Identifying a project as "smart growth" can be a powerful argument for relief from local zoning restrictions and plans, notes land use attorney Bill Adams. While density, proximity to transit, and other physical attributes help determine whether a project is "smart," should communities consider a much more preliminary, non bricks and mortar, question? Adams looks at a proposal in his own neighborhood:
"The “Village” area of the City of La Mesa remains a sleepy hamlet nestled among foothills despite having been enveloped on all sides by suburban sprawl and freeways. With its traditional main street and railway stop, it’s a rarity in Southern California. It has been recognized as the most walkable city in San Diego County. However, the way the Village views itself is being fundamentally challenged.
"Recently, the main topic of conversation in La Mesa has been a large mixed use development proposal . . . If built as proposed, it will include the city’s tallest building at 9-11 stories (110 feet). Current buildings adjacent to the site are 1 – 2 story detached residences and retail buildings. . . existing zoning allows retail and multifamily housing up to a height of 46 feet, i.e., 4 – 5 stories – a significant bump in density." Adams writes that the project proponents tout its 'smartness' due to its proximity to a light rail line and its density. However, he goes on to observe,
"Questions concerning spot zoning, sprawl, and impacts on the surrounding neighborhood are garnering the most, if not all, the attention concerning the Park Station proposal. However another question is circulating . . . Is this a real project? Or is it a trojan horse?"
Adams looks at a number of factors, especially those pertaining to financing the project, to determine whether the project has a realistic chance of being built as proposed. He also discusses the consequences of approving variances and plan amendments for unrealistic proposals. He concludes that determining the reality of a project being built as proposed may be as important to "smart growth" as the physical form of the project, especially when a community is being asked to grant variances or amend its plans or codes.