Still Smarting

by Carolyn Chase


Cut to the Chase #74 for May 3, 1999

Still Smarting

"You could put everyone in this country in California and there would be plenty of land left over," declared Randal O'Toole, senior economist of the Thoreau Institute, at last week's Building Industry Association half-day conference entitled "San Diego's Continued Prosperity: Threats & Solutions for Jobs & Housing."

There's a vision, I thought. As Roger Hedgecock, former San Diego mayor and now billed as "San Diego's "radio mayor" on his weekday talkshow, put it, "We've been debating growth forever here and we will continue to debate it."

Henry David Thoreau, one of America's first environmentalists, wrote that in wildness is the preservation of the world. Less well remembered is that he began his famous essay "Civil Disobedience" in 1849 with: "I heartily accept the motto, that government is best which governs least; and I should like to see it acted upon more rapidly and systematically."

Inspired both by Henry David Thoreau's love of the natural world and his dislike of big government, the Oregon-based Thoreau Institute seeks ways to protect the environment without regulation, bureaucracy, or central control.

On a panel moderated by Hedgecock entitled "Growth, How Smart Are We?" O'Toole managed to infuriate some and incite others. "An a native Oregonian, we used to say: say 'Don't Californicate Oregon!' I'm here to warn you: Don't Oreganize San Diego! In Oregon, we've been adopting smart growth plans for several years. I've experienced how it works. We had a planner today saying some things, but the problem is, the planners in Oregon said the same things and they were lies.

"Smart growthers promise: reduced congestion; reduced pollution; saved open space; reduced taxes and infrastructure costs; and
affordable housing.

"In Oregon, all five of those things were 100% wrong. I'm not very happy with 'smart growth.' The fundamental problem is planners. They are good at two things: surpluses of things people don't want, and decreases of things they do want. Take away the planners power. The choice today is not between smokestacks and geraniums, but between freedom and authoritarian government control."

Continuing his planner-bashing approach, O'Toole later remarked, "Every plan they've written in the past has failed, but still they ask for more power and authority. We need to find alternatives to planning because planning always failed."

Panelist A.J. Wilson, San Diego Coordinator of the Local Government Commission rose in defense. "That's preposterous! Some of us work for a living and some of us go around making money promoting problems. There have been planning mistakes, but there are examples that work. To play these games about planning and planners all being bad is below where this level of dialogue needs to be."

Wilson's presentation pointed out that "Smart Growth is not:
1. Phony "return to yesterday" planning.
2. Attempted reduction of property owners rights.
3. An "ism" of any sort."

Wilson stated, "Why we have unaffordable housing is because people want to live here. ... what drives costs is the market ... not planning. You can make a living fighting against a plan. But I would suggest that we need to find ways to continue to have San Diego be an attractive place to invest your money so people will continue to want to live here. Smart Growth does not need to be politically managed growth. But if it's not going to be, it needs to be a partnership. ... like the recent propositions (K & M) on the ballot that resulted in increased units and the ability to create new products that were accepted."

Keynote speaker Carl Guardino, President of the Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group, shared how their region faces similar challenges: rising housing prices, low vacancy rates (1 bd. 2ba is $1659/month with a 3% vacancy rate) and rising traffic congestion. Each year, he asks his Board of 27 CEOs of major Silicon Valley firms, representing one-third of the 250,000 jobs in the area: "What are the top issues that impact your ability to stay healthy?" and "Project out five years; if those issues are not addressed what do you see as the issues of the future?"

The # 1 issue this year is: housing affordable to working families. Issue # 2 is traffic conditions. Issues #3 and #4 are quality of life and a sound education system. (It is interesting to note that these top four issues do not include taxes.) Housing and traffic are 1 and 2. When he asked them to project out five years, they found the same issues. If we don't tackle those issues, they will continue to burden our health and prosperity.

Their solutions? Ongoing relationship-building, education, and an integrated approach to the four critical elements for building support for successful planning: housing, transportation, land use and the environment.

Guardino noted, "We have to address them all together EVERY time we do things. We cannot address them separately, or you will have the four horsemen of the apocalypse. If you do address them in an integrated fashion, then you can sustain a healthy economy. But you need vision along with the values and also a voice. Build coalitions. Speak out."

Randall Crane, an Associate Professor of Urban Planning and Economics at UC Irvine, commented, "I'm pretty positive about Smart Growth. Essentially, it's good planning. If we're going to grow, we should grow in a responsible manner - which means different things to different people. But one thing it surely means is coalition building and working in more integrated ways. The devil is in the details. . . . It's easy to fault planners for how they try to proceed. We have met the planners and they are us, to cite Pogo. It's not a question of how smart the plans are, but how smart the planners are, including us."

Elected officials participating in a combined panel with industry included San Diego Deputy Mayor Byron Wear, Chula Vista Mayor Shirley Horton, Carlsbad Mayor Bud Lewis and County Supervisor Ron Roberts.

Roberts, sounding very mayoral, stated, "It is clear to me we have to create a new urban vision for San Diego," and "Vice President Gore ought to be looking at Smart Growth to send the dollars back here to do some things. Give us the dollars and I promise we can provide livable communities and alternatives to the sprawl we don't want to have happen."

Coming back to Thoreau: "But, to speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves no-government men, I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government. Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.