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Cut to the Chase

Modeling matters

Let's call this "The Case of the Incredibly Shrinking City."

When I first started following regional growth accommodation back in the 20th century, elected officials and the public were told in loud terms by regional planners that the 20-year population forecast exceeded the housing capacities of all local General Plans.

The cities and the county were urged, no ordered -- under threat of potential federal or state withdrawal of funds -- to redo their General Plans to accommodate more growth. The mantra was that high growth rates are inevitable and we must plan for a lot more -- like 45 percent more -- people.

At that time, looking at the "biggest gorilla" on the block, the city of San Diego was asked to add an additional 55,000 units above existing estimated plan capacities of 108,000. Thus the City of Villages was born and the planners went into PR mode preaching the virtues -- nay the requirement -- to densify. They duly trotted around the city looking wherever they could to convince communities that by taking new growth they could somehow finally solve the deficiencies of past poor growth management.

Time passed. When the 2000 census numbers came in the forecast was reduced and now the city only needed to accommodate 17,000 to 35,000 new units. The city decided to adopt a range confident that surely no fewer than that would have to be accommodated.

Cut to 2002. City planners recently announced -- in between a continued public hearing on the City of Villages -- that due to the latest in regional modeling magic the forecast now shows that the city really has enough "capacity" in existing plans. The estimate now shows the city only has to accommodate 89,000 units through 2020.

There are many ways to think about this -- such as, "Oops! Sorry about that. A few years of planning down the drain." On the other hand, how about: "Viola! Here's a magical 30-percent reduction in population growth -- and with nary a public hearing."

Problem solved, right?

Not exactly, and inquiring minds wonder why is the city announcing it this way at this moment in time?

First, convincing communities to densify wasn't going well. People were balking at the notion of adding growth without infrastructure. Elected officials were balking at raising taxes. City planners declined to analyze the estimated existing capacity. Planners are also quick to note that they expect the population growth still to come, just not as fast.

So all the city is doing is saying we are going to cut the planning timeline to 20 years instead of 30. Why should the city be jumping to change the political conversation about the numbers so quickly when in another couple of years they will simply have to go back to the larger forecast?

What does it really change? How are these numbers really used?

They are used as inputs to all local transportation modeling. Those models are key to ranking regional projects for state and federal funding. So with the movement of a few bits of software, the regional infrastructure project list is also changed. And it matters what timeline is chosen to evaluate those projects.

How was the change explained by city staff? Environmentalists and community planning leaders were told that this was the result of changes to the models to attempt to account for people living in Temecula and Tijuana and commuting into the county. These priorities are already displayed in glossy brochures published by Sandag to implement "a comprehensive binational planning program."

As for moving to promote projects to ease the commute from Temecula in a letter dated October 9, 2002, Sandag Chair Ron Morrison writes: Sandag over the next year will be looking at the potential to move more people in a transportation corridor that would parallel Interstate 15. The corridor could be east or west of the existing interstate. We will be conducting community outreach so we can "listen" to the people who live and travel the corridor in an effort to develop a series of potential transportation alternatives (e.g. transit, regional arterial, expressway, and/or a highway solution) for detailed evaluation. This work will begin in early 2003.

Note: the quotes around "listen" appear in the original. This reminds me of participative management workshops where they attempt to make people feel "as if they were involved."

But our future quality of life is at stake -- as well as who should pay for it and how tax increases are going to attempt to be levied.

This change could shift in position a proposal by Bill Horn to build a freeway through Escondido east of I-15 to support an airport at Miramar -- or also that could support another airport site still on the list in Ramona.

And if commuters from Mexico and Riverside county -- along with Miramar airport supporters -- are to be the "winners" in this game, who are the losers? With limited funds to go around, this approach has the potential to promote sprawl infrastructure investments over infill infrastructure reinvestments in already urbanized areas.

This also raises the importance of Sandag releasing their transportation models for technical and public peer review.

Chase is editor of San Diego Earth Times and chair of the mayor's Environmental Advisory Board. E-mail her at carolyn.chase@sddt.com.

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