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Colin Parent, a La Mesa councilman and policy counsel for Circulate San Diego, recently told Voice of San Diego that “density” is a dirty word in local politics. And Jason Roe, a Republican political consultant, said he was flummoxed by what seems to be an anti-development bent on the part of Republican voters.
But San Diegans don’t hate density, and the Republicans I know have nothing against growth and development. What folks don’t like is the traffic and other problems that come when new density and development aren’t preceded by necessary infrastructure upgrades.
Normal development happens as contiguous plots of land are developed over time. A new development thus enjoys some benefit from the roads and other infrastructure built for the previous developments. Leapfrog development happens when a new development is far away from any prior developments. That places a premium on infrastructure, the lack of which was the fatal flaw in the far-flung Lilac Hills Ranch proposal that failed in November.
The community volunteers who sit on local planning groups almost all understand that San Diego is largely built out. Those of us who live in Mira Mesa – which, in the early 1970s was the first leapfrog development in San Diego – are especially sensitive to the impacts of new development. (And if you join us in the joys of driving a packed Mira Mesa Boulevard, you will understand exactly what I mean.)
Leapfrog developments like Lilac Hills Ranch should be a non-starter, which makes density the solution. But density must be first preceded by upgrades to transit infrastructure.
Once permits are issued and development commences, there is currently no process in the city or county – nor political will – to enforce promises of infrastructure. The older neighborhoods where density is being proposed first need significant upgrades to streets, sewer, water systems and public facilities like fire stations.
To look at these issues through partisan lenses is to completely miss what San Diegans who said no to new development are actually saying. The county’s general plan and local neighborhood community plans are public policy documents designed to make sure land owners, government and communities all have a common understanding about how our area will grow. Expecting support for density without the necessary infrastructure to accommodate it is simply stupid – regardless of your political leanings.
The political problem in San Diego today, and the reason it’s so hard to get residents to back new development, is mostly a failure of leadership on the part of both the City Council, Mayor Kevin Faulconer and our county supervisors.
If our leaders want San Diegans to back density, they must also ensure that transit and other infrastructure improvements precede or are built concurrently with increases in density.
John Horst is former chairman of the Mira Mesa Community Planning Group and an advocate of reforming the community planning process. Horst’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.