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Regional planners, long dismayed by environmentally destructive suburban sprawl, hope to turn a lot of the Bay Area into something more like San Francisco — walkable, BARTable and very energy efficient. But the “smart growth” renaissance — key to the state’s climate change goals — is facing stiff resistance from cities, and financial pressure from the cash-strapped California state government. Some experts say that on its current path, the plan is too unwieldy to reshape where and how we will live. This special report was produced in collaboration with the CAGE Lab at UC Berkeley’s Geography Department, Earth Island Journal and Bay Nature Magazine.

Cities resist regional plan to limit sprawl

SF Public Press
 — Jun 13 2012 - 2:44pm

Weak regional agencies could miss pollution targets if they are unable to persuade local leaders to change

A high-profile effort to focus new Bay Area housing into energy-efficient transit villages is seen as unworkable even as it makes its public debut this summer, say urban planners, because regional government lacks the authority to make cities build dense urban neighborhoods.

The three-decade Plan Bay Area, unveiled in May, is the product of more than two years of research on the region’s demographics, economy, transportation and architecture. Proponents say “smart growth” could be the future of the Bay Area — if regional agencies had either the legal tools to enforce the grand vision or enough money to make it worthwhile for cities to participate.

But authors of the plan say that so far it remains more symbolic than realistic, because they have no recourse if cities decline to channel home building away from sprawl and into walkable and transit-friendly areas. And local governments became less able to afford their own infrastructure projects after this year’s elimination of all local redevelopment agencies in California.

Egon Terplan, regional planning director at the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, admitted it might be a harsh critique, but the effort “becomes, as a planning document, kind of useless. It’s more of a political document.”

He said “micro-negotiations” among hundreds of local leaders have fractured the idealistic vision, as many cities scramble to toss housing growth requirements to their neighbors like hot potatoes.


The problem stems from the weak state laws that spurred the plan. Without real enforcement, regional agencies must seek political consensus among 110 local and county governments. And without their buy-in, the Bay Area could fail to deliver on a 2008 law requiring the state to curb per capita greenhouse gases from automobiles by 15 percent by 2035. Plan Bay Area has so far accounted for a reduction of only 9 percent.

The prospect of more money, the tool most supporters say could rescue the process from political squabbling, is fading by the month as California’s budget deficit deepens.

The professional staff at regional agencies rolled out the formal plan in May. Right away, they admitted they were pessimistic about achieving their main goal: limiting uncontrolled housing construction in the suburbs by steering most new development into 200 “priority development areas” in at least 60 cities, many along transit lines.

 “The resources are going to be tight, but there’s no way we can carry out this level of development without some sort of replacement to redevelopment,” said Miriam Chion, the No. 2 planner at the Association of Bay Area Governments, which is working with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission on the plan.

“We need to leverage some state and federal support,” she said. “It’s not going to be easy.”

Chion said smart growth could dig the Bay Area out of the housing crisis and speed economic recovery. “Infill” development can attract jobs to the urban core, encouraging housing development and new businesses in cities. 

Ken Kirkey, the association’s planning director, was more sanguine about the plan’s chances.

“We think it can work,” he said. “It’s fairly optimistic, but we think not unduly optimistic. When we look at the feedback from local governments taking on most of the growth, their concern isn’t that this is a bad idea. Their primary concern is: How are we going to do this?”

He was somewhat dismissive of the public opposition over the last year, particularly from vociferous anti-planning activists. “There seems to be a lot of anger in the body of politics these days.”

But the current prospects for the plan seem somewhat dimmer for another key consultant, Karen Chapple, an associate professor of city and regional planning at the University of California, Berkeley.

“This is really a great idea, but it’s just basically impossible to implement,” Chapple said. “People fighting it are essentially wasting their time. Because without major change at the state and federal level, nothing is going to change.”


Planners have become more discouraged about the plan’s prospects in part because of recent resistance from conservative activists, who pack meetings across the region to denounce the plan as “authoritarian” and “social engineering.”

The Association of Bay Area Governments has held dozens of community meetings since 2010, some generating more than 200 oral and written comments. A small cadre of tea party activists pushed back hard against the Plan Bay Area draft. The most outspoken call the unelected regional agencies a step toward a repressive world government.

Opponents often say they don’t want their towns to look like “cookie-cutter” communities or be “forced” to live in high-rise apartments.

“It seems like it takes away some freedom, that we can’t live where we want to live and work where we want to work,” said one of about two-dozen irate speakers during public comment at a Plan Bay Area meeting in March. Another lamented: “They want you to think you have input, but we don’t.”

What many protesters do not, perhaps, realize is that regional government is so weak it cannot force cities to do much of anything. Agency officials say some town leaders refuse to enact minor zoning changes to raise permitted heights of buildings in transit corridors. So there is little danger they will start relocating residents en masse.

Association officials acknowledged in a recent report that the opposition remained a significant challenge: “They’re fearful of losing local character of cities and towns.”

But public opinion seems at least initially skeptical of the idea of regional planning.

Planners held four focus groups in Novato, Walnut Creek and San Francisco and conducted a survey of 1,610 residents regionwide last November through January. Fifty-one percent opposed regional planning for the Bay Area, opting instead for cities and counties to plan on their own. Forty-four percent supported a regional plan.

Support for regional planning does not necessarily correlate with city size. Big cities like Oakland and small towns such as Dixon in Solano County are eager to take more housing. But Curtis Williams, city planner in the relatively well-off city of Palo Alto, said his and other small and midsize places are already built out.

Under the climate-change legislation, all regions in the state must have a “sustainable communities strategy” to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by getting commuters out of their cars. The Bay Area plan also aims to build enough housing in cities to accommodate all income levels over the next 30 years.

But cities sometimes have other priorities, and many were facing steep budget cuts year after year even before state funding vanished.

Ken Moy, legal counsel for the Association of Bay Area Governments, said cities are not obliged to act in accordance with the plan. “No,” he said, “the state won’t come after you.”

The agency enforcing the climate-change laws, the California Air Resources Board, said legal action is unlikely if cities ignore it.

“We’re still in the process of working through nuts and bolts,” said Dave Clergen, a spokesman for the board, which is responsible for implementing AB 32, known as the Global Warming Solutions Act, and a related Senate bill, SB 375.

“This is an ongoing process, and our goal is to get the job done, not necessarily to penalize people,” Clergen said.


Kirkey said the problem from the start has been that each city lobbies for its own interests. To make Plan Bay Area work, regional officials need to persuade cities to think in a regional context. The best they can hope for is a negotiation: Cities that want more growth can grab it, and others can pass.

The challenge from the start was to deal with expected Bay Area population growth in a way that treated all communities equitably while preserving the environment. The state estimates that the region will need sufficient housing for 2.1 million more people by 2040 to prevent overcrowding and long commutes. That would require the creation of about 1.1 million more jobs.

The State Department of Housing and Community Development translates those numbers into housing needs, which in March it set at 660,000 new units for the region, though some elected officials who don’t want that much growth say the numbers are too high.

The Association of Bay Area Governments is not actually a government body in the sense that it can pass laws or levy taxes. It is best described as a quasi-governmental group. It calls itself “part regional planning agency and part local government service provider.” Each of 101 cities in the region and nine counties has one vote. Most of those cities want to lead the organization, not follow.

Chion said the combination of a grand vision and the lack of enforcement power is a recipe for coming up short: “Cities are not required to match their general plans with the regional effort. This plan provides a sense of direction for the type of development we would like to encourage. There are no consequences for cities that don’t do anything.” 

Just because cities end up with more housing allocations from regional planners, they are not required to build it. All they have to do is zone for it. Cities can relax restrictions on building height, spacing between units, the distance from the curb and developers’ ability to stack housing on retail or commercial space — elements that separate suburbs from cities.

But city councils and county boards of supervisors have few tools to make dense building actually happen. Without market demand to spur private-sector investment, maps that take hundreds of hours to draw can end up on dusty shelves. So regional planners have to convince and cajole using economic arguments.

“There’s an inherent supply-and-demand challenge here in the Bay Area,” Kirkey said. “Then you have to look at, OK, what does this mean in terms of housing demand, and how much housing as a region can we produce.”


That approach puts success in the hands of private developers who are more concerned about sales than innovating mixed-use developments that planners say are good for the region.

The problem has deep historical roots. Regional planners are trying to change the pattern that led to the rise of post-World War II suburbia: voracious expansion into open space far from city centers, areas that were accessible only by car. But in recent decades, cities have increasingly sought to build housing within existing urban growth boundaries, preventing encroachment into green spaces. 

But with the financial woes plaguing the housing industry since 2008, few projects are getting built. A consensus has emerged among policymakers that the region does not have enough money — either public or private — to do much with the regional planning document right now.

Though the Association of Bay Area Governments barely has any money itself, it has worked with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to create a pool of funds called One Bay Area grants. Over four years, the agencies will distribute the $320 million fund to cities to pay for road repairs, affordable housing and programs to encourage walking or riding bikes. Another $475 million will go to regional projects.

“It sounds like a lot of money, but when you split it up, it’s not,” Kirkey said.

The most recent financial blow came last February, when Gov. Jerry Brown killed 400 redevelopment agencies, depriving cities of hundreds of millions of dollars for infrastructure.


When the Association of Bay Area Governments released its list of priorities in May, job growth topped the list. All other activities — housing for all income levels, infrastructure for walkable communities and environmental protection — ranked lower. “Planning in advance for job growth should result in more jobs for the economy, better neighborhoods, improved transportation choices, lesser taxes, better schools and a higher quality of life for residents,” the agency said.

But that kind of “win-win” language glosses over a key dilemma, said Terplan from the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association. Cities want to attract businesses because they bring in more tax dollars than does housing. But they need housing to attract workers. This leads to a chicken-or-egg scenario: “We quite frankly can’t add a million or two million jobs unless we add lots of new housing.”

He added that the solution is not transit villages, but transit-friendly jobs. “For five or six years I’ve been hammering this point,” he said. “Lots of studies show that if your job is right near transit, particularly regional rail transit, you are more likely to take transit than if you just live near transit.”

Data show that the most job growth is expected in San Mateo, Santa Clara, Solano and Alameda counties. So those areas are the focus for Plan Bay Area housing development. Santa Clara County exemplifies the Bay Area’s comparative advantage for job growth nationally. Regional planners say Silicon Valley is becoming one of the most desirable places to live and to do business. In 30 years, Palo Alto and Sunnyvale could be even hotter job centers.

The Bay Area’s housing allocation reflects that optimism: Santa Clara’s housing stock is expected to grow by 32 percent by 2040, the fastest in the Bay Area.

Economists say that if the regional plan has any chance, it will be through encouraging business to generate the same kind of rapid expansion the area relied on for decades to support a higher-than-average standard of living.

“The region could capture another 110,000 jobs of the total national growth,” said Stephen Levy, director of the Center for the Continuing Study of the California Economy and one of Plan Bay Area’s independent researchers. “However, it’s constrained by the Bay Area’s political and economic will to produce new housing.”

But clearly the biggest challenge facing regional planners who want more smart growth housing is instilling that resolve in hundreds of dubious county supervisors and city council members, each of whom faces a restive electorate.

Terplan, the urban researcher in San Francisco, said he was saddened to see the specter of political negotiations cloud the state’s 2008 vision of environmentally friendly growth.

The idea, he said, was supposed to be about cooperation — “the region taking leadership, and saying this is where we want to go.”

But that’s not how it’s gone so far, he lamented: “It doesn’t have enough policy tools to achieve concentrated planning.”

Read full coverage of Bay Area smart growth in the San Francisco Public Press Summer 2012 print edition, on sale at retail outlets around San Francisco and online.


Having trouble finding that transit saves energy or pollution over autos.

I take issue with the comment that liberals and conservatives "agree...that there's no such thing as overpopulation." Most true liberals, and probably quite a few conservatives, recognize that overpopulation is at the heart of many of these problems. But...there are really multiple factors that complicate the issues of housing, traffic, sprawl, education, sanitation and so on.

In short, I actually agree that overpopulation is a central factor. The other most central factor, as I see it, is over-consumption and its inevitable converse, which is the the lack of access to goods and resources.

It might be true, as someone else comments here, that most Americans *want* a large single-family home, but that doesn't mean that any of us are entitled to that home at the expense of the rest of society. In cities with dense populations and daily reminders of how prevalent homelessness and hunger have become, it becomes painfully obvious that this sense of entitlement for more and more wealth and all the showiest symbols of financial success and luxury is simply immoral.

Funny how they think they need to build more housing to attract jobs, when it's the sustainable/green legislation that is killing jobs. That's not going to change if they build more housing.

This article on the travails of regional planning is super reporting, and we all are in the debt of The SF Public Press and Angela Hart for it. Let's hope that you get a better level of comment on it than the first two, which are clearly part of the knee-jerk Tea Party reaction that has suddenly cropped up at the regional level. That reaction is noisy and extreme, but represents a very narrow and limited support base.
The planners of the region are aware that population growth in the Bay Area is not going to stop, and they are working hard on a response to it which does not just perpetuate auto-dependent sprawl. We rightly see sprawl now as a costly and wasteful way to live, and we should give a fair hearing to those who are working out ways to do better than sprawl for the future. Angela Hart has given the Bay Area's growth situation a fair hearing and brilliant reporting, and deserves thanks and congratulations for her work.

Promoting limitless growth is the philosophy of cancer. Neither the author of this article nor a single one of those interviewed for it acknowledge even the existence of the word "overpopulation.," This is the one thing liberal and conservative partisans agree about--that there's no such thing as overpopulation.

The Bay Area's population has doubled since the 1960s. Doubled. How has that helped current residents? Yet ABAG never utters one word about the possibility that there are already far more people than the Bay Area's infrastructure can accommodate. Our freeways are parking lots at least twice a day. Air quality suffers despite improved pollution controls for vehicles.

ABAG could work to help the Bay Area reduce its overpopulation problem instead of making it worse. It's like the fire truck shows up only they've got flamethrowers instead of hoses.

My town--Palo Alto--aids housing for the poor by requiring every condo development to provide 15% of the units for low income families. I live in such a development, and while many of those families are fine people, nearly all the crime in our complex has come from those families and their friends. They also don't just vote against spending anything for anything, they campaign fiercely against all special assessments. They just defeated an earthquake retrofit, endangering the lives of residents here but saving themselves money for now.

This is a perfect example of ideologues in government experimenting on the populace without taking unintended consequence into consideration.

Dismissal of objections to ABAG's shining path laid out for us isn't just coming from a few angry tea party types. Very few people want to sacrifice their quality of life--they just want you to.

Lee: How would you limit "overpopulation"? New births and existing citizens living longer constitute the great majority of future growth. Which would you choose to limit?

"Very few people want to sacrifice their quality of life--they just want you to." So true, I wonder how many ABAG members are willing to live in their transit villages, ride their train, or walk or ride a bike to their station? The National Assoc. of Realtors produced a national survey on where people want to live. It's their 2012 study, google it. 80% of respondents from all standards of living, all ages, all over the country said they wanted, "a large single-family house with a large lot." Only 6% would choose to live in an apartment building. Has anyone on ABAG every asked the question, where would you choose to live?

UN Agenda 21 absolutely is connected to this central planning. Language from Agenda 21 is cut&pasted into the documents of many advocacy groups involved with OneBayArea. Look it up. I did. It takes time. It's there.

The goals of OBA are "economic justice," "equitable outcomes." That has nothing to do with job growth. It is social engineering, period. Its intent is to force stack&pack housing filled with very low income folks who will always vote for tax increases so the taxpayers will have to continue to support them. It won't be "mixed," as hard-working successful folks will not choose to live next to derelicts. Just being candid here. Low-income housing always leads to crime and litter. Always. Look at the many public housing projects that were built/demolished/rebuilt.

Kirkey's snarky comments about citizens who oppose central planning is telling, as is the disdain the overall plan has for citizens' wishes. Describing the development of single family homes as "voracious" in this article is an example. They claim they can't force this planning, but they say, above, that cities must rezone. Why must cities rezone? What gives them the right to force rezoning? They are forcing this plan by controlling the distribution of our tax dollars, funneling it to stack&pack development.

People don't want to live in close proximity to others, hearing their neighbors snore, smelling their cooking, and hearing the trains outside.