This week the Elk Grove City Council sent a strong message to developers. The council is serious about its goal to transform what is now largely a bedroom community to a more balanced city with job opportunities to match its residential rooftops.
Wednesday's agenda included a discussion of proposed changes to the city's Southeast Study Policy Area. The 1,200-acre planning area is the last large swath of vacant land within city limits. Developers and landowners are lobbying hard for more residential zoning, the same kind of single-family suburban development that dominates Elk Grove now.
The council made some small changes but largely stuck to its guns, unanimously endorsing the planning commission's recommendations that reserves nearly half the 1,200 acres for office, small retail and commercial, light industrial, entertainment and sports. As approved, the plan would potentially create 6.5 jobs for every one unit of housing.
The city's current ratio is 0.53 jobs for every unit of housing. The practical impact of that imbalance is that Elk Grove commuters pour out onto the freeways every morning heading for jobs elsewhere in the region, creating traffic jams, air pollution and a less vibrant city.
"Our vision is to grow our jobs base," Elk Grove Mayor Gary Davis told The Bee editorial board after Wednesday night's vote, "and by so doing we are building a more economically sustainable balanced community."
No city better exemplifies the danger of overreliance on housing. In the boom years, Elk Grove was the fastest-growing city in the nation. Housing prices soared. But when the bust came, 9,600 Elk Grove homes were lost to foreclosure, nearly one out of every five homes in the city. Home values dropped from an average of $468,000 in 2007 to $209,000 last year, a 55 percent plunge. Elk Grove home values are rising again but remain well below their boom-year highs.
It is through the searing prism of the housing bust that the City Council is plotting Elk Grove's future.
Landowners in the southeast planning area want to maximize their profits, understandably. Housing has been a reliable moneymaker for developers in the past, but Elk Grove already has 7,000 units of housing permitted in the Laguna Ridge area. The city needs jobs where those new homeowners can work.
City zoning alone will not create jobs. But without land zoned appropriately, either for offices or light industrial or other designations with job-creating potential, no jobs can be produced. Mayor Davis says the city is committed to working with developers to lure businesses with high-paying jobs to Elk Grove. Building a better jobs/housing balance won't be easy, but Elk Grove's City Council has shown that it understands balance is essential for the city's future.