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What Our City Planners Call ‘Smart Growth’ Is Not a Panacea

San Diego needs more housing and public transit. But history suggests we’ll make the same mistake, producing more residents without enough services and infrastructure.

The intersection of Friars Road and Frazee Road on October 28, 2014. / Photo by Dustin Michelson

San Diego has embarked on an ambitious project to sausage thousands of new and current residents into apartments and condominiums in established parts of town where trolleys and some buses already travel to, or will.

With more walkways, bike lanes and small businesses in each “village,” city officials promise this new construction will provide more affordable housing and reduce our dependence on cars.

Voice of San Diego CommentaryIn land-use parlance, this dense development is called “smart growth.”

While the goals are lofty and necessary, I’m skeptical that today’s planners will improve much on their predecessors’ more questionable land-use decisions since my family moved here in 1961.

The unattractive effects of this so-called smart growth already can be seen in such places as Mission Valley, Little Italy and Point Loma. Despite traffic delays and too few street improvements — to name a couple of sore spots among skeptics of dense housing — advocates point to these places as stellar examples of smart growth.

I must be blind. These communities feel unwelcoming to me for the sheer magnitude of construction and the burden of getting to them.

My own neighborhood, in the Morena area, will be among the next to face smart growth. Again, local officials have put a rosy spin on the benefits of living, working and playing all in the same area.

But so far, smart growth looks to me like some of San Diego’s older planning blunders. What’s more, from outward appearances, the city’s overall attitude toward those protesting the wholesale disruption of their neighborhoods appears to be, “To hell with you. We know best.”

Other recent cases of apparent overdevelopment include Liberty Station, on the grounds of the former Naval Training Center, the Sports Arena area, and University City, to name a few communities that have absorbed an onslaught of multifamily construction.

But other prime examples of poor planning became part of San Diego’s history long before smart growth.

Take the San Carlos area, east of downtown. As a teenager, I saw the results of poor planning and dicey building codes there when my father tore off the siding on our hastily built cracker-box tract house to insulate it. Or when we traveled several miles away to public schools because none was close-by. Or when I took seven buses a day and had to wait an hour and a half for a transfer.

Then there was Mira Mesa, where thousands of homes were built without parks, infrastructure or schools.

All this growth has occurred with seemingly small concern for current residents who have coped with potholes, water main breaks and traffic gridlock for years. So how much more dysfunction must we tolerate?

And how much more of our Finest City’s natural beauty will be lost to felled trees, carved-out hillsides and fill dirt, while developers enjoy lowered building fees and looser restrictions on building requirements for, say, parking. Look for dense development elsewhere.

In terms of public transportation, local planners assure that millennials, who are expected to live in many of these new housing units, prefer riding public transit to driving. So, the argument goes, they will use trolleys and buses here.

Not true. “Despite our mild weather and active outdoor culture, it is difficult to use transit or any other non-auto mode to get to work…because a typical job is only accessible to 29 percent of San Diegans by transit within 90 minutes,” according to one study. In it, a San Diego land planner estimated that 76 percent of San Diego workers who are 16 and older drove alone to their jobs in 2015.

Additionally, 2016 ridership dropped by 4 million passenger trips per year when compared to 2015, or 4.3 percent.

Will public transit ever be fast enough or go far enough?

Smart growth is no panacea. Many question still must be unanswered: Will we have enough drinking water? Can our sewerage system handle the waste from these population increases? Will we need more schools, and where would classrooms be built? How much subsidized housing will there be? What will the rents run for a struggling middle class?

The failure to satisfactorily address these and other concerns is why I distrust the city’s planning decisions. More housing, yes, even in my neighborhood, but tell us the truth about the toll dense development will take on communities that took decades to cultivate.

Let us decide whether the picture of smart growth is rosy.

Rita Calvano Smith is a freelance writer and editor. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

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