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Stopping Urban Sprawl: Smarter Smart Growth in the Inland Empire

CA should pass a law that would better allow developers to address this grave live-work crisis.

If you lived in the Inland Empire long enough, you know a pattern has been going on for decades. It is the fact that many highly skilled Inland Empire workers are still forced to commute 1-2 hours each way to an out-of-town job site simply because there is no desirable and affordable place to live near their work, and such high paying jobs generally remain very limited in our Inland cities. Strict regulations and broken loopholes in environmental law on housing development near jobs have directly led to the lack of expanded infill development of workforce housing in places like Orange County and San Diego, leading to an inventory shortage and serious expensive purchase and rental prices. Likewise, California's bad business climate has contributed to the general lack of job growth in the Inland Empire.

Living in the South Los Angeles region has been out of the question for many hard working families since the 1950's. Bad social conditions and violent crime in LA drove its workers out of town and east into the Inland Empire and south into the Orange County areas. Currently, high crime in areas like San Bernardino, Moreno Valley and parts of Riverside have further led to this issue.

Lack of Workforce Housing Choices near Work can lead to Sprawl:
1-2 Hour Commutes need to be reduced

Through the late 90's and into the early 2000's, jobs and population growth shot up in Orange County, but housing inventory fell behind. Basic units like single bedroom apartments and rooms for rents then became expensive since supplies failed to meet the high demands when its workers came into the county. During this period, the Inland Empire had affordable and and was thus overwhelmed by uncontrolled rapid residential growth and plagued by automobile-centric development, leading to commute times in excess of 1-2 hours each way for those seeking high-paying work and a desirable place to call home for the family. This growth contributed by lack of housing near the job sites was by far the nation's worst example of suburban sprawl, a team of researchers concluded last decade in 2002 followed by a news report by the Los Angeles Times. The three-year study was conducted by researchers from Rutgers and Cornell universities and released by Smart Growth America in Washington.

The research project also faulted Riverside County for the lack of local authentic village centers and business districts, to a haphazard, poorly connected road system that makes walking and bicycling perilous and impossible for commuters since the jobs are way out of town. Unchecked growth gravely overwhelmed public transportation infrastructure. To this day, the 91 Freeway into Orange County remains one of the most congested corridors in the nation. High-paying jobs still remain short in the Inland Empire, leading to fewer opportunities. Housing remains in short supply at job sites, leading to workers being priced out and looking for affordable alternatives hours away from the office. Also, public bus transit offered by the Riverside Transit Agency has not been able to keep up with the growth; several corridors are long overdue for later services. RTA has finally begun to phase in the later services.

Urban sprawl has no universal meaning, but can be defined as uncontrolled growth with no regards to land use controls or negative impacts to transportation infrastructure or the environment. Sprawl can also be defined as massive spread out development out over large amounts of land with little to no consideration to address transportation mobility other than private automobile travel. The imbalance of jobs and housing in Orange County, Los Angeles, and north San Diego caused by stiff regulations on infill development has contributed to this sprawl, which forces long distances between residential areas, retail, office, and job centers. Such development converts automobile travel from an option into a requirement given that commute times can span 1-2 hours, making ridesharing and transit use ever more difficult. The end results are traffic congestion, increased stress, and lack of community.

In addition, politicians should not pander to developer interests by stonewalling valid concerns regarding proposed developments which includes in-fill projects too. Developers and investors should be able to capitalize and improve the land they own, but need to be held accountable to ensure necessary infrastructure upgrades are paid for and built when such investments are made; otherwise, the unchecked development is urban sprawl because it would clog the infrastructure. Examples of projects The Transit Coalition are questioning include Travertine Point near the Salton Sea, the World Logistics Center in east Moreno Valley, and Lilac Hills Ranch in north San Diego County.

Smarter Smart Growth Development:
The law should support a first-rate economy and clean environment

Smart Growth is basically infill, managed growth with the intention of building up a robust market economy, balanced job-to-housing ratio, shorter commute times, mobility choices, a clean environment, safer and crime-free streets, and better communities. Current law obstructs developers from investing in this type of growth to the point where profit margins are slim. The Smarter Smart Growth Law should address this.

Better growth doesn't always mean higher density. Balancing the job-to-housing ratio can help reduce housing demands in far-off regions and incentivize workers to live closer to their jobs. In addition, employers would incentivized to put jobs closer to existing bedroom communities. Properly planned single family housing developments, farms, and rural ranches are necessary for the economy to thrive; smart growth is not about Agenda 21 or forcing people to live only in high density housing units. With proper land use controls and development master plans that balance the job-to-housing scales, the Inland Empire can have a first-rate robust economy with clean air and water, better transportation options, walkable communities, more parkland, local farming, and giant open spaces. Several Inland Empire cities have started to use smart-growth solutions to address the problems caused by sprawl through infill redevelopment and clustered housing tract master plans which preserves wildlife corridors while addressing the housing demands.

California and the Inland Empire will continue to grow. Here are some steps cities can take to make to avoid sprawl and the problems it causes:
  • Improve Infill Housing Supplies in Job-Rich areas - Existing high-paying job hubs like Orange County, north San Diego County, and West Los Angeles need to expand urban housing supply in the high demand, high density business districts with supporting apartments, condos and town homes along connecting corridors. Workers should be able to live these units under the market rate without any form of government aid. Developers also need to be incentivized to rennovate any blighted tracts developments with quality single family homes. Increased supply would ensure these homes remain affordable to workers.
  • Incentivize business growth in the Inland Empire - This includes getting the high-paying enterprise jobs into town. This will keep the existing economies in Inland bedroom communities healthy.
  • Clean up Blighted Areas and Stop Criminal Street Gangs - Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino and all other cities dealing with street gang crime and urban blight should clean it up. That would mean ensuring law enforcement has the resources to pro-actively police the area and the non-profit sector and religious groups have the streamlined ability to carry out their missions to make these areas socially better by improving the lives of troubled youth without the red tape. These regions should continue to revitalize developed areas through measures such as attracting new businesses, reducing crime and improving schools.
  • The state government needs to amend and reform CEQA law so that special interests cannot obstruct in court environmentally-friendly projects over trivial matters in the name of the environment.
In addition, these measures can help protect the environment:
  • Enact growth boundaries, parks and open space protections which allow growth without damaging wildlife corridors.
  • Plan pedestrian and transit-friendly development near existing transportation corridors paid for by developers.
  • Block development in floodplains and other disaster-prone areas by zoning those areas as open spaces.
  • Connect single housing family tracks near major activity centers with multi-use trail networks.
  • Plan and develop pedestrian access points between cul-de-sacs and other activity centers and major streets.
  • Plan additional gated pedestrian access points within private gated communities.
Keeping Housing Affordable
It's not about Density; It's about Design and Sufficient Supply

Does Smart Growth mean an end to the American Dream of owning a single family home? Does Smart Growth mean that everybody now has to live in high-rise apartments? Absolutely not. Smart Growth critics often use this claim. Smart Growth and housing are not just high density condos and apartments. Proper layout of detached housing with an expanded pedestrian network can bring about multi modal transit mobility choices for single family home neighborhoods.

For instance, the small business marketplace can offer local jobs under an Open Space Growth Design in Winchester with a small robust district near the central city. Surrounding housing can offer a variety of affordable housing choices (ranch housing to high density apartments) with multi modal transportation options. Sufficient supply can keep housing affordable with the high-paying local jobs and college campus.

Would you like a Cul-de-Sac with that?
Can Smart Growth and cul-de-sac residential streets coexist? By working with local home owner associations and developers, cities can have attractive and safe interconnected pedestrian/bicycle access points placed between cul-de-sacs and other areas. This can keep young children playing outside with their neighbors safe with the low automobile traffic while allowing everybody else multi-modal, carfree connectivity and through-access to other areas of the neighborhood, activity centers, and main streets by emulating the traditional grid development system. For private communities, these points can be gated.

Cul-de-sacs without these access points have long been the bane of urban planners. Conceived as a way to decrease traffic on residential streets, they caused the unfortunate side effect of making a car necessary for short trips including visits to the local park.

  • WRCOG: Does Transit Oriented Development Have A Future in Western Riverside County? - For more information about the Western Riverside Council of Government's (WRCOG) Transit-Oriented Development Program, follow this link to WRCOG.
    (Watch Video here)

  • Compass Blueprint - Serving the communities of Southern California by helping to build long-lasting partnerships and fostering innovative transportation and land-use planning.
    (Visit Website).

  • Sierra Club: Healthy Growth Calculator - The design of a community can reduce land, pavement, water and driving consumption. See how placing attractive high density (15-20 units/acre) condos next to major activity centers can reduce car dependency.
    (Healthy Growth Calculator).

  • Complete Streets - The streets of our cities and towns ought to be for everyone, whether young or old, motorist or bicyclist, walker or wheelchair user, bus rider or shopkeeper. But too many of our streets are designed only for speeding cars, or worse, creeping traffic jams. They’re unsafe for people on foot or bike — and unpleasant for everybody. The Transit Coalition supports the development of Complete Streets.
    (Read More).

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