The former Jack in the Box and Chevron station Caltrans recently acquired and fenced is making the entrance to San Juan Capistrano’s historic downtown look a little “scary,” local city and business leaders said.
Caltrans officials met for a cup of coffee Monday at Hidden House Coffee to brief the community on the upcoming the Ortega Highway Interchange overhaul, anticipated to begin construction in February.
Late last month, Caltrans took possession of the Jack in the Box and Chevron station at the corner of Ortega Highway and Del Obispo Street and immediately fenced them off. The new look isn’t winning rave reviews.
“It gives the impression of abandonment rather than there’s a freeway [project] going on. It makes downtown look scary,” said Councilwoman Laura Freese told the state officials.
Freese has created a group she’s calling the Economic Preservation Committee to make life better for local businesses during the two-year construction project that will close off- and on-ramps at night and reduce the Ortega bridge over the I-5 in half.
The committee is coming up with banners to put up at sites the state condemns to make way for the bigger interchange. Freese shared an image of one Monday that will read: “Watch Our Progress Revitalizing Our Historic Community.”
But the fact that there are no lights where once brightly lit businesses once operated makes Ortega very dark and ominous, said John Gillotti, owner of Mission Grill.
“San Juan is known as a one-exit town, and that’s Ortega,” Gillotti said. “All you have is one little street light above a traffic signal. We have a darkened entry into town."
He added the way the closing of the fast food restaurant and gas station was handled doesn’t bode well for how business owners will receive the project.
David Richardson, a spokesman for Caltrans, said the agency has a small amount of money to help get the word out and inform motorists of any traffic hiccups.
Freese said her committee has many designs for those funds, both for signage and maybe even a trolley that could shuttle visitors from an outlying parking lot to downtown.
But Richardson said that the funds are limited, and the state can’t go too overboard or cities with other Caltrans projects will start demanding the same. There are also limitations preventing the state agency from promoting one business over another.
Caltrans has set up a website which will include daily updates once the project is under way.