Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Widening of El Cajon Boulevard begins despite pedestrian safety concerns

Widening 04.jpg
Matthew Bowler
The sidewalks around the Fair@44 are closed leaving only one entrance accessible to customers hurting business at the small shops like the Dojo Cafe, Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2021.

Construction crews this week began work to widen a block of El Cajon Boulevard to accommodate more car traffic. Some activists and business owners fear the project would put pedestrians at even greater risk on one of the city's deadliest streets.

The widening will add a new lane for westbound motorists turning right onto Fairmount Avenue. It will shrink the size of Fair@44, a public plaza between the City Heights and Talmadge neighborhoods that hosts community events including weekly free food distribution.

City officials ordered the widening in 2018 at the behest of the Kensington-Talmadge Planning Group, which argues it will help alleviate traffic congestion. Urban planners and social scientists widely agree adding vehicular travel lanes do not solve congestion, but rather encourages more driving in a phenomenon called "induced demand."


Mayor Todd Gloria's office said in early September, and again in early October, it was reviewing the project to determine if it was consistent with the mayor's goals. Gloria campaigned on making streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists and encouraging more sustainable transportation modes over driving.

Late Tuesday the mayor's office said because the permit for construction was already issued, the city could not change it, and that attempting to do so could increase the cost and delay completion of an adjacent 195-unit affordable housing complex being built by Price Philanthropies and Chelsea Investment Corp. The widening was one of several conditions the city imposed on that development when it was approved under former Mayor Kevin Faulconer.

The construction work has closed the northern sidewalk between Fairmount Avenue and 44th Street — a critical connection for pedestrians accessing the Copley-Price YMCA, Hoover High School and the many bus routes that run along El Cajon Boulevard.

RELATED: Despite racial disparities in tickets, jaywalking will remain a crime in California

Widening 01.jpg
Matthew Bowler
Darnell Williams, owner of Dojo Café, says the street widening on El Cajon Boulevard at Fairmont Ave has him worried about how pedestrians often walk around the construction zone by getting into the busy street, Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2021.

Darnelle Williams, owner of the Dojo Cafe coffee cart at Fair@44, said children walking to school Tuesday morning were opting to enter the street rather than take the long and circuitous detour. He said he has witnessed multiple car crashes on the block and thinks the widening will make it less safe.

"I don't know what the plan was for watching out for the pedestrians and really keeping them in mind, but this street is very busy and it's used a lot by the students and a lot of the people of City Heights," Williams said. "We just don't want to see something tragic happen here."

Williams added he had to cancel the weekly food distribution event he hosts on Tuesdays out of fear that pedestrians would be put in danger. He also had to cancel an outdoor video game night that was part of the county's SD Nights program that offers youth safe after-school activities.

Widening 05.jpg
Matthew Bowler
A pedestrian walks around chain link fencing blocking off construction of a new turn lane for motorists on El Cajon Boulevard, Oct. 19, 2021.

The right-hand turn lane has been on the wish list of the Kensington-Talmadge Planning Group since at least 2015. The group's chair, David Moty, wrote a letter to Gloria reiterating that support last month after KPBS published a story on the conflicts between widening roads and the city's goals of ending traffic deaths by 2025 and sharply reducing car travel to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

"The intersection of El Cajon Boulevard and Fairmount Avenue is a high volume intersection ... that without a right-turn lane creates blockages that redirect substantial amounts of traffic into surrounding neighborhoods from which it did not originate," Moty wrote. "This right-turn lane will keep traffic where it belongs on well-designed arterial roads like El Cajon Boulevard, not on substandard neighborhood streets."

Williams wrote a letter to Gloria opposing the widening, as did the El Cajon Boulevard Business Improvement Association.

RELATED: For grieving families, bike lane improvements come too late

"This widening project goes against the city’s climate action goals and is just 500 feet away from the soon-to-be-implemented Complete Boulevard (project) which is narrowing El Cajon Boulevard ... to provide safe access for pedestrians, transit riders, bicyclists, and motorists," wrote Tootie Thomas, the association's executive director. "The right lane project is contrary to the community vision for that area."

Widening 06.jpg
Matthew Bowler
With the sidewalk in front of the Fair at 44 on El Cajon Boulevard closed, many pedestrians squeeze into the gap between cars and fencing rather than walking the blocks around to avoid the dangerous intersection, Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2021.

Williams said while construction on the widening is currently taking place at night, the second phase, expected to begin within three weeks, will include daytime construction that he fears could tank his business.

"The use of heavy equipment will be just feet away from our customers," Williams said. "If business drops 60, 70, 80%, we're done."

City Councilmember Sean Elo-Rivera, who represents City Heights and Talmadge, declined to say whether he supports or opposes the widening project. But he said in a statement: "Our office is working to ensure the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists during the construction of this development. Additionally, it is a priority to minimize the impact of construction for the small businesses located at Fair@44."

Widening of El Cajon Boulevard begins despite pedestrian safety concerns

Updated: October 20, 2021 at 11:30 AM PDT
This story was updated to include comments from the mayor's office.
KPBS has created a public safety coverage policy to guide decisions on what stories we prioritize, as well as whose narratives we need to include to tell complete stories that best serve our audiences. This policy was shaped through months of training with the Poynter Institute and feedback from the community. You can read the full policy here.