Part one of a two-part story

Sliced in two for four decades after the Highway 101 freeway was built, Downtown Ventura and the nearby oceanfront took the first steps to reconnect this week.

A kick-off meeting was held this week between a number of departments from the the city of Ventura and a consultant it hired to help design improvements for pedestrian walkways along the California Street bridge crossing the 101.

“It’s a drag that the state chose to put the freeway through the heart of the downtown,” said Jerry Breiner, a realtor who chairs the design and operation committee of the Dwntown Ventura Organization. Breiner and the DVO have been vocal supporters of efforts to connect Downtown with the beach, including the proposed pedestrian improvements.

“There’s no end to the possibilities,” he said.

The improvements could draw beachgoers from the sand to the shops and restaurants of Downtown, while luring more shoppers and diners with the promise of easier access to the shore.

“It’s incredibly important for us as residents as well as consumers to be able to access the beach comfortably from Downtown,” said Seana-Marie Weaver, a Downtown merchant whose wine bar is located on California Street two blocks north of the bridge.

Accessing the beach from Downtown isn’t particularly comfortable right now. To cross the 101, Pedestrians have to use a sidewalk on the West side of California street. Although it meets standard sidewalk width requirements, the walkway seems narrower to many. The railing over the bridge is only a few feet high and freeway traffic whooshes by, causing many to crowd the far side of the sidewalk. Because traffic exiting the northbound lanes of the freeway onto California is unrestricted, the bridge is closed to pedestrian traffic on its East side.

Working with HDR Engineering, the Neb.-based consultant hired by the city to help plan the improvements, local officials hope to figure out how to make the bridge more comfortable and attractive to pedestrians without compromising its structural integrity.

“Right now there are a couple of fairly big problems,” Ventura Traffic and Transportation Engineer Tom Mericle said. “It’s a fairly noisy experience. You get impacted by the freeway quite a bit.”

Mericle said the city has anecdotal reports of guests at the Crowne Plaza Hotel — located at the South end of California Street next to the beach — who prefer to get in their cars and drive the few short blocks to Downtown instead of walking. Meanwhile, he said, visitors to Downtown are not taking advantage of the coastal location touted by Ventura boosters.

“If you come down and have dinner in downtown and you’re staying outside of the Downtown it doesn’t really encourage or inspire you to walk to the beach because the most direct way to get there is across this bridge that is maybe functionally okay, but has no aesthetic or redeeming value at all,” he said.

In addition to creating a new barrier and widening the sidewalk, Mericle said, the city has hired artist Michael Davis to conceptualize a public art component to the bridge. City officials, Davis, and HDR will spend the next 9-12 months on the design process for the pedestrian improvements, Mericle said. Because there is a public art piece, the project will go before the city’s public arts commission. There will also be one or two public design-related meetings for Ventura residents to give their input, and the city will also need to get approval from CalTrans, which owns the bridge.

“That process will probably be pretty difficult,” Mericle said. “They don’t always like cities doing things with their bridges.”

The pedestrian improvements come after years in the city’s capital improvement plan. A five-year-old federal grant will pay for $820,000 dollars of the expected $1.4 million cost. The rest of the money will come from gas taxes and transportation development act funds that are paid for by a statewide quarter-cent sales tax.