The Class 1 Streetcars: A Unique Path to Funding Development

Photo of Charlotte Streetcar by John Smatlak.

Early this year, our newly elected governor of California Jerry Brown announced a tightened budget plan with significant spending cuts across the spectrum of state services. Of the $12 billion in proposed cuts, a massive $5 billion would be derived from the dissolution of California’s redevelopment agencies — all 425 of them [1] [2]. Though that money will be used to balance the state budget, fund schools, and boost the general funds of some cities and counties, many argue that redevelopment creates jobs and spawns numerous private projects, which in turn create multi-layered benefits for cities and communities [3].

Wherever one stands on the issue, there’s no question that our state government is going to have to make some tough choices in the near future. And some of those tough choices will directly affect San Diego. If the Jerry Brown plan to cut redevelopment goes forward as planned, San Diego County stands to lose over $400 million in funds [4]. That massive loss would only serve to further compound our city’s current budget deficit and fiscal problems, and perhaps lead to years of delays, causing underfunded projects to languish and many private investors to abandon related investments. Now, more than ever, San Diego’s leaders need to look for alternative forms of funding and investment capital in order to keep redevelopment on track and prevent economic stagnation.

Once again, we here at the San Diego Historic Streetcar Project would point to the Class 1 streetcars as part of the solution to this problem. If these San Diego Historic Landmarks return to any original route, including the route to Balboa Park, they will meet the final criteria for State and National Historic Landmark status. This opens the door to federal funding set aside specifically for the restoration and operation of historic transportation systems. These unique funds cannot be provided by any other transportation project in San Diego and the city would not need to pay them back.

It has been demonstrated in a number of cases that the development of public transit, particularly historic streetcars and light rail, leads to significant private investment and quality of life improvements in the surrounding community. One notable example is the streetcar line built in Charlotte, North Carolina that began operating in 2007. In just three short years the light rail system there exceeded it’s twenty year ridership predictions, had spurred $288.2 million in completed development projects, and led to an additional $522 million in projects that were under construction toward the end of last year— much to the delight of city officials. Charlotte mayor Anthony Foxx remarked: “Other people should know that now is a heckuva good time to start a transit system. With historically low interest rates and construction prices still relatively depressed, you will get more for your dollar”. The amount of speculative investment surrounding the Charlotte streetcars is currently predicted to rise to $1.45 billion by 2013 [5].

Paired with the unique benefit of federal historic preservation funding, not to mention the benefits to tourism, a Class 1 streetcar line could help revitalize the city of San Diego at a particularly crucial time. With luck, our city might not even feel the crunch of the state redevelopment cuts, but instead enjoy an increased tax base and sustained, job-creating growth.

City Beautiful, City Prosperous

When George Marston ran for mayor in 1917, “Smokestacks vs. Geraniums” became the argument of the day. Of course Marston, as a business man, understood the importance of commerce and business, but he also appreciated the significance of beauty and preservation. To be both preservationists and industrialists, innovation and creativity must be utilized.  San Diego is a city full of beauty, diversity, and creativity. So, why is the Cabrillo Bridge to be altered during the proposed Plaza de Panama restoration at Balboa Park? Cabrillo Bridge is an integral part of the park as a whole — in terms of both its historical make-up and functionality — not just an expendable appendage.  We’re a bit confused that some think the solution to Balboa Park’s transit woes is more parking and roads through the park.  We say, keep it a park and not a parking lot!

In our opinion, it makes much more sense to bring people into the park using public transportation. Once inside, people could be shuttled around with a tram system that reflects the nature and history of the park.

The historic Class 1 streetcars belong at Balboa Park.  The concepts of the Class 1 streetcars and Balboa Park as we know it originated in the same minds, at the same time, and with the same intention.  The Class 1s are unique to San Diego and were built, by the order of JD Spreckels, in anticipation of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition.  Today, these streetcars could provide the city of San Diego with much-desired public transportation, all the while helping to preserve the historic fabric of Balboa Park. Conceived and constructed in the Arts & Crafts style, the Class 1 Streetcars will enchant riders and make the journey part of the destination.  This is the golden opportunity for San Diego to have its own Nationally Designated Historic Streetcar line.

Balboa Park must remain historically unchanged in order to retain its historic designation.  By altering Cabrillo Bridge, we would put that historic designation at risk. We hope that the community will continue to come together, as they have many times in the past, and bring forward ideas that will preserve Balboa Park for generations to come.

To learn more about this issue, we encourage you to watch these videos over at the Save Our Heritage Organization (SOHO) website. SOHO has also started a petition in opposition to the current plans for the Cabrillo Bridge. Please sign it if you agree that we need to preserve the Cabrillo Bridge and Balboa Park!

The Class 1s in Del Mar: Antiques & Steampunk

The Class 1 Streetcar exhibit at The Calendar Antique Show at the Del Mar Fairgrounds was a great success! We all had a lot of fun at the show and would like to thank Michael Grimes for having us and Gloria Gerak for helping us spread the word!

Over the course of three days we met some great people and let a good number of people know about our project. But after it was all said and done, the most exciting part of the weekend might have been when the members of the Costumed Walkabout and the local Steampunk community got their photos taken with the Class 1 streetcar. Well on its way to being restored to how it looked in 1915, Class 1 #138 was the perfect backdrop for these dedicated and eccentric costumers. We may have to join in the fun next time!

Photographer Jerry Abuan took some great photos of the festivities. Take a look at some of our favorite selections in the slideshow below.