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After 35 years in public education as a high school English teacher and university administrator, I began my second life as a freelance writer, winning San Diego Society of Professional Journalist awards for my opinion columns in the former San Diego daily North County Times and the San Diego Free Press.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Carlsbad Going Back to the Future?

As neighboring cities in North County struggle with budget cuts and fee increases for public services, Carlsbad’s city council members spent the lion’s share of their January 25th meeting listening to a proposal to set aside $4 million to redevelop its downtown.

Gary Nessim, Vice President of the Carlsbad Village Association, laid out a plan that would create a pedestrian promenade the entire length of Grand Avenue, from City Hall to the beach. Mayor Matt Hall and Councilmember Mark Packard excused themselves from the discussion since they both own property in the area to be developed.

The presentation reminded me of my seven years in the Midwest. My wife and I, both west coasters in our early years, relished our afternoon drives on weekends in search of small towns that flourished many years ago. Each had a town square, dominated by a City Hall protected by a couple of Civil War era cannons, and surrounded by a drugstore, a department store, some specialty shops, a restaurant and a gas station. They’re sad scenes today. Boarded up windows replace bustling streets as their main feature.

The words “back to the future” came to mind as Nessim described a future Grand Promenade, linking City Hall to the heart of the downtown district, creating a bustling central gathering place for residents and visitors alike.

Grand Avenue would be reduced to two lanes of traffic, bordered by two bike lanes, and no curbside parking. Several multi-level parking garages, above and below ground, would provide an ample supply of downtown parking.

A 53-foot wide pedestrian walkway would feature outdoor art shows, access to the farmer’s market, sidewalk dining and major city events, like car shows, that would no longer require closing other city streets.
Nessim observed that recent development plans for downtown have consisted entirely of residential townhomes. He warned that if the downtown becomes primarily residential town homes with very little retail/commercial you’ll never get the bustling downtown that attracts visitors as well as locals. He pointed to downtown Santa Monica as a glimpse of what Carlsbad’s Grand Promenade could be.

Downtown businesses like the idea, according to Nessim. He’s spoken with all of them on Grand Avenue and estimated 95 percent of them have expressed support for it.

When Nessim suggested the project could be completed in a year, but that the approval process might take five years, Mayor Pro-Tem Anne Kulchin quipped, “Gary, I don’t think even God could do it in a year.”
The council listened politely to the presentation. Kulchin said she liked the plan and “we should talk with some more people about it,” before we simply thank Nessim and say goodbye. When Mayor Hall returned to his seat he said he’d been listening to the presentation “from afar,” declared it a great presentation and “a lot to stretch your mind around.”

The Carlsbad Village Association is asking that $4 million be put into the capital improvement budget to move ahead with the plan and to appoint a Village Planning and Study Group to coordinate plans with all stakeholders.

The council gave lip service support to the vision for downtown redevelopment but took no action. Here’s hoping it will soon appear as an action item on the council’s meeting agenda. I don’t think we want boarded up shop windows to be Carlsbad’s only legacy of smart growth.

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