Time to drop the general plan

Deanna Marquart is a Midtown public-policy analyst and writer. She serves on Sacramento’s General Plan Advisory Committee.

Since 1929, state law has required local jurisdictions to prepare a “master plan for physical development.” But does the general-plan process work? We know, with the blessing of multiple general plans, that California development is characterized by sprawl. In Sacramento, we can also thank our general plan for the dead zones of west Capitol Mall and K Street. It’s only fair to ask whether the general plan for 2030, currently in the works, will realize the city council’s vision of making Sacramento the “most livable city in America.”

Call me a skeptic, but I don’t think so.

After spending nearly $4 million in three-and-a-half years, the council has so far approved more than 40 guiding principles and 500 policies to inform decision-making. Even with hundreds of pages of guiding principles, policies and implementation activities, regulatory details do not appear in the general plan. Instead, regulations are in a plethora of topical master plans, area-specific design guidelines and the all-important zoning ordinance.

But due to the city’s revenue shortfall, an update of the zoning ordinance that would align it with the new general plan (as required by state law) will not be timely. Between adoption of the general plan (expected by late 2008) and adoption of a revised zoning ordinance, the pertinent review bodies, including city council, will have to “wing it.”

Thirty years ago, when Sacramento was producing the general plan that is in place today, government was building for the future. Perhaps general plans were important to account for expenditure of tax dollars. Today, in keeping with the reduced financial circumstances in which government finds itself, the money for building cities is in the hands of private interests: developers and investors. The ultimate arbiter of what to build is whether it “pencils.”

Government’s role in this new world hasn’t been thoughtfully redefined. The city is no closer than it was when the process began to setting priorities for design and development. That’s disappointing at best. The general plan resembles, more than anything else, a wish list, but with no indication of which guiding principles, policies or implementation activities should appear at the top. As such, it is bewilderingly outmoded.