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'Smart growth' not warmly welcomed in coastal communities

“Smart growth” might be a buzzword in planning circles, but it’s not quite doing the trick for residents in Southern California’s coastal communities. City planners and managers are struggling to win their constituents over to the concept that developers and many environmentalists alike have already given a thumbs-up.

“I think ULI as an organization, all of us need to take maybe a step back and think that, maybe we need to rebrand smart growth. In particular get rid of the word growth,” said Greg Shannon, founder of Sedona Pacific Corp. and panelist at the Urban Land Institute San Diego/Tijuana November meeting on Tuesday.

Paul Marra, senior principal with Keyser Marston Associates, suggested replacing “growth” with “land use,” since that six-letter word seems to strike a discordant chord among residents. Shannon said he thinks part of this is a fear of not only growth, but also any change at all, which is an inevitability that coastal California isn’t ready to accept.

“There are a lot of people in denial in California, particularly coastal California, that think that they can just pull up the drawbridges and nothing is ever going to change,” Shannon said. “There is not a sense of stewardship on the coast — it’s more of a sense that I own the ocean, I own the beach, nobody else can come here.”

Patrick Murphy, planning and building director for the City of Encinitas, said when Encinitas was working on a citywide general plan update, they held workshops centered around state housing laws, and asked for citizen input on the plan in a survey. The results, however, showed that residents wanted what smart growth principles provide, even though the city had vetoed a smart growth-based plan just two-years earlier.

“Mixed-use outscored, in my mind significantly, standard residential,” Murphy said. “They wanted it to be near transit, they wanted it to be near commercial, now granted the top one is a no-brainer: don’t put it in the middle of my residential single-family neighborhood. Be context sensitive about it.”

The suggestion garnering the least support was to increase allowable units per acre from 30 to 45, but aside from that, citizens wanted smart growth without the term ever coming into play.

“We went through a housing element update and educated everyone on state housing law, and basically they came back talking about smart growth and sustainability principles, without us saying boo about those issues,” Murphy said.

Al Corti, a life-long developer and City of Del Mar councilmember, said the failure of downtown revitalization plan Prop J on the Nov. 6 ballot also demonstrated residents’ frustration or misunderstanding of smart growth’s effects, especially since the plan was shaped with citizen input from over 90 forums in 18 months.

Del Mar's Prop J, which was estimated to generate $576,000 annually in tax revenue, aimed to change several existing zoning and permitting issues to make the city more feasible for development. Plans included increasing the floor area ratio from 0.45 to 1, allowing multi-family residential units and increasing the allowable height of buildings from the current 14 feet to 26 feet.

With 60 percent of buildings in Del Mar already exceeding these zoning permits, Corti said there was no impetus to redevelop the area or to create new development.

“There’s no incentive for any of these property owners to come in and make any kind of redevelopment changes if they may lose half of their density or they may have to increase parking, so for the most part many of the buildings become stagnant,” Corti said.

Gregory Wade, assistant city manager and community development director for the City of Imperial Beach, faced similar zoning impediments that, until changed, are a significant deterrent for developers.

The city plan approved Aug. 1 increased the building height limit from 28 to 35 feet in some instances, and the units per acre allotment in one of three zones from 22 to 36. Wade said these changes are a step in the right direction, but still make development difficult, though he noted that after the dissolution of the Redevelopment Agency, the city council’s political will to develop has never been stronger.

“Our whole city used to be a redevelopment area — it still is,” Wade said. “We’ve been struggling quite immensely with the dissolution of redevelopment. Both [current] projects and almost every project in the city has been a redevelopment assisted project. And with the elimination of redevelopment, at no time in my history with the city, and I’ve been there a long time, has it been more rife for a developer to come into our town and get support from the council to develop.”

Corti and Del Mar found out the hard way that many residents aren’t yet ready to welcome smart growth into their neighborhoods, despite its purported benefits, but used Prop J’s failure as a learning tool.

“It raised the discussion, the dialogue if you would, and sometimes passionately, about what are the impediments to downtown, what do we need to do, when will we do it, how do we accomplish it,” Corti said.

He said the way forward may come in small steps, not overhaul plans.

“It gives us the framework of many of the issues the public is informed about, and I think the public will come around over the next couple years to take it in pieces, as opposed to in one big plan,” Corti said.

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