Confirming San Diego’s bittersweet status as one of America’s fastest-growing major cities, the U.S. Census Bureau reported Friday that the city’s population rose during the 1980s by more than a quarter to 1.1 million, making it the nation’s sixth biggest city.
Over the past decade, San Diego’s population grew by 27%, rising from 875,538 in 1980 to 1,110,549 last year, according to the census data. The city’s growth, which most local officials expect to slow during the 1990s, accounted for more than a third of San Diego County’s overall population increase during the 1980s, as the county grew from 1.9 million to 2,498,016.
Elsewhere in the county, three cities--Chula Vista, Escondido and Oceanside--surpassed the 100,000 population threshold in the 1980s. Of the three, Escondido recorded the largest percentage increase--69%--as it grew from 64,355 to 108,635, while the populations of both Chula Vista and Oceanside increased by about 50,000 each, to 135,163 and 128,398, respectively.
Two other smaller cities--San Marcos and Vista--more than doubled in population over the past 10 years, growing to 38,974 and 71,872, respectively. Of the 18 cities in the county, only Del Mar shrank during the 1980s, as its population declined 3% from 5,017 to 4,860.
Friday’s census figures merely provided official numerical sanction to the everyday realities that San Diego’s public officials and citizens became accustomed to in the past decade, a period when the now-familiar debate over growth became a staple of local political dialogue.
In the city of San Diego, growth-control measures became an almost annual hand-wringing exercise at City Hall, and the same politically volatile issue was at the heart of numerous contentious initiative battles on the ballot throughout the 1980s. The same pattern was repeated at the County Administration Building and in many of the region’s smaller cities, as elected leaders and civic activists struggled to find ways to accommodate development while simultaneously paying heed to environmental concerns.
“For years, San Diego’s been caught up in the balance between the benefits that come with being a bigger city and some of the problems that come along with that,” said Paul Downey, press secretary for San Diego Mayor Maureen O’Connor. “San Diego’s become a much more cosmopolitan city--the (1989) Soviet Arts Festival, for example, couldn’t have happened here 10 years before--but it’s also got more problems in areas like traffic, sewage and infrastructure.”
The population data released Friday documents only overall population gains or losses, without any interpretations or explanations behind the numbers. Detailed demographic breakdowns of the population figures, which will provide a more specific look at the growth patterns of the past decade, will not be released by the Census Bureau until this spring.
However, a number of recent public and private reports underline many of the factors responsible for San Diego’s rapid expansion in the 1980s. In a San Diego Assn. of Governments (Sandag) study released last year, about two-thirds of the county’s population growth was attributed to “in-migration,” or people who moved here from somewhere else. The remaining 35% population gain stemmed from a so-called “natural increase,” reflecting the excess of births over deaths in the 1980s.
A 1987 report prepared for TCS Governmental Consulting Inc. highlights additional influences on San Diego’s growth--notably, the economic growth and increasing job opportunities that made the area so attractive to people elsewhere in the country.
A critical element in that part of San Diego’s population equation was the Reagan Administration’s huge defense buildup throughout the decade, which created nearly 10,000 new jobs here over a three-year period in the mid-1980s alone. According to the 1987 report, Sandag estimates that each new defense-related job brought four people to the county.
However, with defense spending having peaked in the late 1980s, that boon to San Diego’s population likely will be considerably less significant in the 1990s. Indeed, the TCS report concludes: “The rapid increase in new job opportunities created by these (defense) expenditures is, for the most part, over.”
The same report notes that the aging of the baby-boom population also will cause the increase in births in the county to level off, beginning in the early 1990s.
Those factors, combined with the overall downturn in the nation’s economy, are cited by many local business leaders and developers to support their argument that, at least for the foreseeable future, there may be less need for governmental restraints on growth--and the attendant divisive public debates that such proposals bring--than in the recent past.
“What happened in the ‘80s was the result of a convergence of factors I don’t think you’re going to see repeated any time soon,” said TCS executive Mac Strobl. “Yet some are continuing to fight the battles of the ‘80s instead of confronting the new challenges of the ‘90s.”
Not surprisingly, Peter Navarro, chairman of the slow-growth organization Prevent Los Angelization Now, has a markedly different perspective on San Diego’s growth, past and future.
“The developers would love to get people to believe that,” Navarro said recently. “But, if you accept that line, in a few years there will be more traffic congestion, less open space and worse problems than we have now. Ask anyone who drives along I-15 every day. I don’t think they think that the battle over development is over.”
As Friday’s population figures made clear, San Diego was not the only city in the county grappling with that knotty issue.
A major factor in Chula Vista’s dramatic 61% growth was the 1986 annexation of the community of Montgomery to the east, which brought an immediate 24,000 population spurt to the largely middle-class South Bay city.
With that exception, the city’s overall growth was relatively evenly paced in the 1980s, a fact that Deputy City Manager George Krempl attributes primarily to an abundance of open, affordable property to the east and efficient master planning. The city’s planning guidelines include an annual review of quality of life standards that, if not achieved in areas such as traffic, water and schools, could halt development.
“I’d say there’s general satisfaction (with the growth) but also a perception that it’s getting more crowded and (creating) greater demand for services,” Krempl said. “There’s definitely a higher interest in growth management now than there was in 1980.”
Similarly, in Escondido, public dissatisfaction with that city’s rapid growth prompted an upheaval on the City Council in the late 1980s, as a slow-growth majority replaced members whom many blamed for leapfrog development earlier in the decade that strained city services and resources. Since then, most growth has been in the city’s core.
Despite its 44,000-plus population growth, however, Escondido retains much of the easygoing, rural charm that initially attracted many of its residents--albeit with some occasional jarring transitions to hubs of intense activity.
Illustrating how the old has blended with the new in the North County city, hundreds of spacious open acres with a rural feel can be found within about 1 mile of the city’s sprawling North County Fair shopping center.
The impact of Escondido’s growth is perhaps put in perspective best by City Manager Doug Clark.
“In Spanish, Escondido means ‘hidden valley,’ ” Clark said. “Well, it’s not very hidden anymore.”
And, in Oceanside, where the official motto for tourists is “You Know Your Host on the Pacific Coast,” tens of thousands of new residents also took that slogan to heart in the 1980s. Over the past decade, population in the North County coastal community grew 67%, increasing from 76,698 to 128,398.
SAN DIEGO COUNTY CITIES RANKED BY GROWTH
City 1980 1990 % Change San Marcos 17,479 38,974 123.0 Vista 35,834 71,872 100.6 Carlsbad 35,490 63,126 77.9 Escondido 64,355 108,635 68.8 Oceanside 76,698 128,398 67.4 Chula Vista 83,928 135,163 61.0 Coronado 16,859 26,540 57.4 Encinitas 36,550 55,386 51.5 Santee 40,298 52,902 31.3 Poway 33,439 43,516 30.1 San Diego 875,538 1,110,549 26.8 El Cajon 73,891 88,693 20.0 Imperial Beach 22,689 26,512 16.8 Lemon Grove 20,780 23,984 15.4 National City 48,772 54,249 11.2 Solana Beach 12,250 12,962 5.8 La Mesa 50,308 52,931 5.2 Del Mar 5,017 4,860 -3.1
Source: U.S. Census Bureau