What works well in the governance of big cities like San Diego is not necessarily a good fit for smaller suburban municipalities.
That was the message delivered by the Republican mayors of San Marcos, Coronado, Vista and Carlsbad during a discussion this month sponsored by the Building Industry Association of San Diego.
Key among the issues addressed by the elected leaders were housing and traffic, which are front-and-center topics in communities across the county.
More specifically, they noted the current effort by the city of San Diego to address traffic and housing affordability by creating mass-transit corridors with high-density housing won’t work everywhere.
San Marcos Mayor Rebecca Jones led off the discussion, saying, “We’re fighting so many things, we have mandates, redevelopment funds are gone, we don’t have the means to pay for things.”
She asked her colleagues how they plan to take on the issue of affordable housing and everything that goes with it.
“We’re at 24% below the county’s median income,” responded Vista Mayor John Franklin. “I’m focused as mayor on making sure that we grow our per capita tax base. I want to make sure that we build quality housing that adds to the per capita tax base, not reducing it.”
He called on the developers’ trade organization to help him find ways for people to have quality, affordable housing.
“So we’re looking forward to working with you to figure out how we do that,” he said.
As for Carlsbad, Mayor Keith Blackburn said his biggest obstacle is getting buy-in from his City Council members on affordability issues.
“This is a very contentious issue,” he said, and his biggest concern is the wide disparity in perspectives among council members. He’s been in office for 14 years and the incoming council is younger.
“There’s a huge generation gap,” he said, emphasizing the need for “a cohesive, well-working council” to accomplish what needs to be done.
In Coronado, the reality is the city is never going to have “workforce housing,” said Mayor Richard Bailey.
“Housing along the coast is always going to be significantly more expensive than the median household prices throughout the rest of the county,” he said.
As an example, the city’s affordable housing effort involved the purchase of a two-bedroom, two-bath unit for $1.75 million. The city only purchased it because the funds it received required them to buy afforable housing. Bailey felt it wasn’t an effective use of taxpayer funds.
The real problem cities are seeing up and down the state are “these very lofty goals that are completely out of touch with basic economic, and geographic realities for the county of San Diego,” he said.
As an example, he cited what he said are the billions of dollars that are being proposed to build out the mass transit system in hopes of reducing the use of cars on roads and freeways.
“I think residents throughout our region are waking up to that,” Bailey said. “And so one of my goals is to do a better job informing the electorate on how these public policies are directly affecting your quality of life.”
Transportation, the elected leaders agreed, is at the heart of most issues. “It’s the elephant in the room,” said San Marcos’ Jones. “I think all of us at some point in time have balanced transportation with all the needs we face in our cities.”
“Cars and transportation have an effect on upwards mobility and the jobs that people can have,” she said, adding that there is a “correlation between transportation and housing.”
Driving the four mayors’ concerns is a multi-billion-dollar transportation plan approved a couple of years ago by the San Diego Association of Governments to vastly expand mass transit.
Franklin from Vista believes “the big elephant in the room is talking about developing to the east of Interstate 15. We should be building new communities.” But then “the idea that you’re going to push people on the bus or a train, who live in a suburban community, and drive great distances, just doesn’t make sense,” he said.
“I know that people who don’t have the money to afford a car wish that they could afford a car so that they can have the same independence and liberty that we have in this room,” he said. “And that’s a fundamental freedom that I am absolutely committed to fight for.”
Carlsbad’s Blackburn said mass transit doesn’t work for his city and will not work for the region as a whole.
“Today, transit moves fewer than 2% of all commuters,” he noted. The question is, “Why is our transit system so inefficient?” He answered that most communities in the county don’t have the population density to support buses and trolleys.
“The entire transportation model is moving away from that,” he added. “We’re moving towards clean autonomous vehicles, they’re gonna take it from door to door.”
“Nobody is going to be able to live in a city like Carlsbad spread out over 40 square miles and depend on transit to replace the cars. It’s just it’s not going to happen,” Blackburn concluded.