The legacy of poor undergrounding in Kensington/Talmadge

Planning subcommittee spawns city’s Utility Underground Advisory Group

Thanks to the grassroots efforts of the Kensington/Talmadge Planning Group and its undergrounding subcommittee, the City of San Diego’s Land Use and Housing Committee unanimously voted on October 23 to create the Utility Underground Advisory Group. Every neighborhood in the city is expected to benefit.

The City of San Diego has been burying electrical transmission lines in neighborhoods since 1970. Approximately three years ago, one community in each of the then-eight council districts was selected for individual undergrounding projects. In the case of (former) District 3, the community of Talmadge was selected. The city assigned low-bid contractors to seven communities while it assumed the undergrounding responsibilities for Mission Hills.

Once work was under way, it reputedly became apparent that there were no standardized procedures for undergrounding. Some contractors handled this lack of uniformity worse than others. (The city’s efforts in Mission Hills were generally well received by the residents.)

Talmadge residents recognized the problems when they arrived home from work to find their streets dotted with green utility boxes. Worse, some owners were greeted by more than one box placed on the easement property between the street and sidewalk.

Undergrounding was interpreted to mean that telephone poles and utility wires would vanish from sight, “underground.” Not so. Unsightly “above-ground” utility boxes were became a blight to the neighborhood. Property values were compromised.

Anguished residents voiced their displeasure to the Kensington/Talmadge Planning Group. As a result, an undergrounding subcommittee was formed to investigate and champion “under-the-ground” utilities. Other disenchanted communities were expressing similar objections to their city-council reps.

The Kensington/Talmadge Planning Group, in order to protect their community’s historic character, voted for an undergrounding moratorium until standardized procedures could be implemented.

Chairman David Moty then introduced the community group’s objections to the central Community Planning Committee chaired by Joe La Cava. All community planning groups then joined together to demand a task force. Their collective voice culminated in the creation of the Utility Underground Advisory Group, with Joe La Cava serving as chair. The expected outcome is that all communities and neighborhoods will receive the same fair and equitable treatment.

The advisory group will be comprised of 14 people: selected residents, representatives from SDG&E, Cox Communications, AT&T, and city staff. Their work should be completed within one year.

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It's mind boggling there were/are no County standards and codes for this. Why embark on a major public works project without really knowing what the contractors are going to do? Contractors probably did not have detailed guidance. And no one along the way said "stop" this is not what we want, until after the fact.

Meade Avenue's undergrounding was a nightmare for residents - the out-of-town contractor left broken sidewalks, driveways, curbs, sprinklers and damage to cars and property that people had to sue or fight with SDG&E to get fixed. The contractor filled in the clay trenches they dug out with sand and the trenches are still unstable - you can see the street collapsing next to the south edge as the channel continues to settle. Those ugly boxes are a minor aggravation compared to having the contractor flip you off and leave town, the utility company side with the contractor and your elected rep not return calls. The trenches they dug up to home utility boxes also continue to change shape. We didn't have the courtesy of meetings or the benefit of organization, so Kensington, you're doing a good job of getting yourselves heard. Customers have already paid the cost of this, the undergrounding money was part of your utility bill, BTW.

You should ask the city to do a soil study before they start. The botched water and sewer job nightmare on 33rd St. happened because when the contractor dug down below the clay they found supporting soil so unstable they literally had to fill the trenches every night so they wouldn't shift around and destroy the day's work overnight. The city hadn't done the soil study beforehand and handed the contractor a job without the info the contractor needed.

I hope the advisory group follows through on the entire project, including removal of the bare poles once the utilities are underground.

Remember the old saying: "A camel is a horse designed by a committee." The main problem with utility boxes is that taggers love the "canvas" and tag away! Artists do decorate many of them, but even those eventually get tagged.

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