Neighborhoods, public facilities and planning

by Nico Calavita

  oney magazine's 14th annual ranking of the nation's best places to live has declared Portland the winner. This will come as no surprise to the endless stream of planners, urbanists, politicians, and public administrators from all over the world who travel to Portland to learn how to make their own cities "livable," i.e., prosperous in the global economy while maintaining a high quality of life for all of their citizens. What they learn is that Portland's livability was not achieved overnight or at the behest of a few powerful actors. In fact, Portland's commitment to limit growth around its periphery by funneling development toward its center dates back at least three decades and has been sustained throughout this time by a growing network of environmental, business, farming, community development, and affordable housing organizations. It is no accident that Portland is considered the model for effective urban planning and growth management.


Once upon a time


There was a time when San Diego claimed that honor. In 1979, the city adopted a "tier" approach to growth management, a strategy that, as in Portland, encouraged infill and denser development in the already urbanized communities by not assessing fees for development; major new growth was to be accommodated in the "planned urbanizing" tier, where all capital facilities (the parks, libraries, schools, streets, etc.) would be financed through fees paid by the developers. And, to phase growth, a "future urbanizing" tier was established, outlying areas to be kept off-limits to development for at least 25 years.

During the early 1980s, San Diego's growth management strategy seemed to be working well. Infill development proceeded at a brisk pace in the urbanized communities and, following a spate of legal wrangling, "facilities benefit assessment" fees were collected from developers to pay for public infrastructure in the planned urbanizing tier. According to a San Diego planning department document, the city was "considered a model for effective management of growth."

But sic transit gloria mundi. Bowing to developer pressure and in violation of its own growth management policies, the city council began approving projects in the future urbanizing tier. Overcoming a 10-to-one financial handicap vis-a-vis the developers, enraged citizens initiated and passed a ballot initiative in 1985 that transferred final authority for development in the future urbanizing tier out of the hands of the city council and directly to the voters.

At the same time, the rapid surge in growth of the mid-1980s had serious repercussions in the urbanized neighborhoods. One after another, single family neighborhoods were invaded by multifamily buildings, many of them insensitively designed, and community facilities were overwhelmed by the onslaught of newcomers. Not until 1987 did the city council began imposing fees on new development in the urbanized communities -- too little and too late -- to avert a huge shortfall in public facilities.

Since that time, the city has done practically nothing to address this deficit. A few years ago, long-term community activist and former planning commissioner, Verna Quinn, lamented that "uncontrolled, unplanned, haphazard infill has left a legacy of deficient parks, lack of schools and general deterioration with increased social problems and crime. No one was watching or listening during the decade all this took place -- and now the city is faced with a major problem which will require long-term remediation and huge commitments of public resources." How huge? The city's most recent estimate for funding the backlog of parks and recreation, transportation, fire, and library needs is $2.5 billion. Yes, that's $ with a "b."


Detailing the deficit


The deficit in public facilities in the urbanized communities is grave at many levels. For starters, consider these two:

1) Equity

If the most important function of local government is the equitable distribution and provision of public facilities and services to its citizens, then San Diego has failed miserably. Public facilities deficits plague San Diego's older, urbanized neighborhoods south of Route 52, where most of the minority, lower-income population of the city is concentrated. Newer communities, on the other hand, enjoy public facilities that actually exceed city standards. Although built with developers' fees, they go on to exact a disproportionate share of the city budget for ongoing maintenance and operation.

San Diego's delinquent urban policy intensifies an ominous drift toward becoming a socially, economically, and racially fractured city. Contrast the San Diego situation with that of Portland where, as a result of deliberate, long-established neighborhood conservation policies that emphasize housing rehabilitation and quotidian amenities, older residential neighborhoods are well-served by public facilities, socially integrated, and successfully competitive with the suburbs. Furthermore, Portland has accrued many side benefits of those policies, including active civic participation and enhanced potential for consensus, and hence for good planning. It is a city that works precisely because it works for everybody.

2) Quality of Life

Our public facilities deficit hampers the possibilities for "smart growth" -- limiting sprawl at the periphery of the region while encouraging development, through densification and infill, in the already urbanized communities, thus preserving open space in the "back country" and reducing overall public infrastructure costs. Portland's long-term strategy of investment in its urbanized communities exemplifies smart growth. But while the city of San Diego has embarked on a similar strategy of densification to accommodate approximately 400,000 more people in the next 20 years, we have not answered a pivotal question. How can we ask the urbanized communities to accommodate the brunt of growth when they lack essential facilities? Without realistic investment to revitalize these areas, we're setting ourselves up for disaster.

With the development of a new Strategic Framework Element of the General Plan, the magnitude of the problem will inevitably be laid bare, as neighborhoods confront proposals for increased densification in the absence of adequate funding plans for needed parks, libraries, sidewalks, etc. Compared to other California cities, our general fund revenues are low. In San Diego, it amounts to $425 per capita, about half that in Los Angeles or San Francisco. Our business tax and hotel taxes are among the lowest in the state. We are the only city in the region that does not charge a separate fee for refuse collection. Will the new mayor and council have the political courage to revisit these and other "sacred cows"?

With the city already scrambling for revenues for problematic projects like the downtown ballpark, the revitalization of the neighborhoods represents more than a planning and financial challenge for the city. To the citizens of San Diego, it will be the litmus test of whether our newly elected officials will choose to balance the influence of powerful special interests with a more inclusive conception of the public interest. How will they respond now that the campaign rhetoric is over? Will they join their predecessors in attempting to sweep this gargantuan dilemma under the rug? Or will they choose urban infrastructure as their top priority? To do otherwise risks tearing the city apart.

Nico Calavita is a professor in the Graduate Program in City Planning at San Diego State University. He can be reached via email at