Pacific Beach planners recommend controversial program continue on Diamond Street

A bicyclist traveling on Diamond Street, which is partially closed to vehicle traffic due to its “Slow Street” designation.
A bicyclist traveling along Diamond Street, which is partially closed to vehicle traffic due to its “Slow Street” designation.
(Steven Mihailovich)

Two years after the city unilaterally implemented the Slow Street program promoting non-vehicular travel on Diamond Street, the Pacific Beach Planning Group is recommending the program continue.

However, the group also wants plans to alleviate the numerous problems that have emerged.

The recommendation to conditionally keep the Slow Street passed during a special April 20 meeting after an initial motion to scrap the program on Diamond Street was defeated 6-4.

The contentious meeting, replete with outbursts championing as well as condemning the Diamond Slow Street, played to a packed house of about 80 people at the St. Brigid Catholic Church hall, along with 27 people attending virtually via Zoom.

Though a victory for Slow Street supporters, PB Planning Group Chairman Karl Rand said the result might have little impact on the city’s ultimate designs.

“I would like to remind everybody, we’re not making the decision,” Rand said. “We’re just making a recommendation to the city. Probably, they’re going to not just read the recommendation and the vote, but they’ll know what happened here tonight. So let’s not think we have more importance than we have.”

The special planning group meeting was held in conjunction with the regular Pacific Beach Town Council meeting that evening.

The City of San Diego planned to install more permanent features on the Diamond Slow Street starting in July, but suspended the effort after finding stiff opposition from residents at the council’s February meeting.

With the city cancelling its presentation before the April meeting, it was left to Katie Matchett, president of BeautifulPB, to describe the program.

Slow Streets close a road to all vehicle traffic except residents and essential services, including delivery, to create a safe zone for active travel such as walking, biking and skating.

BeautifulPB President Katie Matchett.
BeautifulPB President Katie Matchett explaining the Slow Street program during the April 20 Pacific Beach Planning Group meeting focused on Diamond Street.
(Steven Mihailovich)

Matchett explained why Diamond Street was identified as a potential bike path in the PB Community Plan, last updated in 1995, and chosen as part of the PB Pathways network across the community before becoming a Slow Street.

“It is one of the longest east-west streets in PB that connects all the way from the beach up to Olney Street,” she said.

Diamond Street was converted into a Slow Street on April 30, 2020 during the initial wave of the COVID-19 pandemic as a way for the public to enjoy outdoor activity while maintaining proper social distancing.

Rand said City Councilmember Jen Campbell reminded then-Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s office that community input was needed, but within a few days the signs appeared without the mayor’s office taking that step.

Although the city’s heavy-handed action was universally derided by audience and Planning Board members for its lack of transparency and proper procedure, Rand said public input at that time was nearly impossible to gather due to the pandemic.

“The Planning Group and the Town Council weren’t having meetings at that time,” Rand said. “So it was either they weren’t going to do it or they were going to do it without public input. ... That was the confusion that arose at the time. There was no public input. There really couldn’t have been public input.”

Public comments following the presentations were split, with 16 speakers in support and 16 opposed. Complaints included bikers and others harassing by residents who are driving on their street to heavy and sometimes dangerous traffic diverted to adjacent roadways, particularly Missouri Street.

Praises were also heaped on the program for the safe haven created for pedestrians and cyclists, and a newfound sense of community for the neighborhood’s residents.

“I am really concerned about how people who ride their bicycles or skateboards or scooters treat others,” said PBPG member Scott Chipman. “The idea that a resident who’s trying to get home would be harassed by somebody on the street, that’s really disturbing. ... If we want to have Slow Streets in Pacific Beach, we need a comprehensive plan, not just throw a couple of signs out and say, this streets is now a park and you residents have to suffer through it.”

PBPG member Paige Hernandez said benefits espoused by audience members supporting the Slow Street, especially in safety, heartened her to hope the program can be expanded across PB.

A sign brought to the meeting by someone advocating for Diamond Street to be reopened to vehicle traffic.
(Steven Mihailovich)

“I don’t think the current solutions we have in place (on other streets) are necessarily working to increase safety,” Hernandez said. “I think the Slow Street has been an effective solution.”

PBPG member Steve Pruett said he found arguments against the Slow Street made by residents from surrounding streets to be disingenuous.

“What you’re basically saying is I want slower traffic,” Pruett said. “Push the fast traffic on somebody else. That’s not a good neighborly perspective to take.”

Other board members focused on what had not been mentioned in the presentations and public comments. With Slow Streets enacted in cities across the state, Rich Crowers said San Diego could easily find an effective template for the program.

“There are many best practices that I have studied and looked at in the last couple of weeks in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, North Carolina, D.C.,” Crowers said. “I haven’t heard of any of those things.”

Jim Morrison argued that a greater menace called for the reduction of automobile traffic provided by Slow Streets.

“We do have a global problem in regards to global warming,” Morrison said. “I was sorry to see that this wasn’t brought up at all in this whole meeting. You really need to embrace this and get on board with this. ... Anything that puts hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide into the air, you just have to leave it behind.”

Although supportive of the Slow Street program himself, Jason Legros contended that the city’s implementation without public feedback and due diligence was a slippery slope on which supporters could stumble later.

“Those who support the Slow Streets are willing to overlook this problem for a cause they support today, but assuredly will present themselves at another meeting arguing the opposite when the issue in question is one they will not support,” Legros said. “We cannot have things both ways if we want to have a healthy and functional community and government.”

Pruett made the motion to discontinue the Diamond Slow Street in order to get the board to take a definitive stand, yet said he supported the program because he feared the city will take it away as resolutely as it instigated it.

“If we discontinue Diamond as a Slow Street, we will probably not get another Slow Street in San Diego because that’s just how city government works,” Pruett said. “Once you get something, you need to try and fix it and make it better. But once you eliminate something, you never get it back.”

After the original motion failed, Pruett proposed recommending the city operate Diamond as a Slow Street, but urgently request a comprehensive analysis of the program to discover improvements for its functionality while mitigating negative impacts on surrounding streets. That motion carried 7-3.

Although opponents were vocally disappointed, Pruett reminded those present that the planning group is to implement the Community Plan in its decisions, which might not satisfy all people all the time.

“Part of our role as a Planning Group is to be stewards and to be forward looking and to take into consideration things that the residents may not be thinking about as being important today but could be important tomorrow and in the future,” Pruett said. “So sometimes that’s not what’s popular but that’s what a Planning Board needs to be thinking about. You wouldn’t move forward on a lot of things within a community if you only did what people wanted today.”