February 1, 2002 - From the February, 2002 issue

San Diego's Neighborhood Of Villages Growth Management Plan Offers Lessons For L.A.

Growth predictions from the last Census forecast a steady increase in California's population, yet most cities throughout the state continue to cry out for no growth and low-density. In light of that conflict, how will we accommodate these projections in our cities? To cope with that problem Gail Goldberg, Planning Director for the City of San Diego, has gone out and explained the true nature of growth to her city's residents. Because of that process, she now has a plan that not only deals with growth but improves quality of life. TPR is pleased to present the following interview detailing San Diego's City of Villages plan.

Gail Goldberg

"The only way that we can be successful in the future is to manage the growth in ways that offer all San Diegans greater mobility and travel alternatives other than the car."—Gail Goldberg

Gail, when last we spoke you addressed the progress you were making in forwarding a city growth plan that would shape San Diego into a neighborhood of villages. Bring us up to date on how that growth management plan is progressing.

Last July, we were in the middle of an ongoing and extensive public outreach process that has helped us to distill, refine and turn public input into an effective strategy that reflects how San Diegans would like to see us address growth over the next 20 years.

In the months following that interview, we have refined this information by working closely with a 40-member Citizens Committee, the City Council and the Smart Growth Implementation Committee-a new body formed by the Mayor consisting of the heads of public agencies, the local transit board, the school board, SANDAG, the Port District and other key agencies. We have since completed that phase of the process and recently distributed the new element of our general plan, the Strategic Framework Element that contains our village strategy, a 5-year Action Plan and the first draft of the requisite EIR for public comment.

In that previous conversation one of the major hurdles was getting people to understand growth. In coming up with a consensus strategy, how have you enlisted and engaged the community to not only understand what growth is, but cope with the ensuing challenges that growth brings?

Many community members came into this process looking for ways to stop growth. However, after more than a year of public discussion and our asking questions that made people think about the nature of our projected growth, many of those communities have concluded that growth is inevitable.

We were then able to focus the discussion on "quality of life" in San Diego. We talked about our values, our hopes and our fears for the future. Finally we engaged citizens in a broad public discussion about what we wanted our future to look like. Growth itself was not the real issue, but how growth might be used as an opportunity to attract the other amenities that were lacking in many of our older neighborhoods such as transit, neighborhood services and civic spaces.

What about those who are still skeptical? The inner-suburban and urban core communities have lacked an enormous amount of infrastructure investment and may have a hard time coping with additional density. How do you find the resources to bring these communities even with those at the suburban fringe, let alone cover the cost of dealing with an increase in population and quality of life?

As we looked at the infrastructure in our older, urbanized communities, we found many deficiencies. We estimated the costs of improving existing infrastructure-whether we build villages or not-at close to $2.5 billion.

Growth may be the impetus for dealing with this infrastructure deficit. However, with this new understanding of growth, it seems that San Diegans are beginning to realize this is an opportunity to address the city's infrastructure needs. The cries for infrastructure investment are no longer coming solely from the urban core. Some newer communities have now joined in and see infrastructure investment as a way to maintain their single-family communities and cope with growth. The discussion must include all communities in San Diego.

That dialogue has elevated the conversation and compelled policy makers to commit to finding ways of improving the city's infrastructure before any density is added.

One of the ways that we are hoping to aid in that process is to complete three pilot villages within the city. Each of these projects will serve as a model and give us an opportunity to examine the true costs of building a village and judging the difficulty of creating lasting partnerships with other public agencies. It will also give communities an opportunity to really see what the villages look like and how this linking of infrastructure will function.

Often infrastructure debates are about roads, highways, airports and harbors. You speak here of city infrastructure investments. Elaborate.

I'm talking about population-based infrastructure-parks, schools, fire stations, libraries, etc. San Diegans use and relate to these on a daily basis. If you live in a community that doesn't have a park or you have to drive a great distance to use a library, there is a direct impact on your daily life.

The struggle with the larger infrastructure needs that you are describing is that most people don't see the immediate need yet. Many of us understand the problems that we are going to be facing in the next few years with things like airports, but those are not things that people see day-to-day. Because of that, the neighborhood infrastructure needs that I'm talking about may be easier to deal with.

Real estate used to revolve around the adage, "Location, location, location." The metaphor for you appears to be: "Mobility, mobility, mobility." How do you successfully deal with mobility when your city expects to add 1 million more people in 20 years?

Traffic is the issue in San Diego. It's what everybody talks about. When you talk about growth, the biggest fear that San Diegans have isn't more people, it's more cars, it's congestion. Most people think that traffic is untenable right now.

The only way that we can be successful in the future is to manage the growth in ways that offer all San Diegans greater mobility and travel alternatives other than the car.

A world-class transit system that begins to connect all of our communities to the major job centers is a critical component. Interestingly, that was something that almost every community identified as an opportunity of growth. We are working closely with the local transit agency to make sure that the transit system and the City of Villages strategy are planned and implemented together.

Gail, in most cities like Los Angeles, transportation planning is under a transportation general manager in a silo-like organizational structure. Is that the case in San Diego?


The city of San Diego has traffic engineers in many of our city departments including Planning. For several years though, transportation planning and long-range land use planning have both occurred within the Planning Department.

We are acutely aware of the connection between transportation and land use planning and are always looking to further integrate the two. The Planning Department has recently been given responsibility for creating a new Street Design Manual that will begin to address streets as important public spaces balancing the needs of vehicles and pedestrians. The new manual will provide opportunities for narrower streets, create better streetscape opportunities and offer improved bicycle and pedestrian facilities as well as traffic calming measures. Planning is also initiating a new transportation demand management program. We will first concentrate on one major employment center, where we will encourage flexible work hours, telecommuting and incentives for transit use and car-pooling. We are looking for creative ways to make better use of our existing infrastructure.

You've described a very proactive role for the planning department in the implementation of the city of villages plan. One of the largest developers in metropolitan San Diego and other Southern California and Central Valley cities is public school district-a sovereign entity not beholden to the city. Is there a way of engaging in collaborative planning with each other on mixed used development?

While we have made some inroads and we do have a school district that is open to planning schools in a different way, we still have a long way to go.

We are working with the local school district and the local housing commission to create one new urban elementary school that uses less land, has both multipurpose and joint-use facilities and even replaces the housing lost in site development with new affordable housing. If we are successful, this new school can become a model for urban schools both in San Diego and the entire state.

But, we still see challenges in the general siting of school facilities. Right now we don't have acceptable integration of the community planning and school siting functions. That needs to be corrected, not just locally, but throughout the state.

Give an example of where and how such efforts break down. What are the typical conflicts? How do those conflicts get positively resolved?

The school district is typically on a tight timeline. They are given money and have a short period of time to find sites and get the schools built. They go into the respective communities, identify sites and have some limited dialogue with the community residents. An EIR is issued on the alternative sites and this provides the single opportunity for residents and local agencies to provide input.

And, because the school district has no obligation under state regulations to even consider local land use plans, there are no proactive early discussions with the local land use jurisdictions regarding the existing land use plans or the long-range goals of the community. Are sites identified by the school district that are in direct conflict with our land use plans and with city objectives? Yes, there are.

Beyond the conflicts with existing policies, there is a missed opportunity to look beyond the present. These new schools are the major investment by the state of California in our neighborhoods and could represent the single opportunity for any new facilities in many of these neighborhoods. That investment could be leveraged to provide for other needs of the community. Multipurpose and joint-use facilities could make the school the new focus for the community. The quality of the neighborhoods could be significantly improved if we use the school creatively. These opportunities do not exist under the current framework.

I'm not sure what the solution is, but California needs to find a way to ensure integration of school site selection with the larger community needs.

What's the downside if we can't successfully realize your city of villages?

There will be lost opportunities. If we continue development in the current patterns, the land uses simply will not support transit or provide for alternatives to the car. Also, the infrastructure needs in the older neighborhoods exist with or without the village plan. The City of Villages strategy begins to address those infrastructure needs and provides an opportunity to leverage resources. We could lose a wonderful opportunity to make a huge public investment in the future sustainability of our city.

Right now we have an added opportunity to invest in community infrastructure in conjunction with the school district and other public agencies. That investment can and should be made in a way that supports this City of Villages paradigm. The alternative is to invest in an ad hoc manner that could detract from or even destroy the neighborhood and community fabric that we have endeavored to create.

Last Question. The proposed state park bond, Prop. 40, is on the March ballot. The Speaker and the Governor have announced their support of a new $30 billion in school bond measure. And a state library bond, the largest in the country, was approved a few years ago. How can these voter approved bond dollars be best leveraged to realize the promise of your City of Village plans?

The state of California has serious problems in terms of how it's going to accommodate its projected growth over the next 20 years. And while there have been conversations about smart growth, there have been no real commitments to smart growth at the state level. California has the opportunity to use their investments in public schools, libraries and park/open spaces to support smart growth plans and provide incentives for local land use agencies to provide needed housing.

If the state wants to make some real strides and truly engage local governments throughout the state, they have to imbed some smart growth criteria into the allocation of this money. Whatever investment is made in the future must be done in support of smart growth.


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