Cities welcomed housing boom with open arms...Garth Stapley
Whether cities in the foreclosure-plagued Northern San Joaquin Valley can help avoid future disaster with better planning is up for debate. But many experts say it's worth a try.
Superheated construction activity helped drive cities in San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Merced counties to expand their boundaries 45 percent in the past 18 years, according to a Bee review of annexation data. The 22 cities' populations grew 53 percent, on average, in the same time frame.
Progress shifted to shame when the flurry ground to a halt and the three counties suddenly found themselves at the epicenter of the nation's mortgage default crisis.
Assuming leaders are making the link, have they learned any lessons from the building boom and bust?
"They were all wanting to let it rip," said Max Neiman, senior fellow at the Public Policy
Institute of California. "Understandably so. The opportunity was there (and officials said), 'Let's let the housing market go gangbusters.' (The bust) gives us an opportunity for more deliberate, thought-out planning."
Urban expansion since 1990 in terms of city limits ranged from 7 percent in Dos Palos, the region's smallest city, to 250 percent in Patterson, according to the Bee review. Patterson's default rate of nearly one in five homes is second only to 21 percent in Lathrop, whose 175 percent sprawl trails only Patterson's.
Bay Area proximity noted
The valley's West Side produced five of the region's six fastest-growing cities in terms of population: Los Banos (162 percent), Lathrop (157 percent), Newman (155 percent), Tracy (151 percent) and Patterson (146 percent). That makes some sense, because the West Side is closer to Bay Area jobs, said David Hosley, president of the Great Valley Center in Modesto.
"If you're going to have part of the region grow, it's probably best to put it closest to where people work," Hosley said. Reducing climate-changing emissions through decreased driving is central to smart growth planning, as well as new legislation.
But demand for housing dollars, not effective planning, drove the valley's rapid growth over the past couple of decades, several experts say. Now we have acres of single-family homes replacing farmland on cities' fringes -- many neighborhoods pocked by bank-owned homes with ill-kept yards.
"It's hard to separate out how much of that is due to poor planning or to the general economic decline," Neiman said. "Those places that have the most dramatic impact were probably overbuilt. That's the bad planning part. But a number of things were converging. The cliche is 'the perfect storm.' "
John Wilbanks, president of Oakdale-based RRM Design Group, agreed. "If not for the financial collapse, people would still be living in their homes, enjoying their neighborhoods," he said. "But something I've always pushed in planning philosophy is there is way too much reliance on the market for land-use decisions.
"The market is a short-term condition," Wilbanks continued. "Decisions ought to focus on a long-term vision. And that requires making decisions that sometimes are not going to be popular in the short term."
Taking a step back
Long-term visions are captured in each community's general plan, a document detailing growth goals for the next few years or decades. Agencies periodically update such plans, usually with help from consultants and input from neighbors. For example, Riverbank is nearing a final vote on a revamped general plan that envisions more than doubling its population of 21,700, to 55,200, by 2025. Modesto's urban growth review process allows the city to take a look every couple of years without redoing the umbrella general plan.
"Good planning could help to prevent what one might call the oversupply of housing stock," said David Early, founding principal of Berkeley-based Design, Commu- nity and Environment. "This is a great opportunity to take a step back and look at our planning successes and failures over the last 10 to 15 years. We can learn from the things we've done and retool to try to create sustainable communities."
Others say the valley's history suggests too little thoughtful planning and too much bowing to developers promising tax revenue.
"We haven't seen good examples in the valley, where we can point and say, 'Look what they did,' " said Mike Darnell, California policy director for the American Farmland Trust. "Most (communities) have not been efficient."
Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties each lost more than 21,000 acres of agricultural land in the dozen years preceding 2004, and Merced County lost nearly 17,500 acres, according to the state's Farmland Mapping and Monitoring Program.
Good plans fell by wayside
Some decent growth plans were set aside during the latest building frenzy, Wilbanks noted, suggesting a flaw in even the best-laid plans.
"They adopt general plans but the first guy who comes in simply files for an amendment and gets (leaders') support to change the plan based on the market," he said. "It's all about the moment."
Neiman said leaders must resist the allure of quick cash from short-sighted projects. In addition to sprawling subdivisions, experts often decry generic strip malls that are impossible to reach on foot.
"Communities need to be circumspect about how much to grow," Neiman said, "and make reasonable judgments on what that stock of housing ought to be."
People throughout Stanislaus County last year showed cynicism about planning leadership. By a 2-to-1 margin, voters seized the power to approve subdivisions in unincorporated areas from county supervisors by approving Measure E.
"The responsibility to prevent the San Jose-ation of Stanislaus County is clearly that of the cities and their current political leaders," said Denny Jackman, the initiative's co-author and a former Modesto councilman. "Will they reflect the people they represent or will they succumb to short-term, reactive government that loses ground, literally?"
Patterson surpasses all, with city land swelling 250%...Garth Stapley
PATTERSON -- Over the past couple of decades, no city in the region sprawled as aggressively as Patterson.
No one else even came close to its 250 percent land increase. No. 2 in the Northern San Joaquin Valley's three counties was Lathrop (175 percent), the area's newest city whose yearning to grow might be understandable.
Stanislaus County's second-most land-hungry city in relative terms, Turlock, extended its footprint 74 percent since 1990. Patterson more than tripled that rate.
When the building boom turned to bust a couple of years ago, Patterson's vast new housing tracts became pimpled with foreclosures. The apricot capital zoomed ahead of Stanislaus County's eight other cities to claim the dubious prize for the highest rate of repossessed homes.
"We've seen the benefits of development," said Rod Simpson, Patterson's community development director. "And we've seen the terrible side effects of the foreclosures. These are the growing pains of a smaller city."
If overbuilding worsened the mortgage default crisis, as many experts claim, Patterson surely will be cautious about future growth, right?
Not willing to play second fiddle to county supervisors' dream for the West Park project, a gargantuan industrial tract in nearby Crows Landing, Patterson leaders are positioning to pull out all the stops in a growth plan financed by developers and people owning the land the city is most likely to devour.
A citizens committee led by one of the city's most influential developers envisions Patterson nearly quadrupling its population in four decades, to 83,000 people.
"We really feel the need to open our boundaries to get ready for the next push," said John Ramos, who is waiting for the economy to rebound before launching his Villages of Patterson and its 3,100 homes, approved two years ago. He is chairman of the general plan advisory committee, which set aside recommendations of city staff and a planning consultant that suggested taking things a little slower.
"My idea was always to plan for the future," Ramos continued. "You've got to plan it big enough for 40 years down the road."
Planning commissioners seem to agree, though they recently ordered that environmental studies cover not only the most aggressive option, but also toned-down versions showing Patterson growing to 61,000 or 72,000 residents, give or take, by 2048.
Fallout from growing pains
Meanwhile, Patterson's growing pains have produced colorful politics in a nasty mayoral race, bickering over whether to expand into hills west of Interstate 5 and online blogs competing for edginess.
Helping to frame the debate is a proposal for the largest Wal-Mart in Stanislaus County, an idea embraced by many consumers tired of driving to other towns for basic goods while loathed by frightened merchants in the city's quaint downtown.
"Patterson is one of the most outright growth-oriented places in the valley," said Michael Teitz, an urban planning professor and senior fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California. "The long-term question is whether this type of low-density, suburban development is sustainable."
Staff members regularly place relevant literature in agenda packets for planning commissioners. A recent packet included an article called "Clean it or Lien it: Dealing with Foreclosed or Abandoned Properties."
David Moran, the Crawford Multari & Clark Associates consultant helping to rework the city's general plan, said the plan could help minimize future crises such as the one that took the homes of one in every five Patterson families.
Shaking up the oversupply of upper-end houses is a good start, he said.
"The general plan would help encourage a variety of housing products with different costs for different income categories," Moran said.
He acknowledged that decision makers rejected his advice about Patterson resisting the temptation to cover rural hills in the Diablo range west of I-5 with stores and houses, or to set its ultimate growth sights a bit lower.
"Our responsibility to the city is to help them make informed decisions about this stuff," Moran said. "We tried to point out what the consequences are likely to be. What they do with that information is ultimately up to them. We work for them, not the other way around."
Merced struggles despite new UC campus...Dale Kasler
MERCED – As home to the newest University of California campus, Merced thought it had left behind the high unemployment, rural poverty and other miseries that have plagued the Central Valley for decades.
Instead, the recession has hit here as hard as anywhere. Unemployment is at 19.9 percent, the worst in 22 years. Rather than insulate Merced from the downturn, the 3-year-old campus might have actually made things worse.
UC mania inflated the housing bubble here beyond all reason. Home builders rushed to fill the five-mile gap between central Merced and the campus northeast of town. Speculators poured in. Merced was the state's hottest market in 2005, and ninth hottest in the nation, for price appreciation.
Median prices more than doubled in three years to a peak of $382,000 in late 2005, right after the first UC students arrived, says market researcher MDA DataQuick.
The median now: $105,500.
"In 30 years, I'd never seen anything like it," said Mayor Ellie Wooten, a real estate agent. "Common sense tells you that if you have a little house and suddenly it's worth $350,000, something's fishy in Denmark."
The story is similar throughout the Valley. The housing boom and its brief taste of prosperity are history. Unemployment is in the teens. Even the Valley's mainstay, agriculture, is struggling because of water shortages.
Valley retailing has been devastated by the demise of Circuit City, Linens 'n Things and scores of mom and pops. Merced's only indoor mall lost one of its anchors when Mervyns folded, although Kohl's might take its place.
Out by the municipal airport, Merced's industrial belt has been hit, too. Stahl Metal Products, a maker of truck accessories, closed after 30 years in business. Malibu and Fineline, two boat manufacturers, imposed layoffs.
"It's all tied to the collapse of the real estate market," said Frank Quintero, city development manager. "People were taking out home equity loans, buying boats, buying things … that's what was keeping some of our manufacturers (going strong)."
Quebecor, a Canadian-owned printing plant and one of Merced's largest employers, cut staff last year.
"A lot of people like myself are still pretty much in shock," said Oscar Guillen, 55, who lost his job at Quebecor in July. "Because of the university … I thought things wouldn't be that bad."
As the recession deepened, DataQuick said 8.4 percent of Merced's homes went into foreclosure last year, the highest rate in California and triple the state average.
"We're probably the foreclosure capital of the world," said Scott Galbraith, president of Merced County Economic Development Corp.
Many of those subdivisions built with UC in mind are dotted with "For Sale" and "For Rent" signs. Entire blocks lie empty, weeds sprouting instead of homes.
The biggest casualty might be Merced's venerable County Bank, a $1 billion Valley institution that failed Feb. 6 and was taken over by Westamerica Bancorp of San Rafael. Westamerica is closing eight branches and cutting corporate staff in Merced.
Although it wasn't a subprime lender, County Bank lost a bundle in real estate, and its collapse left a wound.
"That was the hometown bank," Wooten said. "All the old original folks from town banked with County Bank."
Yet Wooten sees signs of life, too. The housing market is firming up. Wal-Mart is planning a 900-employee warehouse. A hospital is under way. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger came to town to kick off a $46 million bridge project funded with federal stimulus money.
"I think we're on an upswing," Wooten said. "It is not overnight."
Throughout the Valley, recovery is a ways off. Unemployment is 14.7 percent in Bakersfield, 18.9 percent in Yuba City and 26.6 percent in Colusa County, the worst in the state.
Fresno just saw a $300 million downtown redevelopment plan die. Its beloved Gottschalks Inc. will be auctioned off in Bankruptcy Court on Monday, with liquidation a real possibility. Fresno unemployment: 16.4 percent.
While the latest unemployment numbers are inflated by seasonal factors – this is farming's slow time – the rates are far higher than a year ago.
Adding to the Valley's pain is the water shortage, especially on the west side, which has crippled many farms. That means many who left agriculture to build houses probably can't get their old jobs back.
"A lot are trying to re-enter agricultural work," said Michael McCann of Proteus Inc., a nonprofit job placement service in Visalia. "It's getting a little crowded."
The boom didn't leave the Valley unchanged. The service sector – doctors, lawyers, accountants – grew. Some towns landed warehouses, factories, even some tech operations, said Ross DeVol, an economist at the Milken Institute.
"The Valley has made some gains," he said.
But the Valley remains troubled by low educational attainment and other issues that scare off high-end employers. "It is largely a work force quality issue," DeVol said.
Enter UC Merced.
Looming on the outskirts of town like a kind of Emerald City, the Valley's first and only UC campus is being counted on to raise education levels in the region. It's also supposed to be a countrified version of Stanford, a machine that will convert UC brainpower into high-paying Valley jobs.
So far it hasn't really happened. City officials identified one company – Certified Laboratories Inc., a food safety firm from New York – drawn to Merced because of UC. It employs 17 workers.
Breakthroughs by UC Merced professors in solar energy and bioengineering have fueled two startup companies – in Mountain View and Carlsbad. Experts say Merced is too remote, too far removed from venture capital and other necessities, to launch its own high-tech economy.
That could change over time.
"We're early in the game here," said Richard Miller, UC Merced's interim associate vice chancellor for research.
Campus and community leaders agree UC Merced, still in the early stages of a 25-year buildout, will pay huge dividends eventually. The student population of 2,700 will grow tenfold. Faculty and staff payroll, currently $5.1 million a month, will mushroom, too.
Yet Michelle Allison, program manager at the county's Department of Workforce Investment, said she's disappointed UC hasn't hired more from the local population.
While UC is a huge asset, "the panacea … hasn't happened yet," she said. "There was this false sense that when the university came, it was going to become this magical – it was going to change everything. It didn't."
UC officials say they've hired plenty of local residents but acknowledge the campus hasn't been an immediate economic cure-all.
"The expectation was that the impact was going to be faster," said Mary Miller, vice chancellor for administration. "I don't think we were clear enough that this is a slow, evolving process."
San Francisco Chronicle
Campus security bills for speakers challenged...Bob Egelk
When a UC Berkeley student group invited a speaker known for his hard-line pro-Israel stance, the university feared clashes with Palestinian supporters and billed the group more than $3,000 for police protection.
It was a common response by campus officials in a security-conscious era. When a speaker's controversial topic or history suggests the possibility of a violent reaction, the thinking goes, the sponsoring group should pay for protecting the speaker, the audience and public property.
That sounds logical, but it's also unconstitutional, says the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a conservative-leaning group that defends free speech on campus. Citing a 1992 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, the foundation has been challenging security fees at colleges around the country.
"It doesn't matter how unpopular or controversial the speech is," said foundation spokesman Adam Kissel. "The amount of security has to be the same as for all other events."
UC Berkeley, the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement, got the message. Saying its police may have misunderstood the nature of the event, the university lowered its fee to $460 for two officers for the March 3 speech at Dwinelle Hall by Elan Journo of the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine.
Journo said about 60 people attended and listened peacefully to his message that the United States should stop trying to promote an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians and instead should encourage Israel to "uproot, dismantle and destroy the Palestinian cause, which seeks to destroy Israel."
'Stifling real debate'
He said his sponsors, the Objectivist Club of Berkeley, probably would have canceled the event if the university hadn't reduced the security charge.
"When they're asked to pay an excessive fee, that is stifling real debate," Journo said.
In a similar dispute two years ago, Kissel said, UCLA planned to charge a conservative student group $12,000 to $15,000 to pay for 46 security guards at a debate on illegal immigration, but relented after a protest.
He said the foundation is now challenging a $725 fee that the University of Massachusetts at Amherst charged for police protection at a March 11 speech by a conservative columnist who disputes the concept of hate crimes.
The foundation is also backing a left-leaning student group that is contesting fees that the University of Colorado wants to charge for security at an appearance by two speakers earlier this month.
William Ayers, a leader of the 1960s radical group Weather Underground, and Ward Churchill, a former Colorado ethnic studies professor, spoke at a student-sponsored forum on academic freedom March 5 at the university's Boulder campus.
'Little Eichmanns' furor
Churchill was fired on plagiarism charges in 2007. He claims in a lawsuit that the university was retaliating against him for describing the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as a response to U.S. abuses and calling some of the victims "little Eichmanns." The reference was to Adolf Eichmann, the main Nazi coordinator of the Holocaust.
University spokesman Bronson Hilliard said about 1,100 people attended the event under tight security, which included pat-downs at the entrance, and behaved peacefully. He said university officials have planned to bill the sponsors about $2,700, but listened to the students' objections and have not made a final decision.
"There's no relationship between the cost of the security and the content of the speaker," Hilliard said. He said police consider the likely audience reaction when making security plans and should be able to pass along those costs to event organizers.
"What our law enforcement officials look at is, are we going to have a full venue and might we have audience members who disagree with the message?" Hilliard said. "That's a basic security planning protocol."
Other factors to consider
Kissel said security fees should be based on factors unrelated to either the speaker's message or the audience's anticipated response - for example, the expected size of the crowd, the location, and whether a security guard will be needed for admission money collected at the door.
The Supreme Court set constitutional standards for such disputes in the 1992 case of a white-supremacist group, the Nationalist Movement, that wanted to demonstrate in Georgia against the proposed national holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr.
The group canceled its plans when officials said a permit would cost $100, and instead challenged a county ordinance that allowed authorities to charge as much as $1,000 for a permit to hold a demonstration, parade or meeting on public property.
In a 5-4 ruling, the court said the ordinance was unconstitutional because it allowed officials to base the fee on the costs of controlling hostile onlookers.
Kissel said the ruling means public speakers shouldn't have to pay for protecting themselves or their surroundings from an angry crowd. Speakers who incite a riot should be responsible for the consequences, he said, but "security is a basic function of government."
Controversial speech should be especially welcome at universities, "society's ultimate marketplace of ideas," Kissel said. He said UC Berkeley could help other schools get the message if it followed its recent agreement on fees with standards for such disputes.
Michael Smith, a lawyer for the university, said he had reviewed the security fee for the March 3 speech agreed that it shouldn't be based on the speaker's viewpoint or the expected reaction. He said he had discussed the proper standards with campus police, who set the fee levels in most cases, so that such overcharges won't happen again.
But Smith said neither Berkeley nor the 10-campus university has a formal policy on the subject.
"We don't set all constitutional principles down in writing," he said.