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Roundtable embraces smart growth concepts, discusses roadblocks

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Now that the population in San Diego County has reached more than 3 million, estimates are that the region is 80,000 to 100,000 housing units short of demand, which has prompted those within the building and infrastructure industries to suggest smart growth development as a solution.

This was the topic of a June 6 roundtable discussion hosted by The Daily Transcript and featuring various industry professionals with intimate knowledge of this development concept.

The panelists were asked to define smart growth before delving into the issues that surround the concept. The term has been used to describe several different development ideas.

"(Smart growth means) reducing reliance on the automobile and creating pedestrian-friendly communities," said Kent Aden, executive vice president of the Otay Ranch Co., adding it also means providing a diverse supply of housing.

"A lot of smart growth is how do we better lay out neighborhoods," said Nancy Graham, president of Centre City Development Corp., suggesting that detailed grids are a key to better design. "There is substantial value in designing a smart growth community because they will sell for more and hold their prices."

According to Gary Gallegos, executive director of the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), there are 200 smart growth development opportunities within the 18 cities that make up the county. However, actually developing these parcels will be taxing.

One challenge standing in the way of smart growth development or redevelopment is community resistance.

"It all comes back to getting the public to go along with those objectives ... if there's a problem it's no public support," said Bill Dumka, senior vice president of Black Mountain Ranch LLC, adding that historically communities are hesitant of new development or redevelopment.

"Once people are comfortable, they're tough to move into action," said Sandy Goodkin, founding partner of Sanford Goodkin & Associates. "When you're protecting your biggest asset (your home) you say no to an awful lot of things."

One reason for community resistance is the issue of density, as communities typically want open space and the character of their city to remain unchanged despite new development.

"You have too much density when you saturate existing infrastructure and services to the point where quality of life is diminished for those people already there," Aden said.

According to Gallegos, density is still viewed as a negative term regardless of its ability to provide needed housing units.

"If we're going to provide more housing opportunities for all these people ... we're going to have more density," Graham added.

While some find density a negative building concept, Jean Zagrodnik, a partner at Zagrodnik + Thomas Architects finds density exciting so long as whoever is developing a property has flexible plans that can allow building aspects to change midstream.

If denser developments are to be built within the county, communities have questioned if the proper infrastructure will be in place to support it and the increased population that would result.

According to Stefan Marks, manager of service development for the North County Transit District, the county has a huge infrastructure deficit because in the past there has been a significant time between when houses are built and when public transit is established nearby. Currently the construction of the Sprinter in North County is looking to change this trend.

"The ability to do proactive planning is something that the Sprinter rail line will provide North County," Marks said, adding hopefully the construction and planning of the Sprinter will affect the way other areas of the county build their infrastructure.

Another topic that fuels community resistance is eminent domain, the right of a government or agency to take private property for public use. While the ability to use eminent domain is becoming increasingly difficult, members of the panel insisted the ability to acquire a property through eminent domain is one of the most critical components of a smart growth redevelopment area.

"While there are horror stories (about eminent domain uses), what you don't hear in the same way is the incredible amount of success," Graham said, acknowledging that some aspects of eminent domain need to be fixed.

Marks explained that the North County Transit District used its power of eminent domain when acquiring land for the Sprinter. Both Gallegos and Nancy Bragado, general plan program manager for the City of San Diego Planning Department, agreed that eminent domain is a good instrument for redevelopment and although it is becoming increasingly difficult to use they hope it won't go away.

One issue that will likely never go away is community resistance to any type of development, which prompted the panel to discuss solutions to working with communities.

When the City of Villages concept faced community resistance, the city of San Diego focused on what was most important to the people already living in the areas selected for the program. This included preserving landforms and natural features, and keeping shorelines and canyons untouched. According to Bragado, the city learned of the communities' demands through an intensive public review process, which involved workshops and meetings.

"Obviously we've had mixed success but that's the approach that we're trying to take," Bragado said. Besides community resistance there is another hurdle that stands in the way of smart growth.

"Our biggest struggle to date is getting the political willpower to acquire the properties that you need in order to develop," said Tammy Harpster, vice president of acquisitions for Phoenix Realty Group LLC.

"A key is finding those political leaders that are willing to step up and take the heat for doing the right thing," Aden said.

"You're talking about another miracle," Goodkin responded.

Gallegos said the solution is the people of San Diego realizing they have to help themselves, because the state and federal governments cannot help.

"There's still plenty of pork in those places (state and federal level), you just have to be the one lucky enough to get the pigs ... San Diego doesn't seem to be in that power base," Graham said.

Looking to the future, Gallegos predicted the areas where new smart growth development will occur are outside of Chula Vista and North County.

"The focus is going to be what do we want the urban part of San Diego to look like," Gallegos said, adding that the challenge in areas such as Chula Vista, where some smart growth has occurred, is how to maintain the new infrastructure when it gets 20 to 30 years old and needs rehabilitation.

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