All of the candidates are grabbing the walkable neighborhoods / livable streets banner, encouraged by programs such as the Livable Streets Mayoral Candidate Speakers Series put on by the Livable Streets Coalition, a joint effort of several environmental, smart growth, and non-auto transporation groups. However, putting such concepts into action requires more than just liking bicycles, parks, and traditional main-streets. It requires choices, sometimes nuanced, sometimes controversial, sometimes opposing powerful forces.
San Diego’s History of Progressive Visions & Mediocre Implementation
Broadly speaking, the terms walkable neighborhoods and livable streets refer to making communities less car dependent and more inviting for walking, biking, and other forms of movement. However, the terms are about more than just transportation. Rather, the terms encompass an urban form that encourages human interaction, sense of community, and a healthier lifestyle. Increased population density coupled with buildings, streets, and parks that foster the foregoing are key components; so are preserving neighborhood assets, whether those be historic buildings, neighborhood character and scale, or open space.
In San Diego, while the terminology has changed, the concepts have been around for quite some time. In the early part of the last century, the City hired nationally known urban planner John Nolen, who in 1908 and again in 1924, issued reports that spoke of creating a Bay to Park link, neighborhood parks, wide boulevards (not to be confused with today’s freeways), and preserving and creating access to San Diego’s natural assets.
In between the plans, a City mayoral debate pitted planning against unregulated growth. The mayoral candidate (Louis Wilde) promoting unregulated growth termed the pro-planning candidate (George Marston – who funded the Nolen plans) the “geraniums” candidate and himself the “smokestacks” with the former symbolizing a luxury and the latter necessary for jobs and economic opportunity. Accordingly, “Smokestacks” Louis beat “Geraniums George” in the 1917 election. Since then, the City’s growth has been defined more by haphazard sprawl than Nolen’s vision.
By the 1970s, the City was experiencing rapid loss of open space and natural assets such as Mission Valley to sprawling development. Sprawl and congested traffic in Los Angeles was more advanced than San Diego and served as an example of what not to do. In 1974, the Marston family again funded a report by nationally respected planning experts, this one by Kevin Lynch and Donald Appleyard. It was entitled “Temporary Paradise?” and among other things, advanced the concepts of development fees to pay for the infrastructure needed to support new development, and discouraging “leap frog” sprawl by focusing new development in areas contiguous with existing development.
While the adoption of some of the Temporary Paradise report concepts into the City’s General Plan have had some positive effects, they have been largely outweighed by the politics of freeway and subdivision building. It is now well established that preventing sprawl and implementing transit oriented development are necessary components of successful economic growth and sustainable city budgets, in addition to having environmental and quality of life benefits. Therefore, unlike the smokestacks vs geranium debate of the 1917 mayoral election, all candidates now pay homage to anti-sprawl and planning policies, making it more difficult for voters to discern between candidate positions. As a result, the City has lagged behind its northwestern siblings in creating walkable, transit oriented, and livable neighborhoods.
In the current special election, this real geraniums vs pretender geranium situation is particularly acute. Luckily, the pro-planning interests have become more sophisticated, and this week’s Livable Streets Mayoral Candidate Speaker Series is a chance to vet the candidates and to see who doesn’t just “talk the talk” but also “walks the walk” on walkability / livability.
Talk vs. Walk
When trying to determine which candidates are only paying lip service to sustainable planning concepts, the obvious approach is to analyze their records. However in practice, this process is complicated by the fact that not all candidates have a “voting record” per se, as do elected officials, and by the fact, that such records require a qualitative analysis as much as a quantitative analysis. In other words, its relatively easy to vote for planting more street trees or voting for a bike-share program. It’s more difficult to take a controversial stand, or to say “no” on a project with large financial backing or one with a lot of momentum, or to take notice when a harmful project is flying through under the radar.
Notably, only one of the top four candidates grades well under four recent litmus tests for true “walk the walkability” policy implementation:
– Balboa Park: The recent battle over modifications to Balboa Park, especially the iconic and historic Cabrillo Bridge, for a bypass bridge and parking garage, and Save Our Heritage Organisation’s (SOHO) successful lawsuit to stop it, are well known. The planning community and a solid majority of the public opposed the modifications (although, as the article title indicates, it was unclear which alternative they supported). The proponents of the bypass bridge and parking garage touted the modifications as making the park more pedestrian-oriented but the proposal used car-oriented suburban-mall logic long discredited in planning circles. The proposal further entrenched cars as the preferred means of access to the park while vacating only a small portion of the park’s interior of cars. Nevertheless, all the current candidates, save Bruce Coons, supported the project pushed by then Mayor Jerry Sanders and Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs. In fact, Bruce Coons as Executive Director of SOHO, led the opposition to the project.
– Demolition for Parking: In 2012, the demolition of two attractive and commercially viable historic buildings downtown was approved by City Council to make way for surface parking. This demolition recently was “awarded” an Onion in the San Diego Architectural Foundation’s annual Orchids & Onion awards. Sited on “F” Street between 8th & 9th Avenues, the buildings were among the first historic structures in downtown’s redevelopment era to be successfully repurposed for modern businesses. One housed the International Male clothing company (later Braun) and the other the offices of Walsh & Chacon real estate. They became mainstays of redevelopment’s first livable streets area, clustered with art galleries and cafes. While Nathan Fletcher did not have the opportunity to take a position on the demolition, both Kevin Faulconer and David Alvarez sat on the Council which approved removing the historic designation of these structures to facilitate demolition – neither opposed the demolition. In contrast, Bruce Coons appeared before City Council to oppose the un-designation-for-demolition, and assisted this author in attempting to reverse approval of the conditional use permit for the surface parking lot.
Saving J Street from Petco Park: While its easy enough to vote for a project, especially one favoring a San Diego professional sports team desiring a new stadium touted as a redevelopment catalyst and economic driver, its another thing altogether to shape such a project in a manner that both serves the sports community and creates one of San Diego’s premier walkable / livable streets. Petco Park is often credited with saving a dilapidated warehouse district. In reality, the area already had significant redevelopment momentum, with several designated historic structures and warehouses converted to residential lofts. It was considered one of downtown’s most valuable resources and was planned as the “J” Street Arts Corridor. When proposed, Petco Park loomed much more a threat than a redevelopment catalyst to the area. Bruce Coons led a small team from SOHO which negotiated with the City and the Padres not only to preserve the historic buildings, but to create scale, character, and open space that qualifies it as the City’s first livable streets project. It resulted in the country’s most successful urban integration of a sports stadium. While SOHO’s intervention was initially not well received, John Moores of JMI quickly became a partner with Bruce Coons in implementing a joint planning venture. While Bruce Coons is more widely known for SOHO’s lawsuits and demolition opposition, his resolve is coupled with a soft spoken manner that can facilitate successful compromise, as shown in the Petco Park – “J” Street “livable street.”
Barrio Logan: Recently, Council member and mayoral candidate David Alvarez brokered a compromise between the plan adopted by the Barrio Logan community and the ship building industry. Kevin Faulconer supports a business community referendum to repeal the compromise. Of the candidates, only Bruce Coons supported the community plan 100%.
Bucking the Company in a Company Town:
San Diego has always been somewhat of a company town, in which its wealthiest one or two citizens defined the message for the entire city. Thus, any debate concerning planning required one of these wealthy overlords to have a more progressive view. Such was certainly the case during the 1917 Smokestacks vs Geraniums debate of Louis Wilde and George Marston. Now the debate is disproportionately influenced by Douglas Manchester and Irwin Jacobs.
Thus, in the recent mayoral scandal, lost was any nuanced discussion, or even opportunity for nuanced discussion, of the veracity of, policy relevance policy of, or appropriate process for dealing with, the accusations. Mayor Filner was quickly ushered to resignation as local media, either owned or beholden to his super-sized opponents, stayed on message pointing the door to resignation.
Unions and the political ascendancy of the Latino population can provide an effective counter-balance in an election as was demonstrated by Filner’s election and Alvarez’s strength in the polls. However, the latter groups don’t have the media influence of the aforementioned individuals. Neighborhood and planning issues come in a distant fourth and thus must look for a sympathetic ally.
As this piece was going to press, Bruce Coons decided to drop out of the race and throw his support to an ally of the neighborhoods cause, or at least a potential ally: David Alvarez. Recent Democratic Party convert Nathan Fletcher talks the talk on walkability and livability. But he’s beholden to the proponent of the City’s biggest anti-livability project: the Balboa Park bypass bridge and parking garage, which may yet be coaxed from the ashes of its court defeat. Accordingly, Coons believes that Alvarez will be the ear most sympathetic to neighborhoods for the tough community planning decisions. While his voting record shows need for improvement, he has shown signs of improvement and he is young enough to develop the metal and compass to make sound neighborhood and planning decisions.
As has been demonstrated by both Mayor Filner with Convention Center financing and Bruce Coons with Petco Park planning, saying “no” doesn’t necessarily mean no project. It can mean a better deal for taxpayers and a better project.