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Ed Harris and Marco Gonzalez: The Voices of the Density Debate

San Diego’s spent a lot of time talking about how it needs to change the way it grows.

We can’t keep sprawling, it’s time to start putting homes and businesses in already developed areas with increased density. And while it’s passed plans codifying those ideas as city policy, there’s still been a tension in the city — and even within the progressive community that often agitates for the change — between creating the environmentally friendly and affordable city the concept imagines, and an anti-development sentiment from those who like things the way they are.

Never was that tension put more into focus than in two moments this year, thanks to two loyal members of San Diego’s liberal establishment.

Councilman Ed Harris, a former lifeguard leader appointed to fill Kevin Faulconer’s seat on the Council, reacted swiftly and harshly to a city proposal to increase density in Bay Park. Harris organized a town hall meeting where hundreds of residents showed up to oppose the idea. For hours, they took turns undressing the planning staff who had proposed it. Afterward, he made his position clear.

“Density belongs downtown,” he said. “That’s just how I feel.”

Later in the year, environmental lawyer Marco Gonzalez said he’d heard too many density objections coming from his liberal allies.

To Gonzalez, the benefits of density are a better environment and a partial solution to the region’s high cost of living, and the motivations of those opposed are selfish, or worse.

“Frankly, when you get out of the public sphere, and you listen to what these people are saying, what they’re saying is, ‘I got mine, I have no responsibility to provide for them,’” he said at a recent conference. “And when the lights are really low, and the groups are really small, it’s, ‘Don’t bring the brown people here, don’t let the poor people in, let’s build a big gate around our little castle, because it’s really nice and pretty and we don’t want them to mess it up.’”

With an improving economy, developers are again looking to build. The city’s promise of a new kind of development is about to be put to the test. As that plays out, its disagreements among the left that will be most interesting to watch.

This is part of our Voice of the Year package [1], profiling the people who drove the biggest conversations in San Diego this year. Check out the previous story, Lorena Gonzalez: The Voice of Workers and Women (and Working Women) [2], and the next, The Murrieta Protesters: The Voice of Nativists [3].