Planning board opposes new traffic signal for Torrey View project

The view from the corner of Carmel Mountain Road and El Camino Real.
(Courtesy of Breakthrough Properties)

The Torrey Hills Community Planning Board is questioning the plans for a new traffic signal on El Camino Real to serve the development of Torrey View, a new life science research campus now under construction in Torrey Hills. Planning board members expressed serious concerns that cutting into the center median for a new light will cause further traffic delays on the busy and already failing intersection of Carmel Mountain Road and El Camino Real.

“This is a major hit to the community to put this light on the main thoroughfare in and out,” board member Guy Ravad said.

At the Sept. 20 meeting, the board approved sending a letter to the city requesting additional information and an explanation regarding why there is no city traffic study to support the traffic signal and request that the city’s Development Services Department (DSD) attend a future meeting to talk to them about the proposed signal.

The Torrey View development has been controversial from the start as the board was not given the opportunity to participate in the city’s ministerial approval process and developers did not attend a board meeting until grading had already begun last year.

The city’s Development Services Department (DSD) determined that the project was only a ministerial review project and did not require a community plan amendment, California Environmental Quality Act review, traffic study, community planning group review or any additional approval from San Diego City Council.

The project has prompted concerns among the planning board and neighbors about its bulk and height, inconsistency with the community character and the removal of eight mature Torrey pines trees from the site without notice.

“Breakthrough’s project is by far the largest and most impactful of any development ever in Torrey Hills,” said board Chair Kathryn Burton. “Although the development will increase traffic, Breakthrough was not required to perform a traffic study and is doing nothing to help alleviate the well-documented traffic problems that already exist at the corner of El Camino Real and Carmel Mountain Road. Breakthrough has brought nothing to Torrey Hills except negatives.”

According to Sarah Williams, job site representative with Breakthrough, the developers are aiming for the completion of Torrey View by late 2023. The project includes three four-to-five-story buildings, an underground parking garage and a tenant-serving clubhouse. Landscaping plans include over 140 new trees on the 10-acre site, including 49 new Torrey pines.

There are three entrances to the site and the plan is for the proposed traffic signal to create a median opening in front of the main entrance, allowing for a left turn for those heading north on El Camino Real. The city has been reviewing the plans since August 2021 and the proposed plan also includes the installation of a crosswalk on the north side of El Camino Real. Williams said if approved, the light will be synchronized to allow for the continuous flow of traffic.

Planning board members contend that the intersection of Carmel Mountain Road and El Camino Real already gets terribly backed up and it could be made worse by having another light just 565 feet away: “It will be a disaster,” Burton said.

The concern is that there isn’t enough room for cars to stack to make the left turn and it will run into the three lanes of traffic already turning onto El Camino Real.

“The intersections are way too close together,” board member Paula Abney said. “Traffic will back up all the way to the freeway and it also backs up down Vista Sorrento, it’s horrendous now. At peak hours we can’t even get out of our neighborhood…it’s going to really impact our community a lot.”

Board member Darren Gretler said he was concerned that the traffic signal will not work successfully for either the community or Torrey View’s tenant. He also questioned the strange order of things—he said in his experience in land use, access is usually figured out before permits are approved and the construction of buildings is well underway.

“If every time the three lanes (of Carmel Mountain Road) turn left this signal also turns, you’re going to be blocking people coming the other direction all weekend, all day, all night,” Gretler said. “I’ve never seen such a major intersection with such little separation in all my years in land use…it’s just going to be a mess.”

The board questioned whether the light could potentially be moved further down to in front of the Del Mar Union School District offices as it would allow more space for queuing to make the left turn.

Members also questioned the installation of a crosswalk.

“We don’t need a crosswalk there to cross lanes of traffic, it would just stall lanes of traffic in the afternoon,” board member Victor Marshall said. “Nobody’s crossing the street right now…a crosswalk seems like a really bad idea.”

Williams said the earliest plans did show a proposed signal and she did not know that it had not been vetted by the group. Since joining the Breakthrough team she said she understands the frustration about how information was presented or not presented and she has been trying to remedy that.

“I hear the frustration and I’m trying to be as transparent as possible,” Williams said. “That’s my commitment to this group.”

Burton said she would be very interested in any traffic study that will be done on the new traffic light as Williams said Breakthrough has contracted with a traffic engineer to provide an operational analysis. The Torrey Hills Community Plan is based on average daily trips (ADTs) and limits how much can be built in certain zones—Burton believes a traffic study would show that there were no remaining ADTs in the area when the project was approved.

Williams said the project’s entitlement related to traffic is consistent with the community plan. DSD determined that the project’s approval could be done ministerially using the lower trip generation rate for research and development use, allowing for the increased square footage.

On the planning board’s agenda that night there were two other issues where the board felt they had been left out of the planning process by the city: A new mural painted at Torrey Corner and the Tesla charging station at Torrey Hills Shopping Center, which they did not get to review before it was installed and is now believed to be operating outside of permittable business hours in a residential zone.

Burton pointed to these issues as prime examples of the weakened involvement that planning boards will have in projects affecting their neighborhoods in light of the planning board reforms approved this month by San Diego City Council.

The changes are meant to help diversify planning group membership, improve board transparency and organization but critics say that the reforms aim to make it harder for boards to oppose the types of dense developments the city is pursuing to help solve its housing shortage. Per the changes, developers will be only “encouraged” to meet with planning groups, not strongly recommended to do so.

Neighborhood groups will have until the end of 2023 to comply with the new requirements.