In 1971, a young Pete Wilson was elected mayor of San Diego on a platform of “smart growth.” I covered City Hall as a young reporter in the ‘70s, and remember how Wilson’s strategy resonated with voters, who wanted to avoid Los Angeles-style sprawl by densifying neighborhoods south of Interstate 8 while limiting patchwork growth to the north.
But 50 years later, many residents in our core neighborhoods are living with the unplanned consequences of that strategy: dilapidated, expensive and overcrowded housing, congested streets and inadequate parks and schools.
Now retired from journalism, I saw those problems first-hand as an enumerator for the U.S. Census. I recently spent 10 weeks walking hundreds of blocks and interviewing more than 1,000 residents in City Heights, Golden Hill, North Park, Southcrest, Lomita and other neighborhoods south of the 8.
In many of the households I visited, extended families are sharing one- or two-bedroom apartments. Their buildings have little on-site parking, so many residents must park on the street.
When I canvassed those neighborhoods, I often could not find a parking spot within two blocks of the addresses on my list. And that was in the middle of the day, when many residents and their vehicles were at work.
A new generation of pro-density “YIMBY” advocates argue that public transportation and bicycles will help avoid those problems. But more buses, trolleys and bike lanes will not work for the households I visited.
Almost all of these hardworking families have — and need — multiple vehicles. Very few of them have the luxury of working from home, pandemic or not. Parents — and many of their older children — have jobs that can’t be reached by bus, and certainly not by bicycle.
They are maids, nannies, cooks, plumbers, laborers and clerks. Some work at multiple locations every day. They have tools and supplies to transport, and children to take to school. They often leave home before sunrise and return after sunset.
Imagine arriving home in the dark with a sleeping child and a trunk full of groceries, and having to walk two blocks in the rain to your apartment. Or circling the block repeatedly, and finally, in desperation, parking in a driveway or six inches into a red zone, only to find a $78 citation on your windshield the next morning.
Their daily commutes can also be a nightmare, even before they reach the freeway. University Avenue and El Cajon Boulevard and their feeder streets can’t be widened. And those transit arteries now have fewer lanes for vehicles, to make room for lightly trafficked bus lanes, and bike lanes that are nearly always empty. So drivers make their own — sometimes dangerous — shortcuts down side streets and narrow alleys.
My census work immersed me in the real world of San Diego’s urban core, a world policymakers and density advocates hardly know. That’s why I’m deeply skeptical about plans that allow — or even require — a new generation of bigger apartment buildings with even fewer parking spots.
Without a significant investment in streets, sidewalks and traffic flow solutions, residents in our core communities will once again suffer most from noble but misguided attempts to increase our housing supply and put downward pressure on rents.
Giving developers more incentives to replace the few remaining single-family homes with eight- or nine-unit apartments is more than just bad planning. It’s a financial giveaway to the “haves” — the property owners and developers who have the real power at City Hall. And it worsens quality of life for the “have-nots” — those who don’t make campaign contributions and have little voice at City Hall.
I am encouraged that Mayor Todd Gloria has acknowledged community opposition to aggressive “densification” without adequate infrastructure to safeguard our quality of life.
He recently told the New York Times  we must assure “this density happens in those communities where it makes the most sense, (and) that those communities are receiving the investment in parks and mobility and other assets to make sure that what they like about their community is actually enhanced.”
I urge Gloria, our new Council members, our planning commissioners and city staff to let the realities in our neighborhoods — not spreadsheets and pipe dreams — guide their decision-making.
Hoping more San Diegans will ride the bus to work is not strategy. Wishing they’ll bike round-trip on workdays is not a plan. Please don’t repeat the mistakes of Wilson and subsequent administrations and expect a different outcome.
Paul Krueger is a freelance writer, editor and researcher. He recently retired after 45 years as a print reporter and columnist for local and national publications, and, more recently, as a senior producer at NBC7.