Grow Getters

by Carolyn Chase


t was the kind of day that has tourists decide they want to move here. Nearly 200 people attended a "Smart Growth" workshop convened by County Board of Supervisor members Pam Slater and Ron Roberts. Populated by a large majority of growth boosters and beneficiaries, the stated goal by both Supervisors was to explore solutions to San Diego's growth issues by building coalitions and a workable consensus.

Roberts, an architect by training, architect and naturalist Frank Lloyd Wright, who once said, "A doctor can bury his mistakes, but an architect can only advise his client to plant vines." Roberts continued, "If only it were that simple to remedy the mistakes that decades of bad zoning and planning have imposed on our cities, suburbs and natural landscape. . . If we continue in the same modes, it will in fact erode our quality of life. . .We need a new way to build, a new way to do business. . .We need to present the public with a new paradigm that works and change what people perceive is possible. "

Slater called for us to "conserve our environmental beauty which is why many of us are here to begin with . . . infill blighted areas; encourage employees to live closer to work; reinvest and reduce the outward pressures for sprawl . .Leapfrog development is what we want to contain. . .We want growth to go where we've already made expensive infrastructure investments. We didn't get traffic jams by accident. We got them with careful planning and now we've got to stop that kind of planning."

Planning professionals point out that rarely is the problem poor planning, it's poor implementation. I'd like to point out that the mess we're in is not the result of planning, it's the result of politics.

Decades of experience with San Diego's growth management wars were represented on the panel and in the crowd. The political nature of the process was clear from outset. The first substantive question to the 20-member panel of elected officials, government and industry representatives, civic and environmental groups was: "How will you deal with NIMBYs who oppose all infill?"

After a pregnant pause, the facilitator asked helpfully, "who wants to take this one?" Valerie Stallings, San Diego City Council member, cut to the chase by remarking enthusiastically, "Well, I'm term limited out, so I can say what I want!" Smiles of knowing relief passed amongst panelists and the equally knowing audience laughed at the ironic truth about the nature of growth management. It is at it's heart the essence of local politics.

Harry Mathis, another termed-out City Councilman and veteran of growth battles, observed, "NIMBYs are never going to go away and people will always deflect that they are in fact NIMBYs, but this is how government works. People represent their own self interests and it's up to us to sort it out."

Slater, whose district has perhaps the most NIMBYs of any place in the county noted, "Who are NIMBY's really? They are you and me and people who want to protect their quality of life. Name calling is not useful. We need to address their concerns. We need good examples of how it's done well because people do remember the past mistakes...Our General Plan needs to integrate all of the components of growth so that we have a comprehensive rather than piecemeal plan for dealing with San Diego's anticipated population increase of one million new residents."

Another sticky question arose: "What can be done to distribute growth equitably?"

Erik Bruvold, director of governmental relations for the San Diego Economic Development Corporation, stated, "Increased density should happen in proximity to new jobs for easier commutes. Transportation is directly related to land-use policies. If we continue the same way, nothing's going to work....I don't know that it's bad planning, but it's likely fragmented planning. Look at a simple example - increasing density around transit. It's fine to put transit in - but if surrounding zoning does not match, then the density won't be able to go there. It's like giving each room of a house to a different architect and then expecting it to work. It simply will not work. . . Until people can do the things they need to do by walking or other means, they will stay in their cars. Until we locate opportunities to do things in close proximity, people won't get out of their cars because what they need to requires them to be in their cars.

Eric Bowlby, Chapter Chair of the San Diego Sierra Club, noted that "part of the disincentive to using alternatives to the car is that it takes so much time to get where you are going. If you can save people time, they will use it and pay for it."

Slater cautioned, "When you are thinking about mass transit - think about yourself - what would you use? I often ask folks who are promoting mass transit if they use it - and most often they don't - they are promoting it for someone else. Slater further called on the Board to request the Governor to direct state funding to projects in urban areas rather than to project which encourage sprawl. Locally, she would "like our region to adopt a 'Live and work in your community' strategy... if only 300 companies moved 10 people each closer to home, 6,000 trips could be removed from rush hour traffic."

Transportation is not the only sector stuck in our poor paradigm of working without design standards and with politics as the substitute for planning.

Slater also observed, "As a region, we have gotten into the bad habit of ignoring our infrastructure until the situation is critical, patching it up, and ignoring it again. This establishes a dangerous cycle and is not conducive to long-range planning. We need to explore ways to break this pattern."

Attendees divided into work teams in six pre-determined areas: housing, transportation, employment & economic development
environmental preservation, schools, parks, libraries, and water resources & availability.

Roberts best captured the political optimism of the region's growth-promoting forces: "San Diego County is at a critical crossroads. What is unique about this moment in time is that people are willing to work together to actually come up with solutions that provide a balance between preserving our environmental and maintaining opportunities for our economy."

The plan is for the work teams to report back at a "Regional Growth Forum" later this year to present their findings. It's too soon to tell whether this process will repeat the mistakes of the past or learn from them.