If your city could give birth to something, what would it be? Would it be rock music? Free love? The tech economy? The United Nations?

Or the Chalupa?

I spoke a few weeks ago at the Housing Symposium of the Orange County Realtors Association in Newport Beach--an enviable city, and a stone's throw from Taco Bell's headquarters. My role was to explain how planning plays into the state's housing mess. At one point, I was discussing the legislature's scorched-earth policy towards housing-hesitant cities and assured the audience that, while exclusionary single-family zoning would no longer be tolerated in most places, "if some city in Orange County wants to become the next San Francisco, it can."

Cue the guffaws.

I clarified: if a city wants to become more dense -- at San Francisco levels or whatever -- Sacramento isn't going to stop them. My interviewer, speaking on behalf of the audience, nonetheless assured me, "no one wants to be San Francisco."

Cool beans.

Empirically, he may be right. It's possible that the ethos of Orange County is so dramatically opposed to that of San Francisco that emulation is unthinkable. Whether San Francisco embodies density, history, bridges, dirty hippies, progressivism, public transit, dysfunctional government, homelessness, or simply the right to ply the city sidewalks wearing nothing but a leather collar, Orange Countians may indeed want none of it. 

Just for the sake of argument, let's say that some city in Orange County was inspired by my offhand vision. Maybe East Placentia, Garden Beach, or Mission Nuevo will lose its mind and decide to go all-in on Victorian rowhouses, zero-parking midrise apartment buildings, and duplexes as far as the eye can see. What does that give us?

Fifteen square miles is about average for a city in Orange County. At San Francisco densities, that means 132,000 units for 270,000 people -- roughly three times as many units and four times as many people per square mile as the current countywide average. Our formerly staid suburb thus becomes the third-largest city and by far the densest city in the county.

What might it get for that density? Possibly less than nothing. That sort of density at that scale hasn't been built in California--or anywhere in the United States--since the Coolidge administration. We could get 15 square miles of apartment buildings that look like Taco Bells. Or we could get some of the most inspired high-density architecture this side of the Roaring '20s. Who knows. In light of the state's housing crisis, and the manifest demand for housing anywhere within reach of a sea breeze.

Folks who like their lawns and their privacy might shudder. But even the most hardcore fiscal conservatives behind the Orange Curtain may yet find something to like.

Orange County's GDP in 2021 was a perfectly respectable $238 billion. It ranked ninth among counties nationwide. Guess who ranked 11th? San Francisco -- at less than one-third of OC's population. That's good for $200 billion total and $245,000 per capita, ranking second nationwide (to Manhattan). Not bad for a bunch of hippies.

That's not to say that the city singlehandedly creates wealth. But it certainly attracts it. If wealth is your thing, you could do a lot worse than be San Francisco.

Of course, not everyone in San Francisco is rich. And there's the rub.

San Francisco's vistas, architecture, culture, cuisine, and economic fortitude have been overshadowed by reports of crime, homelessness, trash, vacancies, and the vaunted "doom loop." Sometimes, it seems like the only thing left intact in San Francisco is its political dysfunction.

Many of these reports are exaggerated, of course, partly because it's easy, and even fun, to take jabs at whomever is on top. Hence, the chortles. But San Francisco's problems are partly of its own making. Many of them stem from its housing shortage, which is largely self-imposed. Had the market produced anywhere near the needed number of units, the city would have fewer people on the street, more residents to shop at stores and work in offices, and perhaps less of the intraurban tension that causes voters to favor tribalism over collaboration.

A denser San Francisco would likely be not only wealthier but also far more livable for everyone. Even so, I get the concerns. San Francisco is already pretty darn dense. Meanwhile, though Orange County's density is fairly uniform; its 3,989 people per square mile does not rise to the level of what anyone would consider a major city. There's plenty of room for pretty much any housing type you could imagine. A denser Orange County -- or at least a portion of Orange County -- could reap all sorts of agglomeration benefits, as long as it had decent design, transportation infrastructure, and jobs (which is already has).

The great irony is, if Orange County really wanted to distinguish itself from San Francisco, the best way to do so would be to build housing.

The funny thing about the audience's dismissive attitude toward San Francisco is that real estate agents should, by professional necessity, be pro-housing and, therefore, be pro-density. And yet, they were skeptical of the very regulations that promote density. Case in point: The Regional Housing Needs Assessment process was referred to openly as "stupid"—despite the fact that it's designed to bring 123,000 new units to Orange County. Half of those are supposed to be market rate, which means 61,500 units that could potentially generate commissions. I would think that people who make money when, and only when, housing units change hands would salivate at the prospect of having all those new units to sell.

I, for one, am going to keep my eye on East Placentia. When the upzoning happens, maybe I'll get my real estate license. And a Chalupa.