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California Tries To Get 'Centered,' But State Remains Conflicted

Can we Californians do a better job of getting centered? This is not a metaphysical question. Increasingly, it is a practical concern. As California moves into the post-suburban era, the question of how to grow is moving beyond a fight about growth and density as abstract statistics to a more fine-grained discussion about how to create more dense and compact places. In October, Smart Growth America, an advocacy group, ranked the nation's largest metropolitan areas on four different factors. The study found that California metros ranged from the most sprawling (Riverside) to one of the most dense (San Francisco). In general, the California metros came out on the middle. But what is interesting is not where the California metros ranked, but why. In three categories density, a mix of uses in close proximity to one another, and connected street systems virtually all California metros fared well. Where our state fell down was in what the researchers called "centeredness" the strength of downtowns and other concentrated activity nodes. All this makes sense. California building practices, along with high land and infrastructure costs, have encouraged density. Connected street systems and a mix of uses in close (automobile) proximity to one another were hallmarks of good suburban-era land use planning. But our system and decision-makers did not value "centeredness." Ironically, at the same time that the Smart Growth America report highlighted the "centeredness" question, Californians were engaged in an intense debate over this very subject. That debate indicates that when it comes to centeredness, we Californians are nothing if not conflicted. The day before it was released, a critical part of the widely hailed "City of Villages" program was killed by San Diego Mayor Dick Murphy. Yet even Murphy acknowledged the need for many of the plan's approaches (see CP&DR Insight, August 2002). On the same day that the Smart Growth America report was issued, the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) unrolled the final report of the "Smart Growth Strategy Regional Livability Footprint." ABAG's proposed strategy is a variation on the "network of neighborhoods" alternative that the organization previously proposed, but the latest plan was unveiled to a somewhat less-than-overwhelming response. The San Diego situation was a little surprising considering how far into the process the City of Villages plan got. But, perhaps from a political standpoint, the mayor's departure was not too unexpected. The San Diego planning effort emerged from the planning department's recent estimate that if the 1979 General Plan were built out, the city would fall at least 17,000 units and perhaps 37,000 units short of the total number required to accommodate growth in the city by 2020. The proposed solution called for a strengthening of neighborhoods, especially those that accommodate higher-density housing, by creatively deploying public infrastructure. One of the problems, of course, was the sheer cost of necessary public facilities, which was more than $2 billion. Instead of moving City of Villages forward whole-hog, Mayor Murphy sent a memo to the San Diego City Council arguing that lower population forecasts obviated the need for many of the high-density housing strategies the plan contained. Because the San Diego Association of Governments lowered its 2020 and 2030 population forecasts, Murphy says the higher-density housing strategies are now unnecessary. "We do not support increased housing densities over the objections of communities," he wrote in a memo co-signed by councilmembers Toni Atkins and Scott Peters. Meanwhile, the regional smart growth strategy unveiled at the ABAG General Assembly was the result of a lengthy regional visioning exercise, which elicited criticism from a few local governments in the region. Beginning with the nine-county region's general plan buildout, ABAG constructed three alternative future scenarios: The "central cities" scenario, which "hearkens back to an earlier era" and concentrates growth in dense cities; The "network of neighborhoods" proposal, which would redevelop central cities less densely and spread most growth along transportation corridors; The "smarter suburbs" alternative, which would permit considerable greenfield development, but would encourage more compact growth and a mix of uses in relatively low-density suburbs. The final vision proposed by ABAG is similar to the middle, "network of neighborhoods" proposal. The preferred vision would consume far less land than the buildout of the existing general plans. According to ABAG, the current Bay Area urbanized footprint is 752,000 acres. The buildout scenario would add 83,000 more acres to this footprint by 2020, an increase of 11%. And because this still would not provide enough housing for the region, ABAG estimated that 45,000 acres in surrounding counties would be urbanized to accommodate Bay Area economic growth. By contrast, ABAG estimated that the preferred vision would add only 15,600 acres of urbanized land, an increase of 2%, most of it in Solano and Contra Costa Counties. By focusing growth in existing urban areas, it would accommodate all of the region's projected housing need in a much tighter area. The 80 or so elected officials who gathered at the ABAG General Assembly for the rollout appeared resigned to the idea that the region must do something differently. But they were not very enthusiastic. "No one is under the assumption that this will be easy, and it won't be done without major pain and opposition from some," Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia said. The strategy also went out of its way to point out that major legislative help would be required from Sacramento, especially in altering fiscal incentives to local governments and in streamlining the California Environmental Quality Act to make it easier to intensify urban land uses. At the same time, a number of local governments from around the Bay complained to ABAG that the process had "blue-skied" the future at sub-regional workshops without taking their existing general plans into account. So it will not be smooth sailing for the ABAG regional strategy. Even ABAG President Gwen Regalia acknowledged that "the numbers" would have to be fleshed out later in negotiations with local governments. So it is possible that the network of neighborhoods, like the City of Villages, will be watered down in the interest of political feasibility. The end result might be a baby step toward more centeredness in California even if we remain pretty conflicted about the whole thing.
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