Railroads from Here to Eternity: Lights Fight Over Waterfront Aesthetics Continues

Published March 5, 2013 by Imperial Beach Patch.

In a close vote, a majority of the Imperial Beach City Council made a decision last Wednesday that could drastically impact the experience of local residents and visitors to the new Pier South hotel.

Pedestrian-scale lighting from the new hotel to Pier Plaza was supported in a 3-2 vote by Councilmembers Lorie Bragg, Ed Spriggs and Bobby Patton. Staff will return to council in the future to determine how the new lighting will look.

When City Council considered the same issue a year ago, a majority of councilmembers voted against pedestrian-scale lighting in another 3-2 vote.

Like last year, Councilmember Bilbray and Mayor Jim Janney voted against the measure.

“I think it’s atrocious that this council would be willing to spend more money on Seacoast Drive. If you walk that street, it is the best lit street in the city of Imperial Beach,” Janney said.

Other parts of the city away from the beach need to be considered, he said.

“We have not done any neighborhood lighting since 1999, but we’re willing to add more and more and more into Seacoast Drive?”

The framework for private investment on Seacoast Drive has already been laid, Janney said, through years of investment by the city, its redevelopment agency, the Port of San Diego and others.

The waterfront business community have not volunteered to install more lights on their property. They need to “help themselves,” Janney said.

“If we just keep saying ‘It’s not enough, not enough, not enough,’ we could actually do nothing but rebuild Seacoast Drive from here to eternity,” he said.

Money to pay for lights in a four-block area between the new hotel and the pier will come from the city’s general fund, said City Manager Gary Brown, and is estimated to cost $70,000 or more.

“That’s where I’ve had a problem with this whole project since the beginning is using general fund money to do something that I don’t necessarily think is needed at this time,” Councilman Bilbray said. “Now in the future, I’d be more than happy for it, but until we get a funding source for all this, I can’t give my consent to it.”

The city’s redevelopment agency put $7 million in public money into the new Pier South hotel, said Councilman Spriggs. Spending an additional $70,000 is “urban development 101.”

“That’s nothing compared to what we’ve already put in terms of redevelopment into the hotel,” he said.

Spriggs has been the most vocal City Councilmember in favor of new lights since the issue was shot down last year.

“We can’t have residents coming into that hotel and their first experience coming to IB, walking outside and saying “I don’t think so!” he said after the meeting. “The mayor did not want to go there. He never wanted to go there. You’re going to work to get the hotel done and then you’re just going to walk away?”

Like the railroads built to reach western expanses of the United States in the 1800s, an infrastructure is needed to bring people to the waterfront.

“When we built the railroads, there was nothing happening out there, but the infrastructure enabled private investment to take place,” Spriggs said. “So I think we have to build the railroad and we know that it’s going to have a better impact than what exists right now because we’re not making it right now. The businesses aren’t making it right now. It’s not what it needs to be.”

IB’s problem is that residents have underutilized and businesses have underserved the waterfront for years. Change will come when the area looks attractive at night just like it does during the day, he said.

“You go down there anytime after 6 and you can probably spend a couple hours there and count on both hands the number of people you see walking after dark,” Spriggs said. “That’s not a vibrant walking community. That’s not the village environment that we can achieve.”

A more inviting Seacoast Drive pedestrian experience has been named as a priority of city government multiple times in the past decade.

City records show that citizens and various City Councils since the early 2000s have advocated for a more pedestrian friendly Seacoast Drive.

Since 2000, the city’s general plan has advocated a “pedestrian friendly” and “pedestrian oriented” Seacoast Drive.

A committee formed by City Council in 2005 in which Spriggs took part also advocated for pedestrian-scale lighting.

A report presented to City Council by staff with the help of contractors supported a variety of improvements, from gateway signs to parklets or small park meeting areas and widening sidewalks. Councilwoman Lorie Bragg requested that for the time being the focus stay on lights.

Lights alone won’t make the area prosperous, Bragg said.

“There’s a lot more to it than that. However, as a municipality I feel it’s painfully important that we provide a safe and well-lit environment for our residents. Will they come out in a safe and well-lit environment? You bet they will. And that’s really what this is all about,” she said.

Improved lighting at bus stops should also be part of the initiative to improve lighting on Seacoast Drive, she said.

A group of about 25 waterfront business owners and local residents called the Seacoasters have enthusiastically supported pedestrian-scale lighting since the issue emerged again last March.

Councilmembers Lorie Bragg and Ed Spriggs are both Seacoasters.

Councilman Patton said he is not a member of the Seacoasters and makes his own decisions, but, like Spriggs, Patton lives near Seacoast Drive and received financial support from Seacoasters leader Bob Miller when he ran for City Council last fall.

In an interview with IB Patch during the election, Patton voiced his support for pedestrian-scale lighting, urging the city to “set the table” with public infrastructure improvements like lighting to attract “residents, visitors and investors alike.”

Pamela Olvera often rides her bike on Seacoast Drive with her daughter and used to live in Eastlake.

“There’s so many things to do in Eastlake,” she said. “We never really got that sense from this city.”

More lighting could change IB’s waterfront and be a great service to the community, she said. Instead of “pushers, loiterers and gang members in front of liquor stores,” good lighting could attract people who would otherwise stay home.

Better lighting could also bring more businesses to the area and improve the city’s tax base, she said.

“You’ll bring out the community. You’ll bring out people that don’t otherwise congregate there. Businesses will stay open later and we’ll just have a lot more action going on,” Olvera said.

City Manager Gary Brown called businesses between Palm and Daisy avenues a model since they leave their lights on at night.

He also questioned whether businesses or lighting comes first in making Seacoast Drive a destination with nightlife and said lighting is just in a series of important features for the commercial district to prosper.

“We had a report today that somebody went down there to eat yesterday around 6 p.m. There was only one restaurant open. 6 p.m. on a weekday. That’s just…. now which comes first I don’t know. Lighting is one factor, but there’s not a heck of a lot for me to walk to if there’s no place open to eat,” he said.

A need to organize efforts with the business community is an “extremely important” part of a path to success, he said.

Short- and long-term plans to prepare the waterfront for the opening of the hotel presented by city staff last year including advertising and partnerships with the local business community. With a price tag between $100,000 and $250,000, the plans were called too expensive and shot down by City Council.

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