Urban sprawl brings mixed blessings to California mayor

Looking back on her ten-year career in local government, San Jose Mayor Janet Gray Hayes can well recall when she was the lone woman on the city council. Because polls had revealed the San Jose voters would rather elect a man, she had "downplayed the female bit and emphasized my experience" to win the seat.

Now Mayor Hayes gleefully refers to her city as "the feminist capital of the US." After last November's election, despite some observations that the national results implied a setback for women, San Jose totaled seven women on its 10 -member council and three women on the five-member county board of supervisor. Among other high administrative posts in city government and education, women were in full force as well.

"I like to think it's because those of us who have been given the opportunity to serve have done a creditable job," says Mrs. Hayes while sitting behind her desk in the modern, unpretentious office she has occupied since 1974. "We really do try harder. We have to."

If Mayor Hayes tries harder, it may also be because San Jose is beset with all the mixed blessings that go with being the fastest growing city in the nation. During the last three decades San Jose has seen a nonstop succession of housing developments, computer firms, and shopping centers spread over the landscape, thriving in the location as readily as the prize prune and apricot orchards they replaced.

That phenomenon once hailed as progress is now apt to be described by Mayor Hayes as "urban sprawl" or "runaway growth." Invariably, she lists the rapid growth that has swelled the once sleepy agricultural town to a city of 625,773 persons, the nation's 17th largest, as the No. 1 challenge she has faced during her seven years as mayor.

"We didn't plan it that way," says Mrs. Hayes of the recent census figures, which show San Jose to have grown over 36 percent during the past 10 years. "But when you have a good place to live, you can't put a fence around it."

For most of her relatively short political career -- as an appointee to San Jose's Redevelopment Agency, as a councilwoman, and now as mayor -- Mrs. Hayes has striven to control growth without putting up any fences that would restrict it altogether. She is not entirely dismayed that San Jose has become the southernmost section of what is called Silicon Valley, a 25-mile strip of ovr 1, 000 electronics firms. Many of San Jose's newer residents have come from across the US to work in what is now acknowledged to be the capital of the technological world.

"But my premise has always been that you have to get better before you get bigger," says Mrs. Hayes, who over the years has backed and initiated several plans to manage the financial and social implications of a population boom.

As a bedroom city for many of the workers in technical firms to the north, San Jose has to provide services for a population that often earns its income outside the city limits. As a councilwoman, Mrs. Hayes initiated what she calls a "pay as you grow tax" that requires new residents to pay an initial tax on any homes they buy. Their taxes go into a fund that yields about $8 million a year for city services.

"We're surprised that it hasn't caught on in other cities," says Mayor Hayes. "It has saved our lives. We couldn't have a system of neighborhood parks without it. To be solely dependent on bond issues, which require a 66 percent majority to pass, in this age of the taxpayer's revold would be an impossible situation."

Other controlled growth measures have included the adoption, in 1976, of a comprehensive general plan for San Jose that is reviewed each year. "Before that all we really had was a system of patch up," Mrs. Hayes explains. "But now we have a way to plan for the rate we want to grow. Basically what the plan does is pinpoint those areas where services such as light and fire stations already exist. That is where we are allowing growth. All else is designated as the Urban Reserve, spaces in which we want no development at all."

If Mayour Hayes has her way, any future growth in San Jose will be confined to the already densely populated flatlands. Currently there is a ban on development above a 15 percent slope line, a measure to keep the gentle hills that ring the city in their natural state.

When critics aren't pointing to the hodgepodge development that befell San Jose back when it was viewed as progress, they often lament what little sense of community there is in a place that appears to be more of a sprawling suburb than a city.

Last year San Jose switched to electing council members by district rather than at large, a move Mayor Hayes believes is strengthening community feeling. "Districting was designed to make government more responsive to the neighborhoods, to break down the anonymity of a large sprawling area," she says. "It gives people more of a personal stake in who's representing them."

But there are problems that go with being a bedroom community, which Mrs. Hayes is the first to acknowledge. "We've been able to document the tremendous disparity between commercial and residential development," she says. "As a result, we have a tremendous commuting problem caused by people jamming the freeways to get to their jobs to the north. It leaves us with congested roads and polluted air. I'd like to see further development be of the industrial kind so that people would work closer to home."

Like other US mayors, particularly those in California, Mrs. Hayes faces greater financial challenges than ever before. Proposition 13, the tax-cutting measure that Californians voted through in 1978, has severely tested an already tight city budget. And she awaits the proposed cutbacks by the Reagan administration with great trepidation.

"I'm very concerned about what massive federal cutbacks coudl do to the city, " she says. "We have planned a downtown mall for mass transit which is due to get $7 million --much needed grants for housing rehabilitation. I'm also quite concerned with what will happen to the revenue-sharing monies that we need for fire and police protection."

The money the city does have to work with has largely gone toward priorities such as police and fire protection and mass transit. With one-quarter of the city's sales tax going for mass transit, San Jose has been able to connect its unwieldy sprawl with better bus service. At the same time that city administrative and clerical jobs have been trimmed, the police and fire departments have been beefed up.

"Although crime is the No. 1 concern of our citizens, we found we were losing more and mroe police officers to private industry, where they could earn higher salaries," says Mrs. Hayes. "Last year, however, we added 7k new officers and gave the department a 16.3 percent raise. Of course, that doesn't get to the root of what cause crime, but I still consider it a necessary step."

With her considerable dexterity in balancing funds, initiating legislation, and winning votes, it is surprising to learn that hse has been a politican for only one-third of her career. The other aspects have included a career as a social worker, active membership in the League of Women Voters and the Sierra Club, and the raising of four children, the youngest of whom is now 21.

But Mrs. Hayes considers her prior experience to be more valuable than if she had always been in political life. "It helps tremendously in being a good politician to have a different perspective, to have done different kinds of work ," she says. "Raising a family is a tremendous training ground for politics. For example, when one family member is in trouble, the whole family can learn to be of help. That's not unlike what is required of city government. And the thrill of seeing a child do something well is not unlike the experience of seeing a city project come to fruition."

Next year will be the end of Mrs. Hayes's second term as mayor, and city law prohibits her from seeking a third. Does she plan to seek state or federal office? "Well, I certainly don't plan to retire," she says, skirting the issue like any skilled politicial. "What I've learned in this job is worth three PhDs."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Urban sprawl brings mixed blessings to California mayor
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today