On Density, Community Character and 'the Race Card' - Voice of San Diego

Growth and Housing

On Density, Community Character and 'the Race Card'

An environmental lawyer made waves earlier this month by calling “bullshit” on detractors of increasing housing density. A round-up of the ensuing conversation reveals just how polarizing the topic has become.

The battle over developing neighborhoods in San Diego has always been heated. Tossing out curse words and accusations of racism only adds fuel to the fire.

During a panel earlier this month, high-profile environmental lawyer Marco Gonzalez lobbed some heavy criticism at opponents of increased housing density, calling them out for what he deemed closeted racism.

One of Gonzalez’s main points was that anti-density activists often conjure the concept of “community character” — meaning that new, big developments would destroy aspects of communities that made people want to move there in the first place — but in reality, Gonzalez says, that’s just code for not wanting “brown” or “poor” people to move in.

Some readers took exception to that analysis.  So we’ve gathered some of the most compelling and provocative responses here. Comments have been lightly edited for style and clarity.

Community character is not a bad word or code word. Character is the word used in these planning meetings to help us articulate the sensation or overall feeling you get when you are in the neighborhood. Some communities still have it and others are struggling to hold on to it. That recognition of the place actually defines our communities and those of us who live in Uptown, North Park and Golden Hill areas are working very hard to find a balance within city policies to preserve the feelings here (or characteristics) so they won’t be obliterated.

— Janet O’Dea

Those of us who live in older communities for which in-fill development is proposed are not necessarily racist NIMBYs for not wanting our communities to be turned into Mission Valley clones. In-fill development, as practiced in the city of San Diego, generally means more density without any concomitant investment in the types of infrastructure that make cities livable: transit, transportation, parks, libraries, etc.

— Paul Webb

When all else fails, use the “race card.”  Classy.

            — Joseph Monroe

Other readers agreed with Gonzalez that high-density developments need to happen:

San Diego has become a victim of its own success. People want to move here, but there isn’t enough affordable housing. Projects like Morena Boulevard are attempts to address that problem while also involving the transit issue too. A couple of years ago there was a discussion about high-rises in Pacific Beach and in the Bankers Hill area. Neighborhood groups generally oppose these proposals because of “character of the neighborhood” issues, which leaves the remaining stock of homes and apartments more expensive. Property owners in the affected area maintain or get an increase in their property values and don’t want more housing in the area that would presumably negatively affect their fair market values. The attitude of “I got mine” is very prevalent here.  And the people who will be harmed the most are the middle class, who will find the cost of home ownership or rents to be increasingly prohibitive.

— Robert Cohen

Marco’s point is spot on: There are people on the left (my addition: and on the right) who abuse the environmental laws for illegitimate reasons, some of which include bias based on race, economic status, etc. That point should draw no one’s ire except that of the bigots and abusers. If you’re one of those who’s pissed off for rightly being called out, good. Now stop abusing the law for illegitimate ends.

— Cory Briggs

And a handful of readers looked into their crystal balls to see what would come of San Diego if Gonzalez has his way:

Lots of small businesses to rip out (and the jobs that are there) and replace them with thousands of housing units, to be handled by crumbling infrastructure that can’t handle what’s there now, not to mention the ever-dwindling supply of water in the region.

— David Crossley

The world cannot sustain infinite population growth. Here in California we are already suffering from drought. Desalinization will not solve the problem nor will recycled water. Taking water from the farming areas will not only raise the price of food it will reduce it’s availability.

Increasing population density will also increase criminal activity as witnessed in older cities across the country.

            — Richard Ross

Some suggested other causes of the density dilemma besides racism, and solutions to the development problem:

I think another part of it is that a neighborhood that accepts a dense project that brings a tax revenue windfall to the city is forced to share that tax revenue with neighborhoods that didn’t allow the same project.

In other words, the way neighborhoods in San Diego are built and maintained today, they are punished for allowing dense developments and rewarded for being NIMBYs. When that’s what we incentivize, it should come as no surprise that that’s what we get. This is the fault of the City Council, not the people, because as any economist will tell you, “incentives matter.”

— Derek Hofmann

We need to stop talking about density as high rises or sprawl. Let’s focus on building the “missing middle” … well-designed townhouses, duplexes and smaller homes in areas near public transit, daily needs stores, schools and other services that are affordable to middle- and lower-income households.

— Teresa Barth

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