Who Wants It?

by Carolyn Chase


Smart growth or dumb growth, it all boils down to where's it gonna go and who's paying for what? The City of San Diego has undertaken a process of updating its General Plan, "the map for future development."

Part one of this update is to create a "Strategic Framework Element", a 20-year vision and strategy for San Diego. The City refers to it as "a blueprint for our future -- a statement of goals, objectives and philosophies for future San Diegans to follow." Unfortunately, it comes nowhere near the level of detail of any "blueprint." It does however, play an important role in how the City's going to grow.

The City is posing the question thusly:

"Estimates are that the city's population will grow by 450,000 over the next 20 years, yet less than 12 of the city's open land is available for development. This update will revise the General Plan to accommodate this growth

"To achieve the projected SANDAG 2020 forecast, the existing policies (current City community plans applied over the 1995-2020 period), would need to increase from approximately 124,000 housing units to 177,500 housing units, representing a 43% increase. The following Draft Alternative Growth Strategies were developed to accomplish this increase of 53,500 housing units beyond current City residential designations."

As part of the process, the City has posted several worthwhile documents at their website, http://www.ci.san-diego.ca.us/general-plan

It includes a draft of something called the "Combined Values Statement" which has been created via a citizens and interest-group process. It begins with lofty statements typical of consensus processes:

We value the city's extraordinary setting, defined by its open
spaces, natural habitat and unique topography.

  • The natural environment shall dictate the City's form.
  • Buildings and landscapes shall reflect the endemic natural environment.

We value walkable, tree-lined communities Promote an interconnected street network.Oops. You don't get too far down the list before you run into conflicting values. For instance, do we devalue the vast majority of San Diego that is unwalkable and dominated by cul-du-sacs? Promoting "an interconnected street network" can conflict directly with the value: " The natural environment shall dictate the City's form." Streets cannot "interconnect" across parklands where they "dictate the City's form." There are likely places where it makes sense to take out a few cul-de-sacs and interconnect some streets, but most of the battles surrounding "interconnections" of streets have to do with running a road across a park or canyon or otherwise pushing traffic into areas where it's not wanted.

I hope there will be a process to reconcile specific examples against this set of values. Otherwise it risks becoming an "everything to everybody" exercise where conflicts are soothed over by rhetoric rather than resolved via negotiations.

The City is focusing on 4 preferred scenarios:

  • SANDAG's "Smart Growth" Alternative
  • A City of Villages
  • Strong Core with Subregional Centers
  • Expanded Downtown Core

You cal also vote on these alternatives and send comments at: www.sannet.gov/general-plan/get-involved/survey.shtml

The evidently less preferred scenarios include the "Slow Growth" alternative which is being given short shrift in the process. The very way they pose the alternative is biased:

"Slow Growth
Limiting residential growth to the national growth average of 1% per year compared to San Diego's current growth rate of 2% per year (through zoning, growth caps, stringent phasing, and deterring employment growth)"

No mention is suggested about positive policies that could reduce any unwanted growth. Increasing educational opportunities to poor women and children always improves their opportunities to succeed, reduces birth rates, and over time reduces the tax burden on society in the future. Given that SANDAG notes that more than 60% of their forecast growth is from local births, it only makes sense to analyze the policies that could be effective in slowing growth in addition to the "stringent" and "deterring" ones the city notices first. Other benefits to slowing growth are: reduction in tax and infrastructure burdens, less traffic, less water and sewer problems, well, just less. In this case, less is more. And let's not forget that straight line forecasts have a tendency to go up and down. Commitments in "up" times are not always sustainable in the "down" ones.

When I raised the issue that the "slow growth" alternative should be given comparative treatment with other alternatives, staff later came to reassure me that all the alternatives would be equally evaluated in the Environmental Impact Report. What I'm suggesting is that is should be given equal consideration in the public process as well. Without it, they are setting themselves up for a "backlash." They are not going to be able to "sneak" density in around the City.

One planning group member emailed me: "At what point do we say, "enough is enough" and not bother with accommodating increases in population? Do we just keep building and building because SANDAG puts out projections or do we take charge and decide that there is a limit to how much population growth we can sustain?"

I've asked staff when is the City going to go out to every Community Planning Group and ask those bodies how much growth they want? The City of course is afraid of the answers they will get back. It's much easier to engage in a plan to absorb the growth than consider whether the people or the City itself, would benefit from understanding where its real limits to growth truly are.

One of those "limiting factors" happens to be the people who live here and particularly those who take the time and trouble to participate in the community planning processes in the City. Also not to be trifled with are those who get to vote on the tax increases required to fund the shortfalls in infrastructure to sustain our quality of life. Ignore them at your peril.

Without getting a starting map of who and where might be willing to take what, we cannot really understand what's possible in San Diego. We may not like all the answers that come back. But it's better than avoiding them and hoping they will go away because you've held lots of extra meetings with those who could afford the time to go and come up with utopian platitudes. The City needs to get out and on to the agendas of the Planning Group meeting themselves instead of asking for yet another set of additional meetings for them to attend.

It would be better to find out sooner rather than later where the Planning Groups stand. I think we would find that there are Groups that would be willing to accommodate growth in addition to those who will try to slam the doors. Until we know which are which, we are just playing a growth shell game.

You can submit your comments to the City's General Plan Update to: planningsdcity.sannet.gov. or phone the hotline: 619-235-5226.