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After 35 years in public education as a university administrator and a high school English teacher, I began my second life as a freelance writer, winning San Diego Society of Professional Journalists awards for my opinion columns in the former San Diego daily North County Times and the San Diego Free Press.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Carlsbad Report on Caruso's Lagoon Mall: Close Enough for Government Work?

On February 23 the people of Carlsbad will vote on Measure A, an L.A. developer's attempt to bypass normal city and state reviews, allowing him to build a thirteen-acre shopping center overlooking the Agua Hedionda lagoon.

The City council's staff report claims to be an "impartial planning, policy, economic, and environmental analysis" of Rick Caruso's lagoon mall plan. But I was reminded of a summer job I once had with the Washington State Highway Department, working to keep contractors honest by testing their highway asphalt samples.

I learned how politics trumped highway safety when my supervisor kept telling me to re-test failed samples until they passed. I guessed he didn't want to bring bad news to his boss's desk. So I stopped bringing it to his, following the advice of my fellow workers, the lab's old timers, "Close enough for government work."

I heard echoes of that in the section of the 9212 Report minimizing the project's traffic problems. Smacking of developer hype, it serves as a reminder of Caruso's initiative campaign to "Save the Strawberry Fields," a shell game that hid his plan for a mega mall next to the already protected farmland.   

Here's what former Carlsbad city planner, Michael Holzmiller, had to say about the project's traffic problems in a November 17 letter to the city council:

"The traffic analysis for the project indicates it will generate more traffic than originally projected (for the area). More importantly is the limited access available to the project site and proposed accesses to it do not meet the city's standards for intersection spacing. The westerly exit-only driveway is located in very close proximity to the northbound on I-5 on-ramp. I don't believe this impact and other traffic impacts have been adequately addressed."

How credible is the retired city planner? Holzmiller was the lead author for the city's voter-approved 1986 Growth Management Plan. Upon his retirement in 2005, the city's Community Development Director, Sandy Holder, told UT San Diego (Feb.10, 2005), "One of the reasons Carlsbad is such a quality community is due in part because of his vision and strategic planning ability."

A developer, whose project was stalled by Holzmiller in 1986, thought about suing the city before he conceded, "The Growth Management Plan is tremendous because it looks at the big picture for developers and the city alike, anticipating problems before building begins. Holzmiller got everybody through the rough times with high integrity." (UT San Diego)

The 9212 Report claims Caruso's Environmental Protection Features (EPFs) planned for the mall's nearby intersections will improve driving conditions that would be worse without his project.

How can that be? According to SANDAG estimates, population growth from 2019 to 2035 will bring enough traffic to cause eight intersections to fail city standards without the shopping center. Caruso promises his EPFs will make it easier on drivers to cope with the additional traffic.

At the same time he says his project will draw new shoppers from throughout the region, creating an estimated 24,100 additional daily car trips on I-5. To support that claim he likes to brag about his 18 million yearly visitors to The Grove, his L.A. mega mall. 

How reliable are the population projections? A May 21, 2015 Voice of San Diego report reveals, SANDAG Isn't Very Good at Predicting Population Growth. "Through the 1980s, projections undershot actual growth by almost 3 percent on average. The projections it has released since 1990 routinely missed the other way. Where SANDAG’s forecasts strongly diverged from the actual population, it points to major political or economic events."

If traffic projections are too low and Carusoland becomes the huge visitor attraction the developer hopes for, traffic will be an eternal nightmare for Carlsbadians, especially if he fails to deliver on the EPFs.

If, on the other hand, traffic projections are too high because retail customers continue their turn to online shopping, away from large onsite department stores like Nordstrom, or if there's another recession, what happens to Caruso's "retail promenade," built for its attractiveness to visitors? The failed project will be the legacy of city leaders who thought they could get something for nothing.
At the November 17 City Council meeting setting the date for the special election, Mayor Matt Hall tried to reassure anti-mall speakers who were concerned about what the developer might do in the future with the 200 acres of predominantly open space under his plan's control. "What you see is what you're going to get," Hall promised.

But it's what they don't see that worries them.

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