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More Love than Hate

With the decline of infrastructure, high prices and slow-moving freeways, polling shows San Diegans still find a lot to like


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MOST OF AMERICA thinks San Diego is a cool place to live. And the local populace agrees. Generally speaking, year-round temperate weather and the benefits of coastal access make the country's seventh-largest city (and extended region) an optimal place for locals and tourists. Great news? Actually, San Diego's popularity is a two-edged sword.

"San Diego's best qualities draw people here -but also hold the seeds of destruction," says John Nienstedt. The president of Competitive Edge, a research polling organization, points to a pair of 2004 polls done in conjunction with KPBS. One, called "Quality of Life in San Diego County," was done last March. Another, "Self-Perception," was released in November.

Both surveys indicate that San Diegans overwhelmingly like living in San Diego County. But looking ahead, they can picture the demise of paradise.

"There is anxiety here about the future," says Nienstedt. "People think they have a great thing and worry that it will erode. The dark clouds on the horizon are traffic, lack of affordable housing, growth and just too many people."

This is not to say San Diegans are unhappy with the status quo. The "Self-Perception" poll shows 87.7 percent of respondents have a favorable impression of the region. This finding spreads broadly across all demographic spectra, including age, income level and length of residency.

Just 6.9 percent have an unfavorable impression of the city. Within the county, the geographic area with the most unfavorable perception is in eastern suburbs such as La Mesa, El Cajon and Santee. Here, 20 percent of the residents polled have a negative impression of life in San Diego- with more than 10 percent responding with the "very negative" choice presented in the KPBS/ Competitive Edge survey.

Nienstedt supposes the eastern suburbs are not benefiting from the number-one pleasure factor offered in San Diego-the weather. "The theory is that those places are too far out to get the coastal breezes, so it's hotter," he says. "They're not getting what people overwhelmingly say is the best reason to live here."

To put numbers on it: Asked what is San Diego's best attribute, 59.4 percent said weather/ climate. The second-place answer, coastline / beaches/ ocean, got a 10.1 percent response. Rounding out the top five were: people/culture (6.2 percent), tourism/attractions (5.9 percent) and location (4.7 percent).

Looking at the negatives, traffic is the bane of 23.7 percent of those polled. Among those who live north of Interstate 8, one in three says traffic is the chief woe. The five worst attributes also include growth/congestion/overcrowding (17.7 percent), affordable housing (11.1 percent), cost of living (9.6 percent) and government incompetence/ politics (7.2 percent).

FOR THOSE WHO FIND the nickname "America's Finest City" to be cloying and bland, this next survey result should pique your interest. A majority of San Diegans stand behind the motto coined by former mayor Pete Wilson in 1972. The moniker still fits, say 57 percent of those polled. Of the 36 percent who think it doesn't apply, just 15 percent believe San Diego falls way below the mark.

The survey says suburban areas south of the city identify most readily with the "Finest" logo. And in a seemingly obvious finding, rich people see more fineness than the poor. Two-thirds of those making more than $80,000 a year stand behind the "Finest" claim. Only about a third of those who make less than $20,000 agree with the Wilson label.

But although 57 percent believe San Diego is America's Finest City, not all think this is a "worldclass city." Roughly 30 percent of county residents think they breathe that lofty air. Twenty-three percent say San Diego is not world-class. And 42 percent think the city isn't there yet-but has the potential.

Along party lines, 43 percent of Republicans see San Diego as world-class. Just 32 percent of Democrats see it that way.

SO SAN DIEGANS reserve the right to complain about things like traffic and growth and how expensive everything is. But don't try to run a political campaign denigrating the city. That'll put you at the back of the pack, says Nienstedt. "That was a tone [San Diego County Supervisor] Ron Roberts and [former San Diego Port Commissioner] Peter Q. Davis struck in the primary and the general elections," Nienstedt says. Davis didn't make it past the primary. Roberts lost in the general election, and found himself eventually surpassed by a write-in candidate-City Councilmember Donna Frye.

It seems counterintuitive that politicians who speak out on current problems don't get elected -especially given results from the KPBS/Competitive Edge "Quality of Life" poll. In it, 47 percent said quality of life will decline during the next few years. And more than half think it has become "somewhat" or "a great deal" worse over the past few years.

Insomuch as the San Diego mayor's-race debacle came after the "Self-Perception" survey was completed, could the protracted mayoral legal wrangling have given different light to the 87.7 percent of folks with a favorable city impression? "I will say that opinion related to city government is at a nadir," says Nienstedt. "Opinion of elected officials is, to use a technical term, in the toilet."

Still, Nienstedt believes his numbers hold up. He says San Diegans are cognizant of the local problems. But that doesn't mean people don't still love the city.

Just keep those ocean breezes blowing.

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