by Carolyn Chase


et' play the "Match Game" I'll give you a word and you fill in the blank: <blank> growth.

If you filled in "personal," then you still qualify as a honest-to-goodness regular member of the public. If you filled in "no," chances are, you've lived in San Diego more than thirty years and likely have somewhat bitter memories of the infamous "growth management" battles our of region and the establishment of our toothless regional agency, SANDAG. If you filled in "smart," then you are in tune with the latest mantra of political correctness sweeping America.

Last week, Vice-President Al Gore announced the "Livability Agenda." "Livability" issues are of growing importance in many metropolitan areas across the country. Nearly 200 open space and other related initiatives were on ballots last November, and 70 percent of them passed. Key parts of Gore's proposal will provide communities with new funds to help preserve green space, ease traffic congestion, and pursue regional "smart growth" strategies.

According to the Vice President's plan, the proposed Department of Transportation budget for FY 2000 will include a record $6.1 billion for public transit and $2.2 billion -- a total 16 percent increase over FY 1999 -- to implement innovative community-based programs in the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century. Such programs provide flexible support to help communities create regional transportation strategies, improve existing roads and transit, and encourage broader use of alternative
transportation. This includes $1.6 billion for the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program, which supports state and local projects that reduce congestion and improve air quality. To promote regional "smart growth" strategies and to complement the Administration's other regional efforts, the Department of Housing and Urban Development will provide $50 million as matching funds for local partnerships to design and pursue smarter growth strategies across jurisdictional lines. This is welcome news if we can get it through Congress.

Locally, the San Diego Dialogues group has released a briefing paper entitled "Towards Smart Growth for San Diego County" and hosted a well-attended Q&A panel on the topic. The County Board of Supervisors moved to establish a "Smart Growth Coalition" and have a Smart Growth Workshop on March 24th. About 35 speakers gave public testimony most of them offering their enthusiastic support and expertise.

But a curious common element could be found amongst the testimony. Several speakers asked for a definition of "smart growth." Art Madrid, Mayor of La Mesa and Chair of SANDAG, began the trend by noting: "I have a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for dealing with these issues and have used the term "smart growth," but there was snickering...now it's an 'in' term but what does it mean? We need a real definition." Donna Frye, Surfers Tired of Pollution declared, "I would like a definition too, because it does cause me to guffaw a little bit."

It's hard to know at this point whether the snickers and guffaws are triggered by the very notion that we can be smart enough to deal with growth, or whether it's just healthy skepticism. I suspect it's some of both. Attorney Scott Peters, speaking on behalf of the venerable non-profit citizen's planning group C3, called for the Supervisors to "be extremely inclusive. . . particularly include the skeptics and even some no-growthers . . .this will reassure your supporters and calm your critics." Others cited the regional tendency "to degenerate into an emotional war."

The definitions of "smart" in Webster's dictionary may surprise you, as they did me. I was expecting something like: intelligent, reasoned, wise. It turns out that the linguistic roots of smart are from words meaning pain, bite and waste away. Here's what I did find:

smart, adjective: 1. causing a sharp stinging 2: marked by often forceful activity... 3. brisk, spirited 4: mentally alert, bright, sharp in scheming, shrewd, 5: witty, clever, stylish, sophisticated.

Is this evidence for the triumph of marketing over substance? When you have something that just about everyone is already in favor of, but they don't know what it is, watch out. Check your wallet.

The other most frequently used word with respect to growth was "inevitable." The most often repeated phrase was: "growth is the most significant issue facing us." Other keywords included: accommodate, absorb, careless, traffic, water and population. Notably missing were: sustainability, limits and where will this end? Can we expect to be in a room in twenty years asking the same questions - as some of us already were? When will the inevitable answer to the question, "what is smart growth?" - be: "none"? What will bring us to that point? Will people even concede that we must get there at some point ? Is there an upper limit that the Chamber of Commerce would consider for how many people should be "absorbed" or "accommodated"? A lot of people would really like to know. The de facto answer amounting to, "as many as are born here and want to come here," has already lost a great deal of its charm. Mike Madigan, Senior V.P. of Pardee Construction and one of the long term architects of San Diego's development wisely stated, "We needed and need more than benign neglect."

I would be happy if people would concede that we are at least reaching the foreseeable limits on the number of cars we can pack in. When you consider that another million residents means another million cars - or more - under current scenarios, that, at least should give any rational person reason to pause. How could it possibly work? The smart answer? It can't. It won't. Something will have to give.

What normally does give is our quality of life: air quality, longer commutes, more pollution, lost open spaces and farmlands. This has been the pattern of growth directed by the very same interests gathered at local meetings and throughout the state. Madigan also astutely noted, "Where are the next 18 million Caifornians going to live? Unless the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles and San Diego step up to the plate, it will go on to prime farmland - which is just plain stupid!. . .that's the way it's always worked."

We can all cite examples of what "smart growth" is not, but few have experience with what it is and what it takes to achieve it. Although everyone supported calls for a balanced coalition and broad-based participation, most recent participants represented the building and professional trades who have helped get us where we are today and many of those who can expect to profit directly from more growth - smart or not. Should we follow the leadership of the interests who brought us these problems? How smart is that? There is no question that they must be part of the solutions, but they have been clearly a big part of the problem as well.

Ultimately, the comments could best be summed up by the following: "San Diego has a long history of failed planning in these areas. Let's not have this be another wasted planning exercise." Now that would really be smart.