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Steele offers 'smart' solution to combat traffic woes, urban sprawl

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Mark Steele is a man on a mission; a mission to improve the quality of life in San Diego as it transforms from a rapidly growing city into an urban mega-center. The plan: Reduce traffic by eliminating city sprawl, building up not out and creating an environment in the city that keeps people happy.

This is the vision of urban planner Steele, president of MW Steele. He calls it "smart growth," two words you will frequently hear from his mouth.

Smart growth is the concept of maximizing currently developed space with increased density while providing a balanced infrastructure of public parks, transportation, libraries and things to do within walking distance, according to Steele. The goal is to decrease traffic and pollution while increasing the city's quality of life.

"Good. That sounds healthy," Steele replied to a friend who complained traffic and parking problems forced him to start walking to the grocery store.

Steele's smart growth vision for change faces several major obstacles in San Diego. The city's lack of affordable housing and a massive housing infrastructure deficit are overshadowed in the media by political upheaval and a highly publicized pension deficit. In addition, the taxes and bonds required to support the infrastructure needed for smart growth have traditionally been met with public resistance from the citizens of San Diego.

"San Diegans have a tradition of not paying for things. I think it has caught up with the city," Steele said. "I think it needs to be addressed. One of the things that we are dealing with now is that everybody is getting concerned with the pension crisis, but there still is a couple of billion dollars on the deferred maintenance budget. About $2 billion. So that's out there as well. Somehow or another it has to be dealt with at some point."

But Steele's smart growth solution is not without controversy.

"Some groups are concerned that smart growth means giving the development interests a free hand in the future of the city," he said. "These may not be organized groups, but rather anti-growth factions of people. I think this is what people may mean about government being heavy-handed. Regarding social engineering, that criticism may come from the other side of the debate; (for example) those that oppose affordable housing because of the social engineering issue -- they might feel as though the lower-income people should fend for themselves."

Despite the controversy, Steele is convinced his idea is right for San Diegans.

"I think most people are embracing the idea," he said. "There is a very vocal minority in opposition. Isn't this true of all new and visionary ideas?"

Ultimately, the visionary responsible for fixing these problems will be San Diego's next mayor, who Steele says must be a leader capable of shifting San Diego's attitude.

"I think the mayor has to have a clear idea about where she or he thinks the city should go, can go and will go in the future in some amount of detail, and then get out to the public and talk about that and describe how we can all, together, achieve that," said Steele.

"I've often said in areas in parts of the city where people complain about parking, 'It's not a parking problem, it's a walking problem,'" Steele added. "San Diegans have always had the luxury of not having to worry about that. That's all part of becoming an urban center. I think the change in consciousness is something that comes with people getting used to living that lifestyle. It seems like it is going to have to happen. The idea behind smart growth is that growth is beyond our control. We need to make sure that while we are growing we don't lose our way of life. We need to get people out of their cars to walk."

Though San Diego is one of the oldest cities in the country, Steele said the city still has "a lot of growing up to do."

So how does an adolescent city that resists paying for bonds and taxes mature into an urban mega-center while maintaining the laid-back San Diego charm and small village appeal?

"I think that the first thing that needs to happen is a quality of life bond," Steele said. "That is a bond issue that goes out and deals with the infrastructure. My feeling is that if a bond issue were to contain everything that everybody needs and touches each person's way of life, the public would probably be willing to back a bond like that and pay some small amount."

Steele also suggested that much of San Diego's housing problem comes from a government loophole allowing developers to pay a penalty fee to avoid building affordable housing. The fee is often cheaper than the cost to build such housing.

"Removing the in-lieu fee option for inclusionary housing would help implement the affordable housing program," Steele said. "Adopt the revised general plan, including the city of villages strategy and the city of villages transit land use connections locating the existing and future villages, and implement both as fundamental land use policy documents.

Still, he said developers have gotten a bad rap.

"Nobody wants traffic congestion. Nobody wants to make the air dirtier. Nobody really wants to tear down trees and fill in canyons. They (developers) want to create a lifestyle. There is always a push and pull about who pays for what and how it gets done. What my experience has been in San Diego is those competing forces end up satisfying one another with little bits and pieces."

For Steele, his bits and pieces come in the form of a well thought out infrastructure that serves the needs of the community across the board. This includes anti-sprawl development.

"If you need to develop, do it in the existing urban development," said Steele. "... Find out what each community needs in terms of infrastructure to maintain their way of life, parks, fire stations, et cetera. Find ways to pay for it through private development or bonds or taxes.

"Ignoring these issues and ideas will only lead to continued sprawl and a degradation of the city we all love."

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