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Abundant facilities for pedestrians turn Otay Ranch into a walker's paradise

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Ever since the car became America's favored mode of transportation, pedestrian facilities have been neglected. Some arterials are as intimidating to pedestrians as strolling along a freeway. Major intersections can be gargantuan and nearly impossible to cross. Sidewalks can be unkempt, dangerous or downright ugly. Other streets don't even have sidewalks or are so out-of-human scale that pedestrians feel unwelcome and out-of-place.

Otay Ranch's numerous parks, paseos, trails, tree-sheltered sidewalks and gathering spaces, such as Heritage Towne Center (above), contribute to its pedestrian-friendly ambiance.

It's no wonder that Americans often shun the easiest exercise available -- walking.

Not so in Otay Ranch, a South County planned community lauded for its pedestrian-friendly ambiance.

"One of the primary objectives of the Otay Ranch plan was to create a pedestrian network that encouraged walking and made it easy for pedestrians to traverse the community," said Kim Kilkenny, executive vice president, who has been involved in the planning of Otay Ranch since 1988. "For example, in our first village of Heritage, beautifully landscaped paseos, designed specifically for walkers and bikers, create short-cuts through the community. Promenade streets with extra-wide sidewalks are flanked by parkways and street trees. A village pathway for pedestrians, bicyclists and electric carts connects various villages within Otay Ranch.

"From the beginning of the planning process, we recognized that pedestrians on the street affect the very nature of a community -- creating places that are friendlier, healthier, safer and environmentally sound."

This summer will mark two additional elements of the community's ever-expanding pedestrian plan. Two pedestrian bridges, both spanning the six-lane Olympic Parkway, will open in July. A 540-foot-long bridge will link Otay Ranch High School with the village of Heritage. Another 414-foot-long bridge will connect the villages of Countryside and Hillsborough. Both bridges are being developed by The Otay Ranch Co. in conjunction with the city of Chula Vista and the Sweetwater Union High School District at a total cost of $5 million.

Secondly, an innovative program is under way at Otay Ranch's Heritage Elementary School where a "Walking School Bus" is about to be launched. Designed to encourage youngsters to walk to school on a regular basis, the Walking School Bus program involves children being led to and/or from school by two screened adult volunteer walkers. The children are picked up and dropped off at pre-scheduled points in the neighborhood. The program, a collaborative effort of Heritage Elementary, the Chula Vista Elementary School District (CVESD) and the city of Chula Vista, is being developed as a prototype for the District's 43 elementary schools.

"The Walking School Bus is the ideal vehicle for encouraging the walking habit," said Kilkenny. "And, Otay Ranch is the perfect venue for the pilot program. In Heritage, the elementary school is located in the village core, within walking distance of most homes in the village. Our land plan is so pedestrian-oriented that many youngsters can walk to school by crossing only one street."

Otay Ranch's pedestrian-friendly village design has not gone unnoticed.

The plan for Otay Ranch has been hailed by the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) and the Urban Land Institute for its "smart growth" elements.

"We're particularly happy to receive these awards because they focus on the pedestrian-friendly nature of Otay Ranch," said Kilkenny. "The village core that forms the nucleus of each village represents a visionary approach to modern-day suburban development. These awards attest to the fact that we have put heart back into community development, while at the same time encouraging public transportation, reducing reliance on automobiles, and saving precious resources."

The village of Heritage was the first village completed within the company's 5,300-acre community. The design of Heritage's centralized village core enables more than half of its residents to live within walking distance of the village's public spaces and transit center. In addition to Heritage Elementary, the village core features Heritage Park, a popular 10-acre city park with a community center, and Heritage Towne Center, a mixed-use development featuring more than 40,000 square feet of retail shops, services, eateries and a daycare facility at street level. The upper two levels of the mixed-use center provide 90 affordable apartments for seniors and behind the complex are 180 affordable family apartments. Heritage's village core also includes a 67,000-square-foot medical facility.

Subsequent villages such as Countryside, Hillsborough and the future village of Montecito exhibit the same principles that have made Heritage a national model for smart growth and a walker's paradise.

Information on the community is available online at otayranch.com.

Metz is principal of Metz Public Relations.

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