The Los Angelization of San Diego


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A fatal traffic accident on Interstate 15, and north- and southbound lanes are at a standstill for six hours, with spillover jamming alternate routes across the county.

The 1-mile trip from Fashion Valley east to Mission Valley Center takes more than 15 minutes due to backups at gridlocked intersections.

A downtown resident heading toward North County for the first time in three months is amazed to see acres of new homes and office buildings under construction.

What’s going on here?

Welcome to fear and loathing that our fair area has become that killer of all similes, “like Los Angeles.”

San Diegans know this really won’t happen—geographically can’t happen—unless, God forbid, the Marines surrender Camp Pendleton, in which case all bets are off. Nope, we can count on the Marines to protect us to the north, Mexico to stay to the south, the mountains and desert to flank our eastern boundary and the magnificent Pacific to mark our western horizon.

Yet “Los Angelization” still creeps into the public vocabulary. In an editorial last summer, The San Diego Union Tribune bemoaned approval by Los Angeles County of two huge residential developments that will stretch from the San Fernando Valley to Bakersfield.

“This harrowing vision of endless Los Angelization should serve as a warning to the people of San Diego County,” the U-T opined, concluding, “it’s much easier to talk about smart growth than it is to achieve it.”

Since the days of Alonzo Horton, San Diego planners have been concerned about what translates to managed or smart growth. As defined by SANDAG—the San Diego Association of Governments—that means “a compact, efficient and environmentally sensitive pattern of development that provides people with additional travel, housing and employment choices by focusing future growth away from rural areas and closer to existing and planned job centers and public facilities.” In recent times, public debate over the growth/slow-growth/no-growth issue reached a fever pitch in the mid- to late 1980s, the so-called “growth war” years.

“Everybody called themselves an environmentalist back then,” says one veteran of the combat. “There had been explosive growth in the ’80s—something like 40,000 housing units a year were going up, and people were incensed. Those were the Reagan years, when the economy was growing, the military was building up, and the tech boom was about to happen. There was also a general resentment toward builders. People sensed they were being ripped off by developers. Houses were going up, but landslides were bringing them down. There was a lot of shoddy construction.”

Still, voters in 1988 defeated growth-restrictive measures for both the city of San Diego and the county. The propositions had been strongly opposed by developers and the business community. But Proposition C, a countywide advisory measure that encouraged cooperation in regional planning, was approved. Not long after, SANDAG, which represents the area’s 18 cities and the county, approved a regional plan that covered countywide economic and development issues.

A major initiative slated for the March 2 election will again afford voters an opportunity for what developers decry as “ballot-box planning.” The Board of Supervisors voted last month to place the Rural Lands Initiative before the county electorate. Opposed by many farmers and landowners, the measure would curtail development of about 695,000 acres in San Diego’s back country by establishing minimum lot sizes in northern and eastern parts of the region. A similar plan failed five years ago, following an opposition campaign led by developers, who again are expected to contest the latest measure.

This year, a host of major, updated planning documents will be unveiled for the public. The county’s current general plan for the unincorporated areas of the region hasn’t been thoroughly updated since 1979, and draft portions of General Plan 2020, a multiyear county program that began in 1998, are expected to be presented to the Board of Supervisors. A series of traffic studies for the plan, based on a variety of scenarios, is currently under way.

At the municipal level, the San Diego City Council is expected to select a pilot project next month for Mayor Dick Murphy’s much-heralded City of Villages concept —using existing communities to combine housing, commercial use, civic use and employment centers to accommodate growth. Seven pilot village programs have been submitted for consideration.

As this issue goes to press, SANDAG staff is putting the finishing touches on its draft Regional Comprehensive Plan to present to the organization’s membership. The RCP is a hefty tome that projects what San Diego will be like in 2030. Moreover, it connects land-use and transportation plans and covers attendant infrastructure needs based on those projections.

“For the RCP to be effective, it can’t be just a SANDAG plan. The region has to own it,” says Gary Gallegos, the association’s executive director. He adds that the plan contains many performance monitors and measurements “and shows that we not only talk the talk but walk the walk.”

SANDAG provides a rich repository of planning information for local government. The organization itself cannot make land-use decisions; it does, however, administer major transportation programs for the region, including the half-cent sales tax (known as the TransNet program), approved by county voters in 1987, that is used with state and federal money to bolster the area’s transportation network.

TransNet is due to expire in 2008, and SANDAG foresees a 30-year extension that will generate $42 billion in transportation improvements. This large amount “ideally will encourage local jurisdictions to do the right thing with local land-use decisions,” Gallegos says. “You can’t have that level of investment and then have a disconnect over land use.”

A key feature of the RCP is its emphasis on the county’s interdependency with its borders, SANDAG planners say.

“The RCP starts to recognize that political boundaries have become relatively unimportant,” say Mike McLaughlin, the director of land use and environmental planning for SANDAG. He cites the tripling ' of traffic in the past decade of residents of southern Riverside County—primarily Temecula—who, stung by local housing costs, commute to work in San Diego. Other examples include the growing number of workers who commute to San Diego from Tijuana and its Baja environs, and a large housing development slated for the western edge of El Centro, where it’s anticipated that 20 percent of the new residents will work in San Diego.

“When people complain about San Diego’s growth, I ask them: ‘Between growth and decline, which would you choose?’” says James Clapp, a longtime professor of urban planning at San Diego State University. “Even between growth and stasis, you’d want to choose growth. To stop growing, you’d have to wound economic opportunities, and no one wants that.”

The no-growth/slow-growth sentiment, Clapp says, is like the flu. “It arrives regularly with the season, and when you look for the virus causing it, you find it’s fiscal pressures.”

Clapp points out that growth-management policies—especially those that withdraw land from development, either temporarily or permanently—inflate the price of land that remains available for development, and the cost of the housing that eventually is built on it. (San Diego, of course, is a living laboratory in such an experiment.) Management through “densification,” which channels growth into existing communities, is often equally unpopular with residents of those areas because it’s viewed as a deepening strain on the area’s infrastructure, Clapp says.

He adds that the “built-in bomb features” of Proposition 13—the property tax limitation that has fiscally strapped California cities for more than 25 years —have, literally, hit home. “It’s great for the current homeowner, but the newcomers to the market are screwed,” Clapp says. Developers in a growth-restricted region still have to develop, and to make it palatable to cities who’ve lost revenue for the infrastructure needed, they usually foot the bill for the necessary improvements. Those costs, no surprise, are passed on to the new homebuyer.

Clapp has studied city planning locally, nationally and internationally for more than 30 years, and he describes the San Diego area as “reasonably well managed.”

“The history of San Diego growth is built on ‘It’s a wonderful place to live,’” he says. “And there’s still gold in them thar hills. San Diego can’t kill that golden goose.”

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