San Diego Finds The Easy Route Does Not Lead To ‘Smart Growth'
In September, the San Diego City Council is scheduled to vote on "City of Villages," the new "strategic framework element" of the city's general plan. Designed to provide a foundation for revising the city's 1970s general plan, City of Villages makes all the usual politically correct statements about promoting smart-growth ideas.
Like most vision-style planning efforts, this one contains a lot of platitudes about environmental protection, affordable housing, equity and prosperity, and public transit. The document acknowledges that San Diego is mostly built out — only 12% of its 331 square miles remains undeveloped — and proposes that most new growth be teased out of existing neighborhoods by turning them into "villages" with higher density housing and a greater variety of public facilities. Also, not surprisingly, San Diego's planners are trumpeting the effort as a triumph of public participation — a process that used workshops and focus groups to bring residents around to the conclusion that growth is inevitable, so it's a question of how rather than if.
But the most impressive — and challenging — part of the City of Villages effort is the way the city is attempting to face the implementation question head-on. On the one hand, the city is arguing that a New Urbanist-style vision is probably the only way to accommodate an estimated population increase of 200,000 people between now and 2020. On the other hand, the city has recognized that this approach will not be successful without some big changes in the way development and public investment occurs in San Diego.
Changing those longstanding practices will not be easy.
San Diego has been at the forefront of growth management since the 1970s, when Mayor Pete Wilson -- then regarded as a national leader in the field -- promoted a set of policies seeking to re-direct growth from rural areas to existing urban areas. He also called for a set of strategies to permit conventional suburban development in certain areas, especially in the 12,000-acre North County Future Urbanizing Area. He also insisted that development bear the full cost of infrastructure there. This strategy, embodied in the 1979 "Progress Guide and General Plan," worked in some ways and backfired in others.
First, the whole strategy drove more growth than expected into existing areas, which put a burden on existing infrastructure and cut into support for the idea of redeveloping existing neighborhoods. Second, as development proposals came through the pipeline, densities in the North County Future Urbanizing Area dropped below expected levels — down to 2 to 3 units per acre.
On top of that, other considerations reduced the amount of housing to less than the levels specified by the 1979 General Plan. The environmental impact report on City of Villages does not provide a specific estimate of units lost due to downzoning, but suggests that the number is in the thousands. Implementation of the Multi-Species Conservation Plan (required by the Endangered Species Act) converted 3,700 acres from urban to open space use in the plans, resulting in a loss of more than 6,500 units from the plan. In addition, new school construction appears likely to cost between 600 and 1,000 additional units, either by removing existing units or by using up land that would otherwise go for housing.
The end result is that San Diego's planners estimate that, if the 1979 General Plan is built out, it will fall 17,000 units short of the total number required to accommodate growth in the city by 2020. City of Villages is designed to figure out how to make up that gap, and do so in the context of improving neighborhoods. The plan also piggybacks on an already good public transit system that is likely to get better.
City of Villages calls for a strengthening of neighborhoods, especially those that accommodate higher-density housing, by creatively deploying public infrastructure. For example, the plan encourages joint use of public facilities by schools, libraries, and other public institutions in order to consume less land. At the same time, however, the document bluntly acknowledges that this strategy will require an investment of no less than $2.5 billion in new public facilities, and an institutional rearrangement that stretches California's current planning and governance system to the limit.
City officials are already talking about a "quality of life" bond to finance the needed infrastructure upgrades. But not right away. The first item on the list is to move forward on a series of pilot projects designed to prove that the City of Villages idea can work in neighborhoods outside of downtown. These pilot villages will get a whole variety of development incentives. Furthermore, City of Villages calls for another pilot effort to create a "Model Urban School," that takes advantage of joint use to conserve land and work a school into the urban fabric of the transitional, but well-organized, City Heights neighborhood. The proposal calls for the demolition of 245 hours and then the construction of a school, a park, and 350 units of replacement housing.
This might sound good to the smart growth crowd, but implementation will be difficult. To move the Model Urban School program forward, the city and other government agencies in San Diego are asking the Legislature for a bill allowing them to create a new kind of joint powers authority. In so doing, these entities are running up against well-established rules of governance in California, and they are not likely to change those rules without a fight.
To support the Model Urban School idea, Assemblywoman Christine Kehoe (D-San Diego) has introduced AB 2867. The bill would create a special joint powers authority in City Heights that would include the city, the school district, the redevelopment agency, the housing authority, and the housing commission. The bill passed the Assembly and made it out of the Senate Local Government Committee on August 7. But virtually all the things San Diego asked for ran into criticism from the legislative staff because they conflict with existing laws and practices.
For example, the bill called for the new entity to inherit the eminent domain powers of the redevelopment agency, which are more expansive than the eminent domain powers of the other agencies. Typically, JPAs can hold only that authority that all of its members hold. In this case, the legislative staff's conclusion was that this would give the school district more eminent domain power.
Similarly, the bill would have relieved the JPA of the typical redevelopment agency obligations for low and moderate income housing set-aside and replacement. Apparently, the idea is that the entity should have greater flexibility to introduce a variety of housing types into the City Heights neighborhood, which is mostly poor. Again, this ran into concern on the part of the legislative staff. The bill was also amended after it passed the Assembly to exempt the JPA from state school siting rules, raising process concerns on the part of the legislative counsel.
Kehoe accepted the most recent amendments the legislative staff recommended. But it is difficult to say whether the Model Urban School project — or, indeed, City of Villages generally — can advance quickly without a major effort to change or evade most existing rules regarding planning and governance in California.
Therein lies the rub: Smart growth may be a good idea. It may even be the only way to accommodate future growth in coastal California. But it is still a long way from being smoothly implemented — not just because of skeptical NIMBYs or reluctant financiers, but also because it is swimming upstream against 80 years of California planning and development law.