6 Million More Pieces in Area's Population Puzzle

Times Staff Writer

A regional planning agency kicked off a two-year effort Tuesday to coordinate how Southern California accommodates a projected population increase of 6 million people by 2030.

The Southern California Assn. of Governments began the $1.3-million project by taking more than a dozen reporters on helicopter tours over the region's most densely populated areas and over some of the few remaining stretches of open space that are targeted for development.

Public relations consultants working with SCAG said the aerial tours -- which cost a total of $6,000 -- were offered in hopes of publicizing a topic that is often overlooked.

"There is a lot of perspective from the air that you can't get from the ground," said John Fregonese, a SCAG planning consultant who narrated the chopper rides.

But the biggest challenge may be getting the political leaders of each of the 183 cities and six counties in the region to put aside local interests and cooperate on a long-range plan that will balance the needs for open space, new housing units, job centers and improved transportation systems.

"I don't know how they can pull it off in that large of a scale," said William Fulton, publisher of the California Planning and Development Report.

The region does not have a good record of cooperating on such planning.

Two years ago, a state-mandated plan to accommodate future housing needs in the region stalled because Inland Empire communities said they were being asked to build too many of the housing units.

Inland city leaders argued that coastal communities will generate most of the new jobs and therefore should carry more of the housing burden. That plan is still delayed because of the dispute.

Still, SCAG Executive Director Mark Pisano said he hopes the agency can get all the cities and counties to work voluntarily on the effort, called Compass Southern California.

SCAG has some influence over transportation funding, but it does not have any authority to require local governments to cooperate.

"Without a regional solution, the only logical strategy is to act parochially, and that's exactly what our governments tend to do," Pisano said.

The six-county region -- covering more than 38,000 square miles -- is home to nearly 17 million people. Planners expect the region to grow to 23 million by 2030. That is the equivalent of adding the population of Los Angeles -- twice.

"It's really going to be a tight fit to get 6 million more people in here," Fregonese said as one of the helicopter tours cruised over the San Fernando Valley.

Southern California is already home to the worst freeway congestion in the nation. In Los Angeles County, average freeway speeds are about 30 mph and are expected to drop to less than 20 mph by 2025.

The population boom also is expected to exacerbate the region's worsening housing crisis. When compared with other large metropolitan regions in the nation, Southern California has by far the highest rate of crowded housing at 20%. A crowded house is defined as having more than one person per room, not counting bathrooms. In contrast, only 7% of households nationwide are considered crowded.

Under the Compass program, Southern California residents will be able to offer ideas for a long-range planning blueprint through the Internet (www.socalcompass.org), public workshops and community forums. SCAG consultants will use computer modeling to gauge how each planning scenario would increase or decrease the region's traffic, smog, open space and housing.

"The point of the project is to do the trial and error on the computer, not on the ground," Fregonese said.

In the end, SCAG officials hope to create a regionwide planning document -- called the Regional Growth Management Vision -- that will have the support of most Southern California government agencies.

The idea is that cities and counties and other local planning agencies would then adjust their transportation plans and land-use zoning to reflect the long-range vision.

One of the helicopter tours Tuesday began in Burbank, headed north toward new housing tracts around the Stevenson Ranch development near Santa Clarita, then west toward the Ahmanson Ranch development site in Ventura County, southeast over high-density developments near Marina del Rey, and north toward crowded neighborhoods around Hollywood.

During the flight, Fregonese was asked if all planners agree with the prediction of a 6-million-person population boom.

He said the increase can be averted only with a dramatic drop in birthrates or immigration, neither of which is likely.

"The only real debate is whether the 6 million will come in 25 years or 30 years," he said.

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