Wanted: ‘spectacular delusional hubris’

“It’s spectacular delusional hubris to think that good sense will prevail.”

That’s Chico, Calif. developer Jon John Anderson, explaining that while he understands the problems that California’s love affair with destructive sprawl creates, he doesn’t think the state is prepared to straighten up and build right.

temeculaaerial

Anderson, quoted by John King in the Oct. 9 San Francisco Chronicle, continued, “People feel entitled to their fantasy.”

Anderson’s bleak assessment of California’s future came as part of the 2007 conference of the American Planning Association’s California chapter, in a debate over whether California is “ready for complex urban development.”

I have to say that I fear Anderson is correct. The same sort of irrational exuberance that gripped the U.S. housing market for the past several years has been evident for a much longer time in the irrational exuberance for moving to California and expecting to live in a big house with a big lawn on a sleepy cul-de-sac. Has anyone noticed a trend of people deciding to move to Michigan? Me either.

And for those who have their own little piece of the “fantasy” already, there appears to be an equally deep and irrational feeling that infill development at modest densities near vigorous transit service is something to be feared and fought. For just one example, take the opposition to a plan to build housing in place of what is widely viewed as a moribund horse-racing track near the Caltrain line on the Peninsula. San Francisco has plenty of examples of its own, and the Planning Department doesn’t seem all that interested in pursuing greater density near the Muni lines that work well.

But Anderson can’t be right. He musn’t be, or we’re in trouble. If California can’t come to grips with the need for better planning directing growth inward toward already-built areas, as Californians it’s time to admit that our supposed collective concern for the environment is a sham. Right now, the impact of sprawl that gets the most attention is the atmospheric pollution from people driving to and from far-flung communities where residents have to drive to even pick up a quart of milk. Water waste, of course, is always a problem in California. But think about the staggering, absolute impact of habitat destruction by paving. Put in all the transit and low-flow toilets you like, but there’s no getting around the sterilizing, habitat-fragmenting, genetic diversity-eroding effect of paving over a swath of land.

Unfortunately, a solution for directing regional growth may not be as simple as erecting Oregon-style urban boundaries. For instance, the way tax revenue is distributed in California provides an active disincentive for cities and towns to build housing, making housing an attractive land use mostly for municipalities and counties with lots of undeveloped areas. In brief, if you’re a California city you get more tax revenue back from the state from sales and use taxes than you do from taxes associated with residential development. The San Mateo County burg of Brisbane is in the process of bungling the development of the flatlands west of U.S. Highway 101 by installing low-density development mostly distinguished by car dealerships — car dealerships! — in part because of the logic of this practice. What a wasted opportunity for good development near Caltrain and not too far from Muni’s T-Third line: If they aren’t going to return that lowland to San Francisco Bay, they ought to at least develop it densely enough to make the effort worthwhile.

Sill, there’s always hope that this time we’re ready to do what it takes to keep California a good place to live. Anderson may be correct, but let’s hope it’s the spectacular delusional hubris that allows people to envision a saner future for California that’s right instead.

Read the full piece by John King here.

For the record, although this is all my own opinion it’s probably best for me to disclose that up until a few weeks ago I worked for the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, a public-policy think tank that generally views infill urban development as better than sprawl. I still do some contract work for SPUR as an editor. And I live in a tiny Doelger house in the Sunset District with a native-plant garden punctuated by a minuscule lawn of low-water fescue. Make up your own mind about how many grains of salt are appropriate to take with these views.

Temecula aerial photo by “d_mcplum” reproduced under Creative Commons license.

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