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Parks, bike trails and riverfront dining: The $700 million plan to transform the San Diego River



The long-neglected San Diego River could become a regional attraction with recreational amenities and riverfront dining under a new financing plan recently endorsed by county and city officials.

Somewhere between $380 million and $750 million would be spent on new parks, bicycle bridges and flood-prevention projects that they hope will make private-sector investment more likely along the 52-mile river.

The projects could also reduce traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions by creating protected paths for bikers and walkers on both sides of the river, which runs from Julian through Lakeside, Santee, El Cajon, Grantville, Mission Valley and Ocean Beach.

County and city officials say they envision upgrades along the river having a positive impact similar to projects like the Belt Line in Atlanta, the High Line in New York City or the San Antonio River Walk.

Money for the upgrades would come from a relatively new state funding source that doesn’t require a tax increase and wouldn’t take away from money the county and city spend on firefighting, libraries or other key services.

County and city officials say they both plan to create enhanced infrastructure financing districts that would get money any time a parcel within half a mile of the river sees its property tax go up in the next 45 years.

The two government agencies could wait for those increases, called tax increment, to accumulate over time. But officials say they prefer to get many millions in immediate cash by selling bonds against the projected increment.

That money would dramatically accelerate slow and ongoing efforts to upgrade the river, where a master plan already envisions 130 miles of trails and parks once both sides of the waterway and adjacent areas are combined.

“We’re aiming to do something big and bold with this plan,” said Councilmember Raul Campillo, who has spearheaded the new collaboration on the city side. “Every major city that has a river has used it as an asset.”

While Campillo said the public investment will bring more benches, clear brush and help eliminate invasive species along the river, he said the impact on private investment could matter even more.
“When we put in the infrastructure to make the river a clean and safe place to be around, property owners will take their own steps,” he said.

Instead of developers orienting commercial and housing projects with their backs to the river, new projects might face the river and treat it as an amenity, he said.

An example could be the long-term redevelopment of the Fashion Valley mall, which could become a commercial project focused on the river.

County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, who has led the effort on the county side, said progress on the river has been slow only because there hasn’t been a dedicated funding stream.

A detailed master plan has been in place since 2013, and a comprehensive plan for trails along the river was completed in 2020.

“It’s not for lack of seeing the trail, and it’s not for lack of seeing the purpose. It really is at this point a lack of dedicated, sustained funding,” Fletcher said. “Absent a real catalyst to change the trajectory, this could take another 100 years to finish.”

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