As Alexis Villanueva looks across the State Route 15 freeway in City Heights, she thinks back on what it looked like when she was growing up. Hundreds of homes and small businesses. A 7-Eleven where she got lemonade slushies after school. A Pizza Hut that gave out prizes for reading books.
Now, all those memories are drowned out by the freeway.
Villanueva is the executive director of the City Heights Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit that was founded in the early 1980s as Caltrans began using eminent domain to seize and demolish more than nine blocks of property to build SR-15.
Villanueva's older sister and niece were among the roughly 2,000 residents who were evicted to make way for the freeway. The move was a financial and emotional burden on the family, causing Villanueva's sister to lose access to child care and forcing her into a longer, more costly commute.
"You're essentially asking them to figure out how to make rent, deposit, somewhere else that's probably higher in rent," Villanueva said. "It was a big decision, but there really was no choice."
Caltrans had built freeways through dense urban neighborhoods many times before, and was well aware of the division and displacement those projects had caused to vulnerable populations. So the agency sought to build SR-15 differently, offering to negotiate with the community over amenities it could include to mitigate the freeway's harmful impacts.
The greatest of those amenities became Teralta Park, a 5-acre park built as a lid over one block of the freeway.
"Before this, there wasn't really access to green spaces or places that kids could come out (to play in)," Villanueva said of the park. "When it was built, I couldn't come … and not see a birthday party or a jumper out here."
While Teralta Park is a treasured community asset, the other amenities that were built with the freeway were plagued with delays — or have proved to be entirely useless. The rapid bus line that runs on the freeway median offers a one-seat ride from City Heights to downtown or North County. But the bus service didn't start until 2018, 18 years after the freeway opened.
The bridges over the freeway at El Cajon Boulevard and University Avenue were also built with pedestrian plazas, complete with public bathrooms and kiosks that could house small coffee shops or newsstands.
"We want to see individuals being able to sit here while they're waiting for a bus and have a cup of coffee, buy from flower vendors, buy from pastry vendors, being able to use the restroom," Villanueva said. "All the built environment that you see was really so people could still activate this space and not feel like there was a western part of City Heights and an eastern part of City Heights."
But, in the over two decades since the plazas were built, neither the kiosks nor the bathrooms have ever been used.
Caltrans spokesman Steve Welborn said leasing the kiosks directly to a vendor proved to be legally complex, so it leased them to the city of San Diego in 2020, hoping that the city could find an occupant.
It hasn't, and the kiosks are still locked up.
City Heights CDC is seeking funding to beautify the plazas over the freeway with more greenery, lighting and decorative art. Villanueva said her organization was committed to those goals, but finding the money is a challenge. And some of the issues that make the plazas unpleasant — particularly the deafening noise from the freeway and adjacent streets — have no easy fixes.
Thousands of motorists drive on SR-15 every day, and their trips are likely faster and more direct than if the freeway had never been built. But that convenience for drivers has come at a steep cost.
City Heights would be better off today if SR-15 had never been built, Villanueva said. But now that the damage is done, she said her community would continue pushing Caltrans to do more to heal the wounds caused by the freeway.
"I'm hoping — I don't know — that Caltrans is a little bit more rooted in community now," Villanueva said. "I'm really hoping that, since the 15, they've realized the need to do some engagement on the ground. And they continue to do that so that they get that buy-in."