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Heated Debate : Slow-Growth Sentiment Builds Fast

A SLOW -GROWTH REVOLT, Residents fed up with gridlock, dirty air and development have joined forces in what is being called the most important political movement in California since Proposition 13. First of four articles. Next: Temporary building moratoriums sweep Los Angeles.

July 31, 1988|WILLIAM TROMBLEY | Times Urban Affairs Writer

"We have at least a 10-year history of not putting enough money into roads and other infrastructure," said Cynthia A. Kroll, a regional economist for the Center for Real Estate and Urban Economics at UC Berkeley.

New suburban "office parks" have placed an additional burden on already strained highways, especially in Orange County and in the East Bay area of Northern California.

'Jobs-Housing Imbalance'

Two-hour, one-way commutes have become common as Los Angeles, Orange County and San Francisco workers move farther inland to find affordable housing. This "jobs-housing imbalance" is bemoaned at conferences and in learned papers, but no one has figured out what to do about it.

An Orange County business executive said his company only schedules meetings between 10 in the morning and 2 in the afternoon because traffic is so bad that no one can reach the firm's offices at other times of the day.

Traffic has been identified as the San Francisco Bay Area's most serious problem in the last two annual surveys conducted by the Bay Area Council, an organization of business leaders.

"Traffic is a surrogate for all the concerns of the slow-growth movement," said Angelo J. Siracusa, president of the Bay Area Council.

Local Issues

Some growth issues are local. In Walnut Creek, 30 miles east of San Francisco, many residents were appalled when several 10- and 12-story office buildings sprang up near the Bay Area Rapid Transit station; in Morro Bay, on the Central California coast, pro- and anti-growth factions have clashed over the proposed construction of a gazebo in a small city park; in San Diego, many young professionals became slow-growth enthusiasts after moving into older neighborhoods near downtown, only to find that the streets were in bad shape, the sewer system was inadequate and the schools were overcrowded.

Other problems are at least statewide--gridlock, air pollution, water quality and sewer capacity among them. The public's lack of confidence in government's ability or willingness to solve these problems seems to be an important contributing factor in the increase of slow-growth initiatives.

'Not Doing the Job'

"Government is not doing the job the citizens expect it to be doing," said Lennie Roberts, president of the Save Our Coast Committee of San Mateo County, which sponsored a successful initiative to limit development in the Half Moon Bay area after appealing in vain for elected officials to take action.

Recent polls have shown a widespread belief that elected officials cannot deal fairly with growth issues because too many of them are heavily financed by builders and real estate interests.

"There is a distrust of government on the growth issue," said Frank Hotchkiss of the Southern California Assn. of Governments. "People are not going to trust it to government--they're going to do it themselves."

Leaders of the slow-growth movement have been labeled upper-class elitists by their opponents, but slow-growthers reply that gridlock, polluted air, poor water quality and inadequate sewer capacity are problems for all Californians, not just for the upper classes.

Many Forms

Slow growth takes many forms, including zoning changes, the imposition of strict architectural standards and stiff fees leveled against developers to pay for schools, parks, sewers and myriad other services. But slow-growth ballot initiatives usually set flat limits on new construction or tie the number of new building permits to the provision of adequate infrastructure.

Natural forces sometimes provide better growth control than political campaigns do. Slow growth has become a way of life in the Santa Barbara area because of a chronic water shortage.

On other occasions, politicians are forced to adopt slow-growth policies, whether they like them or not. In Los Angeles, lack of sewer capacity has forced Tom Bradley, the city's pro-development mayor, and the City Council to impose restrictions that could reduce new construction by as much as 30% in the next few years. The cutbacks also will affect 27 other cities and agencies that use the Los Angeles sewer system.

Housing Price Argument

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has threatened to withdraw more than $100 million in sewer construction funds if the city does not impose tougher anti-smog rules.

Slow-growth opponents argue that strict controls drive up housing prices and rents.

"It's fundamental logic," said Siracusa of the Bay Area Council. "If fewer units are built, the demand will be greater and prices will rise."

California Assn. of Realtors economist Joel Singer noted that only 25% of California households earned enough in June to be able to make payments on a $167,400 house, which was the median sale price throughout the state.

"Housing prices are the Achilles heel of the California economy," Singer said. "They push wages up, reduce mobility and make California less competitive."

'No Clear Evidence'

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