the 1100 and 1200 blocks of Camino del Mar, which will combine to see nearly $1.8 million in work. Upgrades to the other five blocks are expected to cost between $350,000 and $545,000 each.

Del Mar’s business leaders have long clamored for action as the corridor languished over the decades since the city approved a Streetscape plan in 1996 that never came to fruition. Initially frustrated this summer that the process seemed to be starting from scratch, the business community is now throwing its full weight behind the renewed effort. Robert Scott, chairman of the Del Mar Village Association’s design committee, urged the council’s approval on Monday, describing a metaphor in which downtown is the essential heart for Del Mar as a whole.

“So I urge you to tear out the shag carpet, get rid of the browns and the mustard yellows and remodel the living room,” he said.

Those particulars will start to take shape next month when the council decides which of Streetscape’s dozens of projects to include in the first window of construction, which will run from January to May so as not to disrupt peak tourist season.

What’s certain is that the first phase will start with infrastructure work needed to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act — including 5-foot-wide sidewalks and four-way pedestrian crossings at every intersection with “bulb-out” corners to increase sight lines — as well as repaving Camino del Mar from 9th Street to Plaza Street. That work comprises nearly $1.4 million of the $4.9 million total.

The first phase is also expected to include a mid-block pedestrian crossing at 10th Street and a scheme for planting trees in the median and along sidewalks.

Items that didn’t survive the outreach phase include rumble strips, raised crosswalks, relocating left-turn lanes and a “scramble”-style pedestrian crossing at 15th Street, downtown’s busiest intersection. The scramble — which would allow pedestrians to cross diagonally as well as laterally — had drawn a lot of community support but it’s cost proved prohibitive, so the city will reconsider the idea in future phases.

The other possibilities for the first phase cover a laundry list of amenities and aesthetic touches, such as new light poles, public art, outdoor furniture, signage, free WiFi and ports for electric vehicles.

Zach Groban, chairman of the city’s business advisory panel, called on the council to fit as many elements as possible into the first phase and to set hard dates whenever possible so that desirable items don’t get lost in the mix.

“Our biggest fear in the business community is that we are continuously phasing this project and ripping it up year after year to implement all these different sections,” he said.

Two sticking points emerged amid the whole-hearted enthusiasm: moving the bus stop on 13th Street and whether to include bicycle “sharrows” on Camino del Mar.

Sharrows — roadway markings that denote shared use by cars and bicyclists — do not enjoy consensus even within the biking community, a degree of controversy that compelled the council to break off the issue into its own discussion at some point in the future.

“I don’t want to put them in Phase One because it’ll slow everything to a grinding halt,” said Councilman Dwight Worden.

Regarding the bus stop, Del Mar is caught in its own strict parking regulations. The Streetscape plan proposes moving the bus stop from the south side of 13th Street because buses would interfere with the four-way pedestrian crossing. But putting the bus stop on the northern side of the intersection would eliminate parking spaces that keep the library above the minimum necessitated when the library added a community room.

“Right now that community room is based upon a permit saying that it’s got four spaces, and we’re going to take two spaces away,” said Councilman Dave Druker. “We, as a city, need to be conforming with our parking regulations if we expect others to conform to our parking regulations.”

Bill Michalsky, treasurer of the Friends of Del Mar Library, stressed that the Streetscape plan, no matter how beneficial, shouldn’t come at the library’s expense.

“There’s no reason to move the bus stop,” he said. “... Moving it is a penalty for the library; the library needs every space around there.”

Further complicating the issue is the fact that the intersection is the most dangerous in the corridor.

“I’ve seen it happen over and over and over, cars just blowing through the intersection,” said Councilwoman Ellie Haviland. “I’m not saying moving the bus stop is the cure-all for that, but whatever we do at that intersection — moving the bus stop, not moving the bus stop — I hope … that we put a lot of effort into getting that under control, because it just takes your breath away sometimes, sitting at Zel’s and watching people blow through that stop sign.”

In the end, the council agreed not to move the bus stop until the city finds a solution for the lost parking spaces — even, said Mayor Terry Sinnott, if it means making an exception to the parking requirement.

“There are cases where we, as a city, are going to have to bend slightly our parking regulations in order to allow businesses to put in sidewalk things, different parking configurations — whatever it is, we’re going to have to be flexible,” he said. “As long as we do it consciously, for the betterment of the whole village, I think we should at least think about it.”