Thanks to Mayor Brent Ives and the State of the City spotlight, the measure — the protagonist of so many political pageants in the city’s recent past — is back on center stage.
Ives lit the limelight during his March 27 address, the first of his final term as mayor. He proposed a “serious discussion” about what he called “the negative impact” of Measure A, which was passed to brake a runaway train of residential growth.
On April 5, Ives clarified what he meant.
He told me the measure — which limits the issuance of residential growth allotments to 750 single-family houses each year, with a 10-year annual average of 600 houses — is a serious impediment to attracting retailers and employers to Tracy.
They balk, he said, when they see a growth cap on the books.
“They don’t want a limitation in the amount of market they have to impact,” he said. “When people in town don’t get a Trader Joe’s or another retail outlet, part of the reason is that when retailers do their due diligence, they see Measure A.”
The only way to overturn or amend a voter initiative such as Measure A is with another communitywide vote, something that can consume time and political capital — not to mention the patience of those who see it as a stumbling block to bringing jobs to the city.
“It seems to always come up in the discussion” with potential business clients, Ives said.
“I think we need to create a better potential for development,” he added. “…There are even job-generating impacts — not being able to have enough allocations to build the kind of housing that attract the higher-paying jobs.”
Though Ives said the right number of houses to allow each year is up for debate, it would be better for growth if the City Council were in control of that number.
It would certainly make that number easier to change.
If an amendment to Measure A ever reached a citywide vote, Ives said the language should spell out specific conditions under which the City Council could change growth horizons.
“It would have to have numbers and criteria for changing those (housing) numbers,” he told me. “But it would be at a council level, not a voter level.”
Of course, that means voters would have to trust the City Council.
It’s worth remembering that Measure A was passed precisely because voters did not — and possibly could not — trust the council to set a reasonable limit on growth.
From 1990 to 2000, Tracy exploded from a population of about 35,000 to a population of 56,929, according to the U.S. Census. It’s now about 83,000.
Many who lived here during that time have told me the problem wasn’t just that the residential growth was sudden — it was ill-planned, and city amenities couldn’t keep pace.
The only thing it appeared the city knew how to do was build houses.
But old axes need grinding to stay sharp, and there are few dull blades around Tracy.
City Manager Leon Churchill — who arrived in 2008, well after Tracy’s boom days — gave me the perspective of an outsider when I talked to him April 2.
“Ten years ago, the economic development strategy was housing development — that is not an economic development strategy,” he said. “That is my personal and professional opinion.”
His insight hints at what many have long understood. The concept of “If you build it, they will come” might work with baseball fields and Shoeless Joe Jackson, but not necessarily with housing tracts and jobs.
Measure A was undoubtedly a knee-jerk reaction, but it sought to achieve something Tracy lacked — balance.
Yes, there must be available housing for people at all income levels, from a company president to an entry-level worker. And yes, there might only be a handful of homes currently on Tracy’s open market. But houses alone don’t guarantee economic prosperity.
Tracy’s been down that road, and it led to Measure A.
Whether because of the slow-growth law or the Great Recession, the fulcrum has started to shift and redistribute the city’s balance when it comes to growth.
City Council discussions routinely — sometimes exhaustively — revolve around job creation. More weight has been given to strengthening industry and commerce. Elected and hired leaders are so attuned that a keynote speech by technology expert Vivek Wadhwa at the State of the City inspired a new goal in the city’s strategic plan.
It’s clear that Ives, the council and city staff earnestly hope to turn Tracy into a hub for commerce and industry, a city that far outpaces its San Joaquin County sisters.
But when it comes to amending Measure A, it’s my belief that residents should remember the path that brought the city here, and not rush to turn over the reins of residential growth.
• Second Thoughts is a personal opinion column by Editor Jon Mendelson. Share your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.