Harlan: Use data-driven process to determine planning needs

While reading a Daily Pilot article ("Costa Mesa may fund new high school field," March 3) a few weeks ago about the city's proposal to fund a new running track and field at Costa Mesa High School, I was struck by the following comment: "At the end of the day, we [the city] want to be the destination for every new family in Orange County."

This ambitious declaration by Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger, an avid supporter of youth athletics, seems innocuous enough on its face. Who would be opposed to enticing more families to settle in Costa Mesa?

The problem with this comment, however, is that while it sounds aspirational and visionary, it is based on a major assumption — that attracting this one demographic is the primary key to Costa Mesa's future prosperity.

It's common for real estate developers to subscribe to the idea that families are the heart and soul of all thriving communities and therefore merit the most attention in community planning. Unfortunately, this nicely packaged marketing narrative doesn't jibe with the reality of how Orange County is changing in general, and Costa Mesa in particular.

As I noted last July, the Costa Mesa community, like the county, has gotten older over the past decade or so. Our baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) account for almost 23% of our city's population, and that cohort is projected to increase in number over the next few decades.

And according to U.S. census figures, Costa Mesa grew only 1.1% between 2000 and 2010 (representing 1,236 people). During the same period, by contrast, Irvine and Newport Beach, two cities with more developable space, grew by 48.4% (69,303) and 21.6% (15,154), respectively. With population growth expected to slow countywide, Costa Mesa should not be planning for a huge influx of new families.

Understanding these demographic trends is important because it helps establish an objective context for making long-term community investments. When considering these investments — whether they are parks and recreation facilities, streetscape improvements, bike paths, schools and the like — we need to ask and answer two fundamental questions:

First, for whom are we planning? And second, what are we planning for these people?

We like to jump to the second question because it's easier to wrap our heads around a tangible project (an athletic field, library, newly paved alley) than understand the wants and needs of a particular demographic. But making these leaps and not carefully identifying whom we're planning for is risky and irresponsible.

The proposed high school track improvements, for example, come at a pretty significant upfront cost — $3 million to $4 million, as estimated by the city. Arguably, this investment serves a narrow part of our community: primarily students at the school.

There may be good reasons for making this investment, such as encouraging neighbors to exercise and use the new facility, improving the city's image or cultivating a partnership between the city and the school district. It is hoped that the city-funded study of the proposal will thoroughly examine the project's need, benefits and risks.

Regardless of the supposed merits, the proposal illustrates the need for the city to establish a data-driven process to analyze future capital investments.

In fact, we have a model we can use. Mensinger's Civic Openness in Negotiations (COIN) ordinance is a good example of how gathering information is necessary before making decisions about the city expending capital and resources. COIN, designed to provide data from which we could form our own opinions about the city's labor contracts and provide informed input in the negotiation process, offers a transparent process that could easily be applied to other issues.

If we're going to consider committing our limited financial resources now, then we should do two things. First, the city should conduct an economic and demographic analysis of who we anticipate will be living in Costa Mesa over the next 20 years. This is a common practice when updating a city's general plan (which we're doing now), and would serve as a solid foundation for other decision-making.

Second, based on this data, the city should start thinking about where Costa Mesa fits into the projected growth of Orange County and our particular subregion. Again, this is the kind of community-wide conversation that needs to occur in the general plan process. We should be smart about making the kinds of investments that capitalize on our inherent strengths and location and not compete broadly with Irvine, Newport Beach, Santa Ana and Huntington Beach for a small pool of new families.

I suspect that if we used the COIN process for evaluating capital improvements, and collected and analyzed critical information, we might craft a new and different narrative to describe who and what will define the Costa Mesa of the future.

JEFFREY HARLAN is an urban planner who lives on the Eastside of Costa Mesa.

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