Looking out on 4th Ave. in Bankers Hill, San Diego. Photo by Patrick Carr
Looking out on 4th Ave. in Bankers Hill, San Diego. Photo by Patrick Carr

by Patrick Carr | SDSU student

Every morning, San Diego’s downtown and highways are clogged with commuters going to work. That puts a lot of pollution in the air around the community of Bankers Hill.

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Key points:
1. CalEnviroScreen data shows Bankers Hill as one of the least polluted areas in San Diego
2. The constant winds are the main reason for Bankers Hill air quality being relatively good
3. There are still certain problem spots, mainly by Interstate-5

The neighborhood is perched on a hill overlooking downtown San Diego and San Diego Bay. It is surrounded on three sides by major highways, and overhead, airplanes fly to and from San Diego International Airport, which also put pollution in the air.

Bankers Hill sees constant wind, leading to ‘good’ air

CalEnviroScreen is a report released by the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment that looked at air quality data in California. In its October 2014 update, it identified Bankers Hill as one of San Diego’s neighborhoods with generally good air quality.

Why? It’s the wind.

“When I go outside, I can walk down a couple blocks and look at the Pacific and you can feel the air coming in, you’re high enough to get some of the breezes,” said Leo Wilson, chairman of Uptown Planners, which, according to its website, serves as an advisory board to the city regarding land use in Bankers Hill and other nearby neighborhoods.

The breeze that comes in from the ocean, which is just five miles to the west and San Diego Bay is immediately southwest.

Data analysis from WeatherSpark, a website that archives annual weather conditions and patterns on the West Coast, shows the winds into Bankers Hill mostly come from the west and northwest.

Interstate-5 traffic is constant, meaning the pollutants from it go straight toward Bankers Hill, which one might think would be a recipe for asthma.

But when pollutants such as black carbon rise into the air, the wind works to break up those particulates, making them less concentrated and therefore, less harmful.

Natural landscape a detriment in one part of Bankers Hill

There are some spots with air quality problems in Bankers Hill, such as the area south of Laurel Street, with the I-5 to the south and west, and the area on the western edge of Bankers Hill, near Reynard Way between Falcon St. and Arroyo Dr.

San Diego on CalEnviroScreen's air quality map
San Diego on CalEnviroScreen’s air quality map

Reynard Way is the street farthest west in Bankers Hill with a big hill that runs all the way along it. The I-5 is on the other side of the hill, and people might think the hill protects that part of the neighborhood from potential air pollutants.

Kevin Robinson, a lecturer in SDSU’s Department of Geological Sciences, says that’s not necessarily the case because the hill, combined with the winds, creates a kind of “eddy” effect that recycles the same polluted air.

“When it goes over the top of that hill there’s going to be this little curling of air, so it’s going to have a bit of an effect on putting the pollutants down into that little valley,” Robinson said.

However, it appears the pollutants aren’t making much of an impact, according to CalEnviroScreen maps. That part of the neighborhood near the I-5 on the west is shaded green, meaning it’s better than most parts, unlike the south tip of Bankers Hill that’s shaded red, the color code for severe pollution. Balboa Park, situated to the east, is shaded yellow and represents a midpoint of sorts.

Past issues and future plans

Air quality was at the center of a legal battle from 2004-06 when Bankers Hill, Hillcrest, Park West Community Preservation Group filed a petition for a writ of mandate, alleging the city had violated the California Environment Quality Act (CEQA) by approving a 14-story residential complex, without first conducting an environmental review.

The neighborhoods were upset that the land developer, Martinez + Cutri Corporation, had begun shoring, grading and excavating the site without proper approval.

The City Council granted the developer an exemption to CEQA and the Preservation Group’s second writ of mandate was denied in court in 2004. Eventually, the court ruled against the appeal, and the apartment building was built at 3415 6th Ave. in San Diego.

In Bankers Hill, Wilson said, the city has discussed establishing nonresidential zones near the highways, something that’s also been discussed in the neighborhood of Barrio Logan due to its significant issues with air pollution.

Click here to see more from “What’s in the Air”

Patrick Carr was enrolled in San Diego State’s “What’s in the Air” sensor journalism class in Spring 2015.

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