SACRAMENTO – Despite some of the best minds in the nation and its creativity in movies and technology, California is nearly as renowned for what’s wrong: gridlocked freeways, marathon commutes, smog and stratospheric housing prices.
While its films have happy endings and its computers get faster, the congested downside to the nation’s most populous state is only expected to get worse, say growth watchers inside the state and beyond.
State governments elsewhere are experimenting with aggressive topdown solutions to their growth problems. But California, which turned cruising into pop culture and boasts more cars than registered drivers, lags in its customary role as trendsetter, say urban planning analysts.
“If you work in this field, you can’t help but notice there’s not a lot of governmental action,” says Joel S. Hirschhorn, author of the National Governors Association report “Growing Pains.”
“We’ve always been behind the curve in growth management,” adds Bill Fulton, Ventura author of “Reluctant Metropolis: The Politics of urban Growth in Los Angeles.”
Tell it to the millions who endure grueling commutes on the state’s mid-20th Century freeway system.
“It’s a frustrating miserable crawl,” says Albert Yanez, who spends four hours a day driving between Tracy and Palo Alto. Yanez, a plant operations manager with Southwall Technologies, trades a 65-mile drive he calls “horrid” for a house he can afford.
Typical, too, is Greg Nelson, who drives three hours a day between Mission Viejo and downtown Los Angeles.
“I condition myself to make it my Zen time,” says the chief deputy to Los Angeles City Councilman Joel Wachs. I really will not let that commute bother me.”
San Diego social worker Carmen Diaz tells horror stories from friends about rent.
“My friend is having a hard time finding something affordable,” she says. “There is nothing less than $800 a month.”
Navy Corpsman Yvette Pryor recalls a futile house hunt last year in San Diego. She says, “I couldn’t find anything under $220,000 for a two-bedroom, one-bath house. There was no way I could afford $220,000.”
For varying reasons, from the state’s size to its legacy of property rights and distrust for strong government, California lets local governments and increasingly, even voters set much of its growth agenda. Last November half the ballot issues in the United States dealing with local growth were in California. While many of these successfully slowed development, some analysts believe they worsen California’s problems.
“That’s giving us policies that are restrictive on a local basis and make no sense regionally,” says Carol Whiteside, who has tracked growth as mayor of Modesto, an official in the Gov. Pete Wilson Administration and now as director of the Great Valley Center.
As Californians wrestle with growth one shopping center at a time, Hirschhorn says innovators in growth management are smaller states such as Maryland, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington. He also cites Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee and Utah.
Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening, facing a million newcomers within two decades in a state of 5.2 million people, once feared they’d consume as much open land as developed in the state’s history. Glendening uses state highway, water and sewer funds to drive development into existing cities.
On July 1, his state planning chief, Harriet Tregoning, will become the nation’s first Cabinet-level Secretary of Smart Growth.
“We’re incredibly committed to trying to change development patterns in Maryland,” says Tregoning. The governor’s aim is to change the idea of the “good life,” she says, so “the good life becomes something other than a large single-family detached home surrounded by acres of lawn.”
But Maryland has fewer people than the San Francisco Bay Area. California, in the 1990s, grew by 4 million residents after adding 6 million during the 1980s. In April, the Texas Transportation Institute ranked Los Angeles and San Francisco-Oakland first and second for the country’s worst traffic. The state has much of the nation’s most polluted air and highest housing costs. A May poll of 2001 adults by the Public Policy Institute of California revealed growth as the biggest concern after the electricity crisis.
Yet by a 3-1 margin the same Californians said state government should stay out of land-use decisions.
Whiteside acknowledges that the state is “AWOL on leadership on growth issues. But she adds, “In fairness to this governor and the last one, who’s clamoring for it?”
Fulton says no California governor since Jerry Brown, from 1975 to 1983, aggressively contended with growth. The state, he says is “big and it’s complicated and that’s part of the problem. To the extent you see interesting solutions, you will see it come from individual regions.”
In Sacramento, Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg is borrowing from Minneapolis-St. Paul, where cities share sales taxes rather than fight over lucrative car dealerships and superstores. This year the Democrat introduced a bill to bring the same to metropolitan Sacramento, nearing 2 million people.
Steinberg, an ex-Sacramento City Council member, says sales tax competition creates “sprawl and uncoordinated growth, and we already have among the worst air quality and traffic in the country in this region.”
Last year 37 Assembly and Senate members formed a Smart Growth Caucus and introduced 25 bills. Caucus organizer and chairwoman Patricia Wiggins, D-Santa Rosa, argues that state government “should lay out an expectation and a blueprint for the way the state is going to grow and develop and not have it be willy nilly.”
Hirschhorn says states increasingly see growth as a quality of life issue that can make or break their economies.
“They’ve already started to lose some high-tech growth in San Jose,” he says. “Companies have already started going elsewhere. People who work for those companies don’t want to commute four hours a day.”
On the road between Tracy and Palo Alto, commuter Yanez yearns for the bullet trains he’s seen in Japan. Nelson wonders when “enough is enough.” I’m in Orange County,” he says, “looking at possibilities of becoming another L.A.. That’s not an exciting thought.”