In the mid-1980s, the cities of San Diego and Chula Vista changed the zoning of almost all of Otay Mesa from primarily agricultural to residential and commercial uses, paving the way for hundreds of new sprawl housing subdivisions and shopping centers. For years before those zoning changes were adopted, the region’s largest real estate development companies had quietly bought up most of the mesa at cheap agricultural prices. They also supported the development of State Route 125, also known as the South Bay Toll Road, and encouraged Caltrans and Sandag to invest hundreds of millions in taxpayer funds to subsidize the construction of what was originally proclaimed as a privately funded toll road project that provided vehicle access to the mesa.

The big developers managed to build out and sell off about half of Otay Mesa before the housing bubble burst and the market crashed. Now they are beginning to build more housing again, betting that the market for sprawl housing is coming back. Witness the rebirth of U-T San Diego’s new real estate section in the Sunday paper as another sign that sprawl housing, also known as “dumb growth,” is alive and well in San Diego County.

Over the last several decades, real estate developers jumped on board the concept of “smart growth,” which called for building higher density development closer to urban core areas with transit services. The original smart growth concept was promoted by a group of planners known as the New Urbanists, led by visionaries like Peter Calthorpe, Mike Stepner, Howard Blackson and Bill Anderson, who believe that younger homebuyers will choose to live closer in to urban centers and use public transit instead of single passenger cars and trucks, if given the choice. The theory was that over time, smart growth would reduce or eliminate the market for sprawl development, or dumb growth.

Under the rubric of smart growth, local government planners and politicians have changed the zoning of many urban core properties, often without determining first whether or not the occupants of those properties would use transit instead of their cars, and without requiring the developers to front the cost of new urban infrastructure like streets, sewers or parks needed to support higher density development. This has led to a blowback situation where local residents revolt over the additional traffic, air quality problems and infrastructure demands the new development projects create for their neighborhoods. Often, instead of responding to these concerns, the politicians and developer have simply labeled critics NIMBYs.

So over the next few years, San Diego County is going to serve as an urban planning laboratory. We are going to see if smart growth works, and if it will lead to the death of dumb growth. The history of San Diego has always been about a small group of developers getting rich by buying and selling dirt and housing, typically by wrangling zoning out of compliant politicians eager for new tax revenues and campaign contributions. We will see if smart growth development projects around transit centers will be required to pay their own way, infrastructure-wise, and whether people who live in these projects will utilize transit instead of cars. We will also see whether new home buyers prefer to live in new urban villages or outlying sprawl housing subdivisions.

The stakes are high. Sprawl housing represents business as usual in San Diego County, while smart growth depends on city planners and politicians holding developers accountable for providing the urban infrastructure needed to support their new projects.

If things go really bad, San Diego could experience both smart growth and more dumb growth, which taken together just equal more growth, along with more air pollution, more traffic, more water shortages and all the other problems that growth has represented throughout the county’s history.

Don Wood lives in La Mesa.

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