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Beach community grows while keeping small-town feel

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On the 1st of July, the city of Solana Beach had a birthday. It turned the ripe old age of 25.

To celebrate, some of the city’s 13,000 residents gathered at a brand new building that sits on a high bluff overlooking a picturesque park filled with palm trees and waves crashing below.

The grand opening of that building, the renovated Fletcher Cove Community Center, capped off 25 years of development that has taken Solana Beach from a small residential community to a full grown city with its own shopping, dining and tourist attractions.

Prior to 1986, Solana Beach was part of unincorporated San Diego County, but that year its residents voted to form their own city. A charter was established, laying out a government of a city council and city manager, with the mayor's position rotating between the council members.

A lot has happened since then.

An aerial view of Solana Beach, highlighting the rail line and Cedros Avenue, taken in 1950. After World War II, Solana Beach, like a good portion of California, experienced rapid growth. Photo courtesy of Solana Beach Civic and Historical Society

As the current mayor, Lesa Heebner, drives through her small city in a white Lexus with a vanity plate that reads “LLLLESA,” she points out redesigned boutiques, restaurants and community buildings as if she were showing off a newly decorated home. Throughout the big changes, the city has strived to keep its “funky beach feel,” she said.

The city’s incorporation made this development possible, because it allowed shop owners to work with the local government to put in gutters and curbs, Heebner said. It also kept revenue from sales tax from being diverted to the rest of the county and allowed the local government to have complete authority over development.

In 1991, Solana Beach built one of its two community centers in La Colonia and its fire station — Heebner said she picked out its color scheme of peach walls and a burnt red roof.

"I drive past it every day, and I said, 'If I'm going to be looking at it, I want it to look nice,'" she said.

Four years later, in 1995, another big change came to Solana Beach. The Santa Fe train station moved there from Del Mar, bringing more shoppers, visitors and tourists.

The city's landmark train station, built in 1995 from an old airplane hangar, between North Cedros Avenue and Highway 101. Photo by Jim McGinn, randomactsofexposure.com

This development called for a new train station. San Diego architect Rob Wellington Quigley ended up designing the building, giving it an arched roof and paneled windows to somewhat mirror the airplane hangar-style buildings found a few blocks away.

Those other hangars, which Heebner said are retrofitted leftovers from World War II, house shops, bars and restaurants along South Cedros Avenue, Solana Beach’s commercial strip. One of those spots, the Belly Up Tavern, hosts performers like Chris Isaak, Aimee Mann and Cherry Poppin' Daddies and is regularly voted one of the best places to hear live music in San Diego.

The South Cedros Avenue area used to be industrial, but about 13 years ago it began to change to a shopping district, Heebner said. Cedros Gardens, a plant nursery, was one of the first businesses to spring up. It occupies an old single-family home built in 1926, and was changed into a store by Mia McCarville, its owner.

Other shops and cafes along the street, including Chicweed, Zinc Café and even the chain pet store Muttropolis, also sit in small unattached houses.

“I love these funky little houses,” Heebner said. “We think they’re great and we hope they stay.”

Another major project, the Coastal Rail Trail, came from a grassroots effort that launched Heebner’s city council career.

The plan was to lower the train tracks and add a dirt trail for walkers and runners, but the “original design the council was considering did not feel like our community,” she said.

Heebner worked with the council to change the design and the trail was completed in 2003. Spanning Solana Beach’s 1.7 miles along Highway 101, it features a gravel path, landscaped shrubbery, pedestrian bridges connecting to Cedros Avenue and tiled arches designed by artist Betsy Schultz that depict the city's history.

Similar mosaics, also created by Schultz, are also found outside the city’s brand new community center at Fletcher Cove.

Next on Heebner’s agenda is extending the South Cedros feeling to North Cedros, where the train station is, by making the intersection connecting the two more walkable. In January the city renewed a stalled partnership with the North County Transit District to move parking for the train station underground, allowing room for a mixed-used development.

The city will also use $5.5 million in TransNet funding to add bike lanes, traffic circles, wider sidewalks and possibly reverse-angle parking to the South Cedros district, Heebner said. The project will go out to bid in November.

With all the changes Solana Beach has seen, it seemed difficult for Heebner, a resident for more than 30 years, to remember what her community was like before it became an official city. When asked what had changed in the city's 25 years, she responded with a hearty laugh.

"Everything," she said.

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