To Halt Sprawl, San Jose Draws Green Line in Sand

AFTER decades of growth, marching outward in a seemingly unstoppable swath of tract homes, shopping malls, and industrial parks, San Jose, Calif., says "enough."

Leaders of the Bay Area's largest city, the unofficial capital of Silicon Valley, have adopted a long-term boundary for growth - beyond which development will not be allowed.

"My intent is to lock in a permanent green line around the city of San Jose," says Mayor Susan Hammer, principal sponsor of the initiative. "I think we have a responsibility to protect our hillsides and protect some open space for future generations."

San Jose is not the first American city to attempt this antigrowth strategy: Portland, Ore., drew the line 10 years ago, and so have Boulder, Colo., and Minneapolis-St. Paul. But it is the largest city to draw a green line in the sand and the first of this scale in California, the birthplace of urban sprawl. Already more than a dozen smaller cities in northern California are considering adopting similar "urban growth boundaries," as planners call them.

Planners already have before them a classic example of what happens when limits are not set - Los Angeles. "You can drive from the center of Los Angeles to San Diego, and except for Camp Pendleton, which is owned by the federal government, it is wall-to-wall houses and jobs," says Mayor Hammer, who grew up in Los Angeles.

In San Jose, however, sprawl already has left its imprint on the landscape. Back in 1950, it was a modest city of 95,280 people living in a compact 17 square miles surrounded by farmland, not unlike Los Angeles in its earlier years. Twenty years later, San Jose had expanded to 136 square miles with 445,000 people. Today, it occupies 174 square miles, its 835,000 population (as of 1994) outpacing San Francisco.

"Places like San Jose had incredible expansion during the late '40s, '50s, and '60s, but all that land is used up now," says Tom Aidala, consultant to the city's Redevelopment Agency. "The day of constant expansion is over."

Studies show that extending urban services (such as roads, sewer lines, water, and schools) to new suburbs costs cities more than they gain from any expected revenue increases stemming from the expansion. A recent study by the American Farmland Trust, for example, showed that continued sprawl - and eradication of farmland - in California's Central Valley would lead to budget shortfalls for cities in the region. The report estimated that the cost of providing services would exceed cities' revenues by $1 billion a year, causing either a reduction in services or higher taxes.

Instead, this study supports an approach known as "infill development." The idea is to shift growth to the inner part of a city, using vacant or underdeveloped areas for new housing and businesses. The result: denser habitation and new kinds of urban housing, such as single-family homes on smaller lots.

San Jose's struggle against sprawl began in the early 1980s with a plan to revive the city's moribund downtown. Public money has been invested in hotels, museums, arenas, parks, and other facilities designed to attract both businesses and individuals.

Setting growth limits was the strategy behind a series of planning policies and studies from the 1980s on, including the current San Jose 2020 General Plan, the city's road map for long-term urban development. The plan includes an "urban service area" boundary, which defines the area where urban services will be provided. It accommodates growth, within the city, of at least 126,000 new jobs and about 51,000 new housing units.

Mayor Hammer's green-line initiative takes that boundary, expands it a bit to include reserve lands, and virtually sets it in stone. The City Council has only one opportunity every 10 years, when the general plan is reviewed, to alter the line. The greenline is backed by the powerful Santa Clara Valley Manufacturing Group, which includes all major Silicon Valley firms.

But some developers argue that a green line is inflexible and represents an attempt to impose urban living on people who want to live in suburban conditions. "Urban growth boundaries are one more government regulatory program to make more difficult and expensive the kinds of suburban-style housing that survey after survey shows most people want," Mark Lazzarini, executive director of the Building Industry Association of Northern California, argued in testimony against the proposal.

"The American dream of having an 8,000- or 10,000-foot lot with a 2,500-square-foot house and yard - I can't argue with that," says Hammer. "We wanted that for our kids. I'm just saying, with a finite amount of land, that is going to change over time."

The San Jose City Council easily approved the concept earlier this month. Now the city will seek to negotiate an agreement with Santa Clara County officials before giving final approval of the green line by year's end.

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