Encinitas aims to start Beacon’s Beach project in fall

Encinitas will press forward with plans to improve public access to Beacon’s Beach this fall, but it may borrow money so that it can fund both that project and the massive Leucadia Streetscape work, the City Council has decided.

Both projects have been waiting in the wings for years.

The beach project is a public safety issue because of concerns about the current condition of the hillside pathway, while the Leucadia Streetscape’s planned beautification of Coast Highway 101 has the potential to generate a great deal of tax revenue, council members said as they declared both items high priorities for funding in the coming months.

Support for the Beacon’s Beach project, which includes building a new staircase and reworking the parking lot to resolve hillside erosion issues, was unanimous. At the meeting on May 16, the council divided 4-1, with Councilman Mark Muir opposed, over fully funding the Leucadia Streetscape work in one construction phase, rather than breaking it into more than one phase.

“I think you’re putting everything into Streetscape,” Muir said as the council debated various large construction projects during a special goal-setting workshop at the Encinitas Library.

That’s a “misrepresentation,” responded Councilwoman Tasha Boerner Horvath, saying that the council has set aside millions for other projects, including $2.5 million for a railroad undercrossing at Verdi Avenue.

So far, the city has $750,000 set aside for the $4.15 million Beacon’s Beach project, while the city has set aside $10 million for the $30 million Streetscape project.

The Leucadia Streetscape project involves overhauling a 2.5-mile stretch of Coast Highway 101 from La Costa Avenue to A Street. Six traffic circle roundabouts are planned, along with new parking areas, sidewalks, buffered bike lanes and a pathway between the highway and the railroad tracks. In order to make room for all of this, a vehicle lane in each direction will be eliminated along much of the route.

Muir, who has opposed the plans to eliminate the vehicle lanes, said May 16 that the project ought to be done in phases as once was planned, so that the city wouldn’t be shelling out all of the $30 million project cost at one time. Others on the council said the work was better done in one phase because that would have less of an impact on the surrounding area.

In late March, council members said they were leaning toward borrowing the money to help cover the project’s cost. On May 16, they reaffirmed this, telling city employees to look into financing for both the beach project and the Streetscape work.

City Manager Karen Brust told the council that the city was on very firm financial footing and she would have no trouble supporting a decision to borrow money.

“We’re most comfortable with an amount of about $25 million,” she said.

She said the borrowing wouldn’t happen until next year, and she would likely be recommending low-interest loans from the state, rather than putting a bond measure on the ballot.

Mayor Catherine Blakespear said the city may have some time before it needs the Streetscape money, noting that project opponents have asked the state Coastal Commission to weigh in on the city’s plans. It’s unclear how long that review process will take, she said

Brust stressed to council members that even if the city borrows money, it still can’t fund all the projects council members have said they would like to see. For example, she said, the city has set aside $600,000 to improve conditions along Birmingham Drive, but that’s tiny compared to the $8.9 million that it’s estimated to cost to improve the roadway, build a traffic circle roundabout at Newcastle Avenue and underground the power lines.

Council members told her that they could support doing some initial work on Birmingham Drive now, and holding off on the most costly portion of the project — the undergrounding of the power lines.

— Barbara Henry is a freelance writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune.