April 1, 2001 - From the April, 2001 issue

San Diego Experiments: Regional Governance With Land Use & Transportation Planning Linked

Apples and oranges--the current view of transportation and land use. But perhaps that trend is changing with the recent election of a new Mayor in San Diego who not only realizes that they are interrelated, but is a vocal advocate for more regional solutions to these historic municipal ills. Dr. Charles Nathanson, Executive Director of San Diego Dialogue, reveals the Mayor's current agenda re: land use, and asks: Can this vision of a system of interconnected villages be a case study for successful regional transportation and land use planning statewide?


Charles Nathanson

Chuck, you've got a new Mayor in San Diego, Mayor Murphy. Give us some insight into his platform and his agenda in the first months of his administration re: lessons learned for the rest of California. What's his frame of reference and list of priorities?

San Diego is still a city with a vast majority of the homes constructed with only one and two stories. So if we want to prepare for the approximately 1 million people who will descend on San Diego over the next 25 years we're either going to push growth further out or we're going to have to put them closer in. And if we're going to put them closer in, the only way to make it compatible with the quality of life people expect here is to build village environments.

That's really the crux of his message-build a city of villages that are pedestrian friendly and focus on mixed use, higher density and more compact settlement. And he's got the right temperament to focus San Diego on this front.

He's using his experience as a judge to lead the Council as if he were in his chambers orchestrating a settlement. And it's working! He's getting unanimous votes. And while that is remarkable in and of itself, what is more impressive is that he's gone beyond the City Council districts and is reaching out to the 17 other major jurisdictions in San Diego County. He really recognizes that no jurisdiction-even one as big and weighty as San Diego-is going to solve growth problems on its own. We need a regional solution. The only problem is he doesn't have the tools to make that collaboration work.

If he doesn't have the tools, what is he offering these other jurisdictions? And how are they responding?

The main thing he has to offer is a sympathetic ear--something they feel they haven't had in the past. He's prepared to listen to their interests and to try to reconcile them with his own. He is very aware that we cannot get stronger forms of regional government without cross-jurisdictional collaboration.

And what are the fiscal challenges that the Mayor of San Diego faces in trying to grapple with these regional challenges?

The main challenges are-public perception and a lack of money. The common misconception among residents of older neighborhoods is that, "people ruin the place and density destroys communities." Because new development doesn't provide financial help to infrastructure in older communities we can't change that perception. And if perceptions don't change, we can't alter our current pattern of growth to refocus it back to the older communities.

Another equally large hurdle is the creation of a transit system that truly competes with the car. We have a beautiful design for a transit system, but no funding. With a major source of funding-the half-cent transnet sales tax-coming up for reauthorization in a few years, we will be at a point where we can truly focus on transit, not just highways.

A problem is that people must be willing to take a leap of faith and redirect money away from highway programs-where congestion is clearly visible-and put it into mass transit. And most people can't yet rationalize that switch.

Elaborate on this transit design and its prospects for implementation in our lifetime?

Transit has been bedeviled in San Diego because we initially bought affordable right-of-ways. And they were affordable because people didn't live there. That caused the problem that we have now-we can't convince people to go to where the trolley is.

This new plan connects where people live with where they want to go. It does this with a flex-trolley system using some fixed-rail but pursing Curitiba-like rubber tire vehicles with signal-preemption and right-of-way. With this plan we hope to provide a mechanism so that people can travel in roughly the same time and comfort as they would have otherwise in an automobile.

Well, as good as that plan sounds, didn't the regional Metro Agency recently fire the author of that plan? What are the politics of trying to implement such plans?

The biggest thing the plan has going for it is that the Mayor's vision of a city of villages won't happen without this transit system. So the Mayor and the City Council have a big stake in carrying out this design. And to the City's credit, a relatively conservative metropolitan transit development board just voted with only one dissenting vote in favor of this design.

My sense of the situation is that the financing dimensions of this project frighten the agency and its staff. They don't want to shelve everything else in favor of something that may only be a dream.

So again we come back to the financing question. And without a clear financing mechanism, there will always be political squabbles over preserving old paradigms versus taking a risk on something new.

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Let's turn to RGEC, the successor to RITA. What's the status of that effort to link transit and land use?

You can't really do transportation planning effectively in San Diego unless you have some influence over local land use decisions. I think the direction RGEC will go is in developing a general plan for the county that would require local jurisdictions to be in conformity with it. That's probably the gentlest form of influence, so that if you get several million dollars to build a transit center, you really do need to put some housing at the transit center for the whole thing to work. And if you don't build the housing, you don't get the money. In other words, you develop a carrot and stick for carrying out a regional transportation plan that requires land use connections to it.

You are well aware that Speaker Hertzberg created a new Blue Ribbon Commission on Regionalism. In his orientation speech, he noted to its membership that 40 years earlier a Blue Ribbon Commission on Metropolitan Problems reported to Pat Brown that the state was 16 million on the way to being 30 some million at the end of the century and local government had little capacity to manage growth. Speaker Hertzberg postulated that we are now a state of 34 million on the way to 50 some million in the next 20-25 years and perhaps local government has even less capacity to manage that growth. Give some insight into challenges the Speaker articulates from the lessons being learned in San Diego--what would you hope the Speaker's Commission would address and recommend?

I think we might be able to demonstrate that tying regional transportation planning and land use together isn't such a scary thing for local jurisdictions. I think SANDAG has established a pattern of negotiation with local jurisdictions over the last 15 years that has laid the basis for a real bottoms-up conversation that's strong enough to deal with two legitimate concerns of local jurisdictions: 1) That there be the necessary infrastructure financing to handle whatever land use requirements there are, and 2) That local jurisdictions not be cut out of the conversation. Because of San Diego's size, I believe that we can show that both things are possible without having to sacrifice a strong regional perspective.

Let's move from the macro to the micro and the need to build housing in San Diego for 1 million new residents in the next 20 years. Give us an update on, for example, the City Heights renewal effort, which is advanced by a private foundation, Price Charities, and led by the City and the School District. Is this collaboration noteworthy?

One of the impressive things about City Heights is the way it's been a learning process for the entire municipality.

City Heights was the most frightened community in terms of development and density. It suffered greatly from the 1970's construction boom and was at the center of an enormous amount of substandard housing and infrastructure development. Because of that history, if you had merely shown the community the development plan they would've vetoed it.

As it were, the collaborative process Price Charities put in place changed the dynamics by building exactly what the community wanted--a great police station, a recreation center, and a school.

The real test for City Heights and for the City as a whole will be whether we can find a substitute for the generous philanthropic effort made to build this community. It's going to take public-private partnerships on a much more robust scale all around the city to really capitalize on this kind of effort. But we are beginning to work together on urban investment funds to bring the community and large investors together and hopefully that will increase the number of projects built and help create a more critical mass.

Elaborate more about what intrigues you about that process. A number of Mayors have tried to initiate targeted neighborhood initiatives. What are the essential ingredients of a successful targeted effort?

I think one reason why it works is that banks under the community reinvestment act probably have some incentive to write one big check instead of a bunch of small checks. Second, you can be attractive to investors on a large scale. The Bay Area Council did the work of getting the communities onboard, so that the projects would improve rather than diminish the quality of the neighborhood. So in that context, I think you might be able to raise money on the scale that you need in order to assemble land up front and really make a difference in a community instead of doing one street corner at a time.

Let's close with a question about San Diego Dialogue. You've been at the forefront of both generating community and region-wide discussions on Smart Growth and crossborder relationships. Give us a status report on your progress with crossborder collaborations and Smart Growth.

When we began talking about San Diego as part of a bi-national metropolitan community we were mainly interested in the education of our membership and not so much in reaching the general public. But we've found that you can't deal effectively with issues of growth and neighborhoods without getting the public's attention and helping them understand the significance of the issues. And this is now also true on crossborder issues.

Let's take the airport as an example. Maybe one day San Diego will have a beautiful new airport, but what do we do in the meantime? Do we just let the current trend of increasing congestion at Lindbergh continue. Or do we look to opportunities provided by Tijuana's Rodriguez International Airport? The latter option requires a lot more public understanding of the issue than exists today.

Right now Smart Growth has just been Smart Talk. We've got three years to actually do business differently. And doing business differently is basically coming up with the funds and the form of regional governance that will allow us to do it. The three big decisions are funding transit, funding infrastructure in older neighborhoods, and tying transportation to land use on a regional basis.

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