Growth current is set to shift

Jan 11, 2009

Michael Fitzgerald, Stockton Record

The economist John Maynard Keynes was once asked how things looked in the long run. "In the long run," he replied sagely, "we are all dead."

Well, yes. Still, it is possible to divine a sense of what the city of Stockton will be like in years to come, even though we'll be on the wrong side of the sod.

In the long run, Stockton is going to grow. A no-brainer. But is it going to grow as it has done over the past 60 years? Sprawl, congestion, an Ozymandias of a downtown?

I think not. And I say that knowing that the pro-growth Chavez City Council OK'd something like 20,000 housing units in the General Plan 2035.

Like it or not, those houses will be built, even though voters realized aggressive growth distracted from solutions to basic civic challenges such as crime.

But economics, climate change, politics and law are creating a counter-current that is carrying the city towards a different way of life.

Here in Ground Zero of the global financial meltdown, it almost goes without saying that the economy will halt growth for years.

But when the economy picks up, be that in 2009 or 2011, slow-growth Mayor Ann Johnston and a council that has (I think) a slow-growth majority will kibosh most sprawl.

The General Plan Settlement Agreement, a deal ending a lawsuit over Stockton's General Plan, requires the city to build homes downtown and inside city limits.

No matter how city politics shift, special interests cannot undo this legally binding deal. The city will densify. Stocktonians will live closer together.

The San Joaquin Valley Blueprint Planning Process, a vision thing involving eight counties, is reaching smart- growth consensus to house more people per acre.
How many is up for grabs. Currently the Valley houses about 13 people (four homes) per acre, according to Alan Kandel, writing this week in the California Progress Report.

If that goes on, Kandel wrote, by 2050, the Valley would plow under 533,000 acres.
The Blueprint folks are mulling whether to densify new development to 18 people per acre (saving 135,000 acres) or to 31 people per acre (262,000 acres.).

What's driving these new ideas is legislation stemming from science's recognition that climate change is going to put the hurt on us if greenhouse gases are not reduced.

Stockton leaders come and go. But California's 2006 Assembly Bill 32, limiting global warming pollution, will remain the law of the land.

Ditto AB 375, requiring growth and transportation planning to be "smarter" and less polluting. "All of these are moving in the same direction," said Andrew Chesley, head of the San Joaquin Council of Governments. The law is, "Pushing the town to do whatever it takes to cut down on greenhouse gases," Chesley said. "Meaning
cut down on vehicle miles traveled. Which, in turn, means high-density development."

Of course, this is a complicated, fractious process with many dissenters.  "I hang my hat on the fact that the huge majority of people will choose single-family (housing)." said John Beckman, head of the Building and Industry Association of the Delta.
Beckman disagrees with legislating medium- and high-density housing. He favors market solutions.

"If that's what the powers that be - the elitists - want, they need to make it more appealing so that people want to do it," he argues.

But my call is the era of unchecked sprawling Valley sprawl is coming to an end.
So is the chapter in Stockton's history that saw as much as 98 percent of its new homes be single-family dwellings.

The old model of four homes per acre will still be the most popular - still accounting for 75 percent or so of new homes - but there will be many new alternatives: townhouses, condos and downtown apartments.

Voters want it, the law requires it and Mother Nature won't take no for an answer.
Contact columnist Michael Fitzgerald at (209) 546-8270 or michaelf@recordnet.com.