Creating the future

Will San Diego rise to the occasion and grow up, not out?

by Carolyn Chase

he subject of population and hous- ing growth had been debated for a long time in the San Diego region. Ballot measures consistently show that the public-at-large favors some form of managed growth.

According to materials provided by the San Diego Regional Association of Governments (SANDAG), the body that attempts regional planning, "the release of the last Regional Growth Forecast in 1995 moved the debate from the philosophical to the concrete. For the first time, a 20-year forecast of population, housing and employment could not be produced within the framework of the region's existing general and community plans. [emphasis in original] The plans simply do not provide enough urban-density residential land to meet future forecasted demand. The current forecast predicts the exhaustion of all land planned for urban residential densities of more than one unit per acre sometime between 2005 and 2010 as soon as 8 years from now."

Last month SANDAG hosted an informational workshop entitled "Population Growth, Land Use and Visions for 2050" at the Hyatt Regency in La Jolla. About 180 people attended, with a mix of about 10 percent elected officials, 40 percent governmental and related agency staff, 20 percent real-estate and development-related groups, 20 percent planning commission or other appointed members of planning-oriented groups and 10 percent community-oriented or public interest groups.

After a catered lunch, the groups split into tables of 8 10 to address the following questions:

I didn't find out about the workshop until 8:30 am on the morning it was held, so I crashed the proceedings without a formal invitation. As luck would have it, I landed at a table with two reps from the San Diego Board of Realtors, a City Councilman from Poway, a rep from the East County Economic Development Board, and a regional rep from CalTrans.

I must say that I was quite surprised when the Poway Councilman stated at the start that he believed we didn't have to buy into the SANDAG proposal that 5 million people were going to be living here, and that with the right leadership we could "control growth." His example came straight from his own home: "There are ways that I can keep my kids from returning home to live and teach them how to be responsible at the same time. We don't have to accept growth."

This was countered by the San Diego Realty folks who stated that based on their family members, we were certain to have many new people living here.

But despite our diverse interests, we came to agreement on some key points pretty quickly: that no matter when or how big the population increases, the quality of our lives needs to be protected. Everyone was able to agree that higher-density developments, if designed and financed properly, could maintain a high quality-of-life. The real question is, how do we get there from here?

In the end, when each table reported its conclusions, the following consensus emerged.

  1. Growth will happen.
  2. Therefore density must be increased and transportation must also change
  3. New building should take place inside current infrastructure and not sprawl out into rural areas.
  4. We should develop a regional vision encompassing environmental, quality-of-life and social issues, and have a public participation process.

While some other tables did question the growth forecasts, the great majority of people are resigned to future population growth as inevitable. SANDAG is claiming that 60 percent of population growth will come from local births not immigration and considers public discussions of efforts to control population taboo. The singular exception to this was Encinitas City Council member Sheila Cameron who boldly advised area "women to cross their legs and men to get vasectomies." While some participants found this refreshing, others were clearly offended.

Everyone did seem to understand the unworkable nature of doubling or tripling the number of cars in the region. Another interesting factor discussed was the demographics of our population. The age group from 65 to 95 will more than double in the next 20 years. Already, seniors are faced with being "stranded" in the suburbs with little or no or access to needed community services. Many more are becoming unable to drive. I suggested that opposing city plans to allow companion units or "granny flats" was short-sighted, since we were going to be the grannies needing places close by to live!

With a public "uniformly concerned about growth management" and plans to have 5 million people living here... something's got to give. If past indicators are to be believed, it will be our quality of life and community spaces that pay the price. But this workshop is attempting to build a regional consensus that we can achieve better solutions.

Regional growth management:
the Land Use Distribution Element

n February of 1995, the SANDAG Board, which consists of representatives from all local governmental jurisdictions, approved the Land Use Distribution Element (LUDE) of the Regional Growth Management Strategy. It sounds good, but now the trick is to get local jurisdictions to go along.

According to SANDAG:

"The LUDE is controversial because it recommends increasing residential densities. To many citizens and elected officials, the idea of increasing densities is like raising taxes: it is something to be avoided. The assumption is that people will not want to live in higher density, mixed-use developments. However, continuing changes in the region's demographics, lifestyles, and high housing costs can influence the demand for higher density housing. For many, the "conventional" single family suburban tract home may not be affordable or desirable.

"There is no shortage of vacant residential land in the region. The plans identify some 650,000 acres of it. The problem is density or the lack of it. More than 90 percent of those 650,000 acres are designated for rural residential densities, meaning less than one-unit-per-acre. Two-thirds of this rural residential land is planned for two- to eight-acre lots.

"Even the region's 55,000 acres of vacant urban-density land (greater than one-unit-per-acre) are planned for relatively low density. More than 70 percent are planned for densities of less than six units-per-acre.

"The high cost of housing in the San Diego region is at least partly responsible for our relatively low home ownership rate. Our current rate of 58 percent is well below that of other major metropolitan areas (63 percent) and the national as a whole (65 percent). We need to take steps to provide our citizens with a variety of housing alternatives."

Finally, the LUDE emphasizes maintenance of local control. It does not mandate any action by local governments [ed. note: SANDAG does not have the authority to do this]. Rather, it does ask them to seriously evaluate the costs and benefits of incorporating LUDE policies as they update or amend their general and community plans. City and County of San Diego - are you listening?

The actions recommended by LUDE include:

What would be the benefit of LUDE?

San Diego's future - what's all this fuss about zoning?

n April 29, join other concerned San Diegans discussing the city's rewrite of all development and land use regulations. Find out what the future is for your community in the City of San Diego's proposed "Zoning Code Update." Maybe more than any other single document, the ZCU will be the recipe for the future. The ZCU will determine what gets developed and redeveloped, and where. It will determine the future character of our communities and, to a great extent, San Diego's overall quality of life.

Where does the public of San Diego fit into the picture? What does it mean that the former Planning Department is now the "Development Services Department"?

Where is the vision for the City's future coming from?

Why are they pushing this massive change through just prior to undertaking a long-delayed (20 years) update to the city's General Plan?

Has the city abandoned its previous policy that new developments pay for themselves rather than placing costs on older communities?

Why is the city moving to reduce community input into the process after the stadium debacle, which clearly showed that people want a greater say about how the city develops?

Is the city setting up a system that will pit one community against another in the competition for the benefits of growth while the impacts of growth are ignored?

Find out at this free community town hall:

"San Diego's Future - Slums or Urban Sprawl or ???"
Tuesday, April 29th from 7-9pm
Craftsmen Hall at 3909 Centre St. in Hillcrest
(northeast corner of Center & University)

Watch for other Town Halls in your neighborhood, or if you have a suggestion for where to hold one, please contact SDET at 272-7423.