Question growth

Enough of the growth rhetoric: it's got to stop sometime. The question is, will what's left be worth having?

by Chris Klein

s a third-generation San Diegan, I was raised with many stories about the earlier days of the city, around the turn of the century. My grandfather belonged to a group known as the Heaven on Earth Club. It's purpose, as I recall, was to promote San Diego's benefits and encourage folks to come here. Kind of a forerunner of a Chamber of Commerce, but the name probably better expresses the spirit of their undertaking.

Around 1910, when my grandfather first moved here, this certainly made sense. You've probably seen some San Diego Historical Archive early photos of the city in banks, post offices and businesses. A few buildings here and there, lots of dirt roads. Mission Bay as a mud flat. Lots of space to grow, with room to spare.

Growth was good. More people meant more businesses and services. An increasing tax base allowed little luxuries like paved streets, police and fire services, water and sewers. Growth meant prosperity and an improved quality of life. Heaven on Earth got a little nicer with every passing year.

As with many principles we live with, the "growth is good" mantra became integrated into our national psyche. Images of the hearty pioneers carving civilization out of the wilderness, and all that. All fine and good at that time and place.

But a strange thing happens to truths like these: they become imperatives. "Growth is good" becomes "Growth is necessary." And, like any unexamined belief we hold closely, we will defend it to the death.

Well, maybe not death. But it has the momentum of a 100 ton freight train roaring along at 80 miles per hour; it's not going to stop on a dime, and if your car is stuck on the tracks, it's recycling time.

The problem is, what was appropriate for 1910, or 1945, or (arguably) 1970 is not necessarily appropriate today.

My parents lived for 40 years in a house my father built in 1951, at the foot of Mt. Soledad. The road in front of the house wasn't paved until years later. Our neighborhood had a rural feeling. (When you're a kid, nothing is better than canyons to climb around in.) In fact, except for friends living in the new-fangled housing projects like Clairemont, everyone I knew lived in a neighborhood with a rural atmosphere.

The change from rural to suburb happened very slowly. First, the paved road. Then, someone got the idea of building houses on Mt. Soledad (imagine!). Then, lots more traffic on our street, and lots more houses. The canyons disappeared, and stores and gas stations appeared. It happened so slowly that it was only many years later that, looking back, I could see it at all.

But, looking back, it seems to me that the turning point for this little bit of Heaven was around 1970 - the point at which growth started to undermine our quality of life. I'm hard pressed to find anything good to say about San Diego's growth since then, anything that has personally improved life for me. How about you? And, the negative effects are legion: traffic, pollution, noise, crowding, long lines, etc. And, with the exception of a few protected (and expensive) areas, that precious rural neighborhood atmosphere is almost gone.

By a stroke of good fortune, you will have an opportunity on the November ballot to help preserve some of the few remaining pieces of undeveloped land in the county. While the Rural Heritage and Watershed Initiative will not stop development entirely, it will limit development in these precious areas to 40- or 80-acre parcels.

This Initiative may slow it down a little, but the growth freight train rumbles on. What will be the next little piece of Heaven to go? Well, on the same ballot you will be asked to sanctify the next act of destruction. Two new housing projects in the Future Urbanizing Area of North County require voter approval to move forward (see A Tale of Two Developments). And the monied interests are stoking the boilers, big time. They'll roll out all kinds of statistics (as in "lies, damned lies and ...") to prove their points. SANDAG will tell you a million people will move to San Diego in the next decade and you've got to have a place for them to live. The builders will disingenuously decry the need for affordable housing. Business will say, you've got to grow or the economy will take a big hit. And so on.

I'm sorry, this just doesn't move me anymore. Unlimited growth is the mode of the cancer cell. At some point, growth does have to stop. Will it stop because we've reduced Heaven to Hell, and no one wants to come here anymore? Or, will it stop because we say so?

I wish I could take you back to 1950 or 1960 and show you what we've lost, as an example of what we still stand to lose. But I can't. So take a trip to Los Angeles and see if that's what you want. That's what you get when you don't limit growth, and that's just where the train is headed.

Voting for the Rural Heritage and Watershed Initiative and against the Future Urbanizing Area developments isn't going to stop growth. But let's put a car on the tracks and see if we can at least slow the sucker down.