Giant ceremonial scissors made an appearance along Pacific Coast Highway in Dana Point this morning, as members of the city council and OC Board of Supervisors member Pat Bates dedicated a brand new pedestrian bridge.
It's not just a pedestrian bridge, though. It's "beautification." It's a "great work of art." It's "part of a traffic congestion relief project." Those were the words of Mayor Lisa Bartlett -- and it's easy to understand what she meant with the first two. The bridge, which I drive under every day, is plenty pretty. As part of this morning's ceremony, city staffers unveiled four local-themed mosaics, each one shiny, colorful and detailed.
But how much congestion does this bridge relieve? Brad Fowler, the Dana Point's director of public works, told the Weekly that the city doesn't have any estimates about the impact of the bridge on traffic. It was approved by the city council in 2006, as part of an estimated $7 million grant-funded improvements project that would widen Pacific Coast Highway (the cost so far has penciled out to $6.7 million according to the Register). Widening has already had an impact on traffic flow, but it's not clear the extent to which the bridge will. Fowler said the bridge allowed the city to remove a cross-walk at the intersection of PCH and Dana Point Harbor Drive, which lengthened the red-light time for through traffic by 15 seconds every time someone needed to cross that side of the street. But... how much does that add up to? Does the bridge's impact on traffic justify its cost?
The reason I'm wondering about this stuff is that I've heard this thing be called -- and I've called it -- a bridge to nowhere. But, it does go somewhere. Traffic relief doesn't seem like a big part of that destination, though. Ruminations from a local ahead...
Dana Point is thought of as a beautiful, affluent city, but the main southern entry to the arera -- which gets traffic from PCH and the 5 freeway -- is pretty fugly. You drive over San Juan Creek and get a gorgeous view of Doheny State Beach, and then you hit a stretch of fast-food restaurants, two vacant lots and an abandoned bait shop. If it does anything, the new clean-looking and colorful pedestrian bridge draws attention to that fact.
One of those vacant lots is owned by Makar Properties. That's the powerful development corporation that owns, among other high-profile OC locations, the St. Regis Resort in Dana Point. A few years ago, the lot housed a mobile-home development. Makar bought the property, kicked out the tenants (they tried to sue but were appeased with a settlement for an undisclosed amount), and recently won a zone-change from the city council to develop that property into a mixed residential/commercial center.
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The new pedestrian bridge dumps its walkers right onto the sidewalk next to that lot. And right now, there's not a whole lot of incentive for a pedestrian to be there. Sure, there's a Denny's on that side of the street, and a little walk brings you to a shopping center with A's Burgers. But a most of the city's population within walking distance of Doheny would come from north of Dana Point Harbor Drive and therefore not need to use the bridge at all. The people who should be most grateful for the bridge are people who don't exist yet: the tenants of the development that Makar wants to eventually build.
To be clear, Fowler said that the bridge wasn't built in with Makar's interests in mind. But it's a symbol, at the least. The bridge is only the first of a few big developments to come in the city: There's a complete town center overhaul in the works, Dana Point Harbor will soon be remodeled, and the ultra-expensive Headlands development is nearing completion. Dana Point has long been crusty with the brown sidings and shingles of a 1970s conception of an 1800s harbor village. But there's a lot of money to be made for businesses and the city alike by glitzing the town up. In a few years, things are going to look pretty different -- and we'll be seeing a few more events featuring shiny ceremonial scissors.