by Lucas O’Connor / Two Cathedrals/ June 3, 2011
Rapid transit received an angry NIMBY attack today over at the Reader, essentially complaining that transit is tied to density and that adding infrastructure actually takes space. It’s a lamentably familiar complaint that for things to change, things must actually change, and obscures the actual issues being faced as San Diego tries to improve transit, connect neighborhoods, and reclaim the budget from life-support.
The harsh criticism of plans for rapid bus lanes and particularly of Councilman Todd Gloria seems not only misguided but mostly beside the point. Criticizing the elimination of medians and addition of additional travel lanes is fine as far as it goes, but the author votes in favor of Mid-City Rapid Transit. While bus lanes may not have been the imagined result, the addition type of any rapid transit requires… space. Would a streetcar or trolley line added to existing streets be more pedestrian friendly than bus lanes? No, it’s still new transit-travel lanes that would have to be crossed.
But that’s more to do with unrealistic expectations. Transit sounds like a good idea until it actually has to exist, and then it’s an un-friendly eyesore in the community. Objecting to the parking-centric transportation development in District 3 lately is reasonable, but explicitly at odds with the supposed subject of the piece — improving access to the community that does not require parking. Fewer people driving through the community, for whatever reason, is also going to reduce the congestion that makes roads less safe for pedestrians and bikers. An argument that improved mass transit is going to increase traffic implicitly argues that the transit will fail in its purpose — yet the author does not actually make this argument. Rather, just objects to the transit that was supported in principle will actually occupy physical space.
More sadly, it also laments the prospect of density in thinly-veiled class terms, fear mongering around developer plans to “turn Park Blvd into another ghetto of 7 story affordable housing projects” with no regard to historical preservation. I’m sure I’m fast gaining a reputation as an anti-preservation shill for developers here, but the language here is classically pretentious NIMBY protectionism. It’s vitally important that strong, existing communities be able to protect and retain their character. But the notion that working class people and density are the enemy — especially against the backdrop of advocating for more rapid transit — is gross and ridiculous. At a time when it’s desperately important to find ways to reconcile the need for more density while retaining San Diego’s heritage, demagoguing like this is specifically the problem.
And let’s be entirely clear: Density is the only option. The suburban ideal of fifty years ago is simply non sustainable, and even if short-term necessity demands a fiscal focus on pensions, the long-term viability of San Diego’s budget relies on building a more robust tax base rooted in density. Combine that with the knowledge that renting is smarter than buying in San Diego and the mounting evidence that housing is a far cry from the good investment they’re cracked up to be, and we need to be discussing how to re-imagine how San Diego’s communities will work on a fundamental level. Sprawl isn’t working, relying on home ownership, especially as the foreclosure crisis cruises through its fifth year, clearly isn’t a viable strategy.
Adding density means dealing with developers. And especially in the lean years that will be coming, the city will have less leverage than in the past (whether the city used that leverage responsibly in the past is a different story). That means that smart growth and responsible density infill is going to rely more than ever before on community participation. And that means that not just the city’s long-term health, but the long-term ability of San Diego to function at all is up for grabs.
Either the community responsibly demands a place at the table that involves a real discussion of how to integrate density and smarter transit programs, or developers and other private interests will co-opt the process entirely. This can be a community-driven process, but only if we drop the hyperbole and invective and get down to seriously engaging in how to do this right.