By Claire Harlin
Traveling Solana Beach’s main thoroughfare has become a little more difficult since mid-July. The biggest construction project the city has seen in nearly 20 years is underway, and although it’s been on the planning board for five years, the state of the 101 has left many locals and business owners frustrated and asking, “Why now?”
“I wish they could have waited until the winter,” said Torie Bell, general manager of Pizza Port, located at 135 N. Highway 101.
Bell said she thinks the renovations will be “worth it in the end,” but it’s “like a ghost town” in her usually-packed restaurant on the days the races aren’t in session.
“Most of our customers are locals and they don’t want to deal with the traffic,” she said, adding that she’s concerned about pedestrians’ safety because cars are temporarily traveling very close to the curb to make room for the trenching. “This has definitely hit us hard.”
Pizza Port is one of several businesses on the west side of the 101, north of Lomas Santa Fe, that have been affected by the loss of parallel public street parking.
While this has been an inconvenience since Aug. 27, City Manager David Ott said businesses will get their street parking back in October when contractors move on to the next phase of construction.
The city is actually running about six weeks ahead of schedule on the estimated 15-month project, which could decrease the total construction time to 12 months or less — meaning the project may culminate before next year’s horse-racing season, he said.
“Even if we don’t finish by then, we will be in the last portion, which will result in limited road closures,” Ott said.
Solana Beach is feeling the very worst of the project right now. From the Beachwalk Retail Center, located at 437 S. Highway 101, to Solana Vista Drive, vehicles traveling northbound or southbound are squeezed between construction cones and the curb, and are often moving slowly due to the reduction from two lanes in each direction to one. The two center lanes have become a trench filled with gravel piles, equipment and piping, making left turns across the median few and far between — and with easy-to-miss turn lanes made from cones, vehicles traveling north often end up driving all the way to Cardiff or making mass U-turns to access the business on the west side of the 101.
City Councilwoman Lesa Heebner said the city has definitely been getting some flack, in addition to a number of questions — namely, “Why now, during the busy race season?”
“People need to understand it’s a 15-month project and it’s going to span a whole year no matter when we start,” she said. “If we were to wait until after the races, that puts us in the El Niño rainy season, and to do this work in the rainy season would be asking for trouble.”
The first step in the project, which is currently underway, is completely ripping out the city’s storm drain infrastructure and re-piping to bring it up to compliance. Being so close to the ocean creates major runoff and environmental hazards for Solana Beach if this portion of the project is not complete before the rainy season, which begins around November.
“This is the time we had to do it, and it makes sense,” Heebner said. “A lot of people ask me what’s going on when they see me, and when I explain everything to them they say they understand. It’s like doing a remodel — When you are living in it, it’s terrible, but then when it’s done, it’s great.”
For more information on the project, visit the city’s website at www.ci.solana-beach.ca.us and click on the “Highway 101 West Side Improvement Project” link. City officials have added a new Frequently Asked Questions document on that page, based on common concerns and questions they have encountered.