What started out in this blog as an informed debate about sprawl between David Garcia of Stockton City Limits and John Beckman of the Building Industry Association of the Greater Valley has expanded to other forums.
It overflowed into an op-ed in this paper by Beckman. He denounced sprawl opponents who “are not content with finding the right fit between meeting our legal obligations to reduce GHG (greenhouse gasses) and VMT (vehicle miles travelled) while allowing individuals the freedom to choose their own lifestyle.
“Their discourse is aimed at denigrating those who want the privacy of a single-family home<’ Beckman wrote. “They use the word “sprawl” as a sword to attack individual freedom and choices. Many of those who denounce “sprawl” as a repulsive evil that must be destroyed themselves live in a single-family home.”
His piece generated a Sept. 8 response from developer Carol J. Ornelas. “John Beckman states that more single-family housing demand is on the rise. The reality is that 51 percent of those who purchased single-family housing during the housing bubble lost their homes to foreclosures and are now renters.
“This is not to say that single-family housing is obsolete; it is not,” Ornelas wrote. “Many will continue to choose to live in a single-family home. However, new housing options also will be needed as our Valley diversifies for those who would prefer a different choice.”
Now Garcia has published a piece in the Central Valley Business Journal: “Today, in the aftermath of the foreclosure crisis, we now know that traditional low-density growth (urban sprawl) only creates the illusion of wealth but does not provide a sustainable source of revenue” to cities.
My two cents: Sprawl is bad growth. Economically it is — to use Garcia’s analogy — like buying a car which gets bad gas mileage. It is also true, as Beckman says, that some people want that Hummer.
But it is not merely a freedom of choice issue, as Beckman probably would acknowledge. Sprawl’s impacts that affect others. So the right to sprawl must be balanced with the right of fiscally prudent taxpayers to a government that operates its services with low-cost efficiency; the right of urbanists to a vibrant, walkable high-density downtown; the right of Stocktonians to exploit their geographical birthright and enjoy a unique waterfront neighborhood experience; the right to enjoy open space; the right to preserve nature; and the right to farm.
I have no problem with Beckman whatsoever if the balance of housing in San Joaquin’s housing policy is arrived at by balancing the demands of the market with the needs of government for fiscally sustainable land use policy. There’s a good compromise to be forged there. What can’t be allowed is for an imbalance to tilt towards single-family housing merely because such product is more profitable for developers — profit, and, in some cases, the desire to make a killing being an unspoken aspect of the debate so far.
Nor can the city invent its future out of its past. That is obvious. Sprawl was not at the top of the list of things that caused Stockton’s insolvency. But it was on that list. If we learned anything from the city’s bankruptcy it is that every aspect of municipal life has to be viewed first and foremost not as a rights issue but as a fiscal issue. Everything else flows from that, including the healthy municipal government and economy that allows developers to succeed.
The next step is for the city to help developers build successful infill projects. This should not be done by coldly emphasizing the quotas for infill housing under the General Plan Settlement Agreement. It should be done by helping lower developers’ costs of infill so that their projects pencil out.
Developers must commit to policy that does not enrich their industry at (undue) cost to city finances. This must be accompanied by collaboration by environmentalists. They must set aside hostility towards developers and hold the fractious process of litigation as a last resort while understanding that developers are business people who deserve the chance to satisfy the market and make an honest buck.
They have a right to sell Hummers. Just not to drive us off a cliff.