Anti-smart growth advocate defends urbanism

It’s not often you’ll find people arguing against smart growth while also arguing for urbanism. When it happens, one wonders if it was a mistake. That seems to be the case with a screed penned by Lawrence McQuillan of the Independent Institute in Oakland, though his argument is worth highlighting.

While arguing that density isn’t a very effective way of decreasing greenhouse gases, he makes the market urbanist argument I’ve made time and again in this blog:

If governments ended their war on home construction, builders could buy the land they need to construct the housing that local people want, not housing that politicians and smart-growth activists want. That would increase the stock of affordable housing and help the environment too.

While McQuillan digs at smart growth, his critique more aptly applies to our country’s existing urban policies. We have spent so long trying to structure and restrict where and how our cities grow, especially within already built-up areas, we’ve made our cities totally unaffordable for those who want to live there and our suburbs too far from the core for those who want the big-yard, drivable lifestyle.

McQuillan adds: “[H]ere lies the folly of government master plans to control growth. People are not chess pieces to be moved about at the will of politicians and bureaucrats. People have dreams and aspirations for themselves and their families.” And yet through policies that have been in place for over 60 years, politicians and bureaucrats have played a helluva lot of chess with our lives.

If governments like those in Marin lifted density and parking controls and focused instead on maintaining small-town character, if they stopped artificially segregating commercial and residential uses, if the federal government stopped its $450 billion annual subsidy for single-family home development*, if the state stopped subsidizing 70 percent of road maintenance and construction with sales taxes and other non-user fees, perhaps we’d see some equilibrium return to our transportation and housing markets. We wouldn’t need regional housing quotas or ABAG or affordable housing grants because the housing market would simply meet the demand.

It’s unfortunate that only one kind of government intervention – the kind he doesn’t like – is the target of McQuillan’s ire. The massive and ongoing interventions in our real estate market deserve just such a libertarian flaying.

*Yes, that’s almost a half-trillion dollars every year in direct and indirect subsidies for single-family home development.

Hat tip to Save Marinwood for the article.

Point of agreement: Second units are a good way to add new housing

A second unit. Image from Decker Bullock.

A second unit. Image from Decker Bullock.

Though the pages of this blog are often critical of the so-called “slow growth” philosophy of development stasis, its activists hold up second units as a solution to our housing crunch. While I won’t go so far as to say it is our only solution, they are certainly part of the mix.

Marin’s housing market is faced with two housing shortages. It is part of the overall shortage of housing in the region – the cause of the troubling spikes in rent in San Francisco, major displacement of the poor in Oakland, and threats to our open space in the far East Bay.

The other shortage is a local lack of small units, namely studios and one-bedrooms, in Marin. This has meant a steady increase in small-unit rents at a faster rate than either wages or the county’s rental market at large.

Second units offer a way to deal with both without dramatically altering the appearance of our neighborhoods. Though regional trends will be a far greater weight on our overall housing costs than new development, it would help solve the problems in our county’s submarket. And, for the region at large, it would allow some housing development to ease North Bay demand.

I say this is a point of agreement with slow growth because, well, they’ve said it often. Frequent TGM commentor Richard Hall certainly thinks so, with comments all over the place about it. Bob Silvestri, too, came out in favor of this strategy in his book (PDF, page 51). The IJ and Patch comments sections are rife with other examples.

My initial concern about allowing this sort of infill development was that it isn’t targeted, but actually that’s just fine. The reasons for the current ban on in-law units are familiar: traffic and parking. Planners feared that allowing second units would cause residents to park on the street (a big no-no in the 1970s) and put undue stress on the big arterial roads like Freitas Parkway and San Marin Drive.

But really, most of Marin’s mid-century sprawl and early 20th Century development is well-suited to the distances traveled by walking and biking. Shopping is typically within a half-mile, as is a bus line. There should be more than enough capacity in our neighborhoods for more small units.

To make this reality, two big changes should happen. First, the state needs to recognize second unit expansion as a viable method to expand affordable housing under its RHNA affordable housing structure. At the moment, it is not.

Second, towns and cities need to allow second units in their residential neighborhoods, preferably targeted in areas that are within walking distance of transit and shopping. Conversion of existing structures should be allowable by right, in other words buildable without more than city staff approval. New construction might go through a planning commission process, perhaps requiring approval from adjacent neighbors.

To really be affordable housing, towns and cities would need to ensure at least some units are built. To do this, they should offer incentive programs to householders who want to build the units. New buildings can be expensive to build well, and incentive programs would ensure these units are of good quality. Just lowering the permit fees could do the trick.

If the county makes it easy for these amateur landlords to take Section 8 vouchers, it would be a major boon to Marin’s affordable housing needs.

Because of the acrimony between the slow growth and smart growth factions in Marin, it’s imperative we embrace the areas where we can work together for a common goal. Second units are the area where we can, and where we must. If Republicans and Democrats can come together for a budget deal in the US House of Representatives, surely we can come together in our living rooms, pubs, and town halls.

And, since the end result would be a greater Marin, that’s something we could all celebrate.

 

Market-rate housing is just as important as subsidized housing

Controversy swirls around the Wincup apartment development in Corte Madera, and the IJ has published a piece detailing every complaint, from the size to the traffic to the fact that it won’t be “affordable” housing.

While there are problems with the piece (they couldn’t find one person who liked it? Or someone who was interested in renting there?), the myth that market rate housing does not help the cause of affordable housing, brought up by a neighbor, is one that we’ve addressed here and bears repeating.

The housing market in the Bay Area is fundamentally constrained, especially at the top. There simply is not enough supply to go around, and so prices are artificially high. A house that might go for $250,000 elsewhere goes for $850,000, and an apartment that might go for $700 a month elsewhere goes for $1,500 here.

Since there’s not enough super-luxury housing for the wealthy, they look for regular luxury housing, displacing the modestly wealthy. Modestly wealthy folk, whose luxury housing is now out of their price range, look for middle-quality housing, displacing the upper-middle class, who look for lower range housing, and so on down the line until the poorest get knocked off entirely.

Traditional affordable housing tries to build housing that’s been set aside for those poorest folk, but that’s only a stop-gap. Without a functional housing market, they’ll never get enough government largesse and charity. The construction of market-rate housing, shifts some wealthier folk back up the ladder, giving space for the poor and lowering prices across the board.

Now, a single project in Corte Madera won’t do this for the whole Bay Area, but it’s counterproductive to denigrate a project for not being “affordable.” We need a stratified, healthy housing market to solve our region’s affordability problem. Market-rate housing, from ultra-luxury on the Embarcadero to just somewhat lux in Marin, is the only way to do that.

The form of Wincup may be off. It may be monstrous, even. But don’t knock it for its prices.

Mid-week links: Marin Transit

Marin County

by jay d, on Flickr

The latest Marin Transit board meeting was one full of change and surprise. Amid increasing ridership (though it fell in June), MT posted a $1.5 million surplus, which will go into a rainy day fund. To keep ridership on the up and up, the agency hired a new communications and advertising consultant, who will manage MT’s branding, website, social media, and communications strategy. IJ reporter Nels Johnson, however, seemed to think the $300,000 consultant was taking the agency “for a spin.” And, in the name of efficiency, the MT board cut Route 222, which got less than 3 riders per hour in June. Elsewhere:

  • There was so much public comment about Marin’s new housing element that the Board of Supervisors had to postpone its debate until next week. (Patch) On a side note, whoever’s idea it was to bring in a saxophonist to lead the potentially rancorous crowd in singing, “There’s still a lot of love in Marin!” is brilliant. (IJ)
  • The Civic Center Drive upgrades look fabulous, but now that they aren’t in a PDA TAM may need to rescind its funding. (Patch)
  • A driver hit a bicyclist in Fairfax yesterday by turning left through a bike lane, sending the bicyclist to the hospital with a broken collar bone. Though the circumstances seem like they warranted an investigation or a failure-to-yield citation, the driver was not cited by police. (IJ)
  • The costs of demand-responsive bus service, promoted by Bob Silvestri as the ideal transit, make it an ineffective replacement for traditional bus service. (Listen Marin)
  • The lack of BART in Marin is apparently because we’re classist and racist and always have been. (The Grid) Except, y’know, that’s not at all why we don’t have BART.
  • TAM should take on all the causes of congestion on Highway 101, not just cars, according to Corte Madera Mayor Diane Furst. She sat on a working group to draft an alternative plan to flyovers on the freeway. (Marin Voice)
  • The Golden Gate Bridge will close for a full weekend next year for the installation of a new movable barrier. This will be the first time in the bridge’s history it will be closed for more than a few hours. (IJ)
  • Parking minimums can severely constrain construction, either driving up rents in the building or preventing new construction altogether and contributing to a housing shortage. Affordable housing advocates take note. (Sightline)

Politics

  • San Rafael council candidate Randy Warren hits rival Maribeth Bushey-Lang hard, saying her need to recuse herself over issues like SMART make her unfit for service. (IJ)
  • The move to recall Supervisor Susan Adams failed to attract enough signatures, and Save Marinwood is not happy. Interestingly, no signatures were submitted to the county, so we’ll never know how far short the recall came. (IJ, Save Marinwood)
  • Paul Mamalakis examines the race for Novato City Council. (Advance)

The zoning board should not be our nanny

2701 Shattuck

2701 Shattuck. Image from the developer.

There’s an apartment building being debated in Berkeley, and it’s not a bad proposal. At 60 feet tall, it would be about as tall as other buildings facing Shattuck. 2701 Shattuck would include 70 studio apartments (PDF), ranging in size from 307 to 344 square feet. It’s close to UC Berkeley, walking distance to Telegraph and BART, and adjacent to major bus routes. It will be built on what is now a fairly ugly vacant lot, and contribute $1.4 million to the city’s affordable housing fund.

Fifteen neighbors nearby aren’t happy with it. They cite the height and the proximity to detached housing nearby, common stuff. But they also cite on the size of the units and the relative lack of activities in the neighborhood. A zoning commissioner, Sophie Hahn, concurred, comparing the units to “penitentiary housing” and said there wasn’t enough room for “intimacy.”

Though I don’t want to speculate more on the concerns of massing and proximity, the others strike me as a damaging sort of condescension.

When I choose where I want to live, I look at a number of factors: price, transit options, proximity to my friends, job, and favorite neighborhood. As a single person who spends most of his time out at work or at some other hangout, I’m not so concerned about my home’s size. I need a bed, a desk, and a place to make and store food. A studio apartment in the right location will do me fine.

I am representative of one particular niche of potential renters. Other renters will be more concerned about proximity to transit, others about price, and others will want the space to entertain. As we grow our cities, developers should have the flexibility to build units and buildings that cater to the various niches of the rental market. Not everyone wants to live on a Mill Valley hillside, and not everyone wants to live in a high-rise off the Embarcadero.

We have our reasons for choosing the places we do, but it’s the height of arrogance to assume that our preferences apply universally. So when citizens say that studio apartments are “a new style of tenement housing,” I get upset. And when a policymaker (Sophie Hahn) says of studio apartments, “It’s a bleak, lonely, unhealthy life that I would have a lot of trouble endorsing,” that offends me, because she thinks that about my life.

The purpose of any market is to allow people to make their own decisions about what they want. I think beef tongue is disgusting. I have no idea why anyone would want to eat it. I mean, there must be something wrong with someone who wants to chew on something that has the texture of their own tongue. I also hate cilantro; it tastes like someone made nausea into a flavor and called it an herb. But advocate to ban these foods? Limit them to certain designated Mexican restaurants, perhaps, Vietnamese restaurants be damned? Of course not; it’s preposterous to even consider. I can make my own opinions without asking others to agree with me. That’s freedom.

So it’s not the place of any zoning commission to pass judgment on the lifestyles of the people who live in certain kinds of housing. Their purpose is to determine whether a project meets the zoning code, whether its visual and traffic impacts will unduly harm surrounding neighbors, and whether it will be a safe and sanitary place to live. Nor is it their purpose to determine whether a project is financially viable or not. It’s the developer’s job to determine that. And, in a free society, it’s nobody’s job but mine to determine whether my lifestyle is a bleak and lonely one or not.

Once government steps into personal preference, it becomes a nanny, tut-tutting our choices of home and neighborhood. Sophie Hahn, and the neighbors whom she agrees with, should stick to a critique of the building itself, not the people, like me, who they think are too depressed to live anywhere else.

Cross-posted with Vibrant Bay Area.

A measure of Marin’s development politics: Development

One Bay Area, the organization behind Plan Bay Area, surveyed the region’s opinions on the built environment. What kinds of transportation investments do we want? What kinds of cities do we want to live in? What would get you to take transit or ride a bike more? Though the survey has problems, it gives us the most comprehensive look at the Bay Area’s support for urbanism.

Last time, we looked at Marin’s support for regionalism. (There was a lively discussion on this post’s Patch incarnation.) Though there was was strong support for the underlying assumptions around Plan Bay Area, Marinites were far more divided on these issues than any other county in the region. A large minority was strongly negative about any regional planning. Today, we examine Marin’s perspectives on the specific policies that shape Plan Bay Area. As a reminder to readers critical of Plan Bay Area, this will not address the underlying policy successes or failures of Plan Bay Area, only the opinions of its assumptions and how local and regional plans match those opinions.

Survey responses

The survey asked people three questions about development policy. The first was about funding priorities, and it began, “Next I will read you a number of items that may be considered as part of this Bay Area plan. For each, please tell me whether whether funding should be a high priority or not a priority. Use a 5-point scale where 5 means ‘High Priority’ and 1 means ‘Not a priority.’”

After a number of questions about transportation, the survey asked about the policy, “Provide financial incentives to cities to build more multi-unit housing near public transit.”

The next questions were about support for policies, and they began, “Next I will read you a list of specific strategies being considered to reduce driving and greenhouse gases. Indicate whether you would support or oppose each using the same 5-point scale.”

The two policies were, “Build more housing near public transit designed for residents who want to drive less,” and, “Limit urban sprawl by requiring most additional housing and commercial buildings be built within current city or town limits.”

On all three Marinites answered more negatively than the region as a whole, and neither opponents nor proponents make up a majority of opinion on any of the questions.

The first asks a question nearly mimics the rhetoric of development skeptics, and so is probably the best measure of their influence in the county. In response to the question of whether the region should provide subsidies to cities to build more multi-unit housing near transit, Marinites were deeply divided. Though 39.9 percent were in favor, fully 30.8 percent were opposed, with 28.9 percent in the middle. This is the most opposition to the program in the region, which was otherwise 51.2 percent in favor and 20.9 percent opposed. The standard deviation, a measure of disagreement, was 9 percent higher than the rest of the region, too.

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Notice that, though Marin’s support is fairly close to that of Solano, and its opposition is close to that of Contra Costa, our opposition is much stronger than anywhere else in the region. Contra Costa, the most similar county to Marin, has softer opposition and more support overall. Napa, another similar county, has a much more robust middle than Marin, with less strong opinions on either side.

On the second question, Marin again bucks the region, though not nearly as much. On the question of whether you support building more housing near transit for those who want to drive less, Marinites were 59.7 percent supportive and 20 percent opposed, versus 65.4 percent and 12.1 percent, respectively, for the rest of the region. We also had nearly twice as many people answer that they were strongly opposed than moderately opposed: 9.5 percent versus 5.3 percent.

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Again note the strongly negative opposition in Marin, a full 4.4 points higher than Napa, which also has marginally more support than Marin.

On the final policy question, whether development should be limited to only areas within existing city limits, Marin again answers more negatively than the region as a whole, though here it has company. A strong minority, 31.2 percent, opposes this policy, the most in the region. Joining it are Contra Costa (29.7 percent) and Santa Clara (28.2 percent). This question also trigged a very strong negative response, with 18.7 percent reporting that they are strongly opposed. Intriguingly, Marin’s support lines up with the rest of the region exactly: 41.6 percent of the region and the county support this policy.

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Marin’s opposition here, while higher and deeper than the rest of the region, is not as glaringly different, though the question makes it difficult to know what people think they are opposing or supporting.

I did not expect this last result. Marin’s urban growth boundaries are a cherished part of our civic lore, as the continuing success of Rebels with a Cause shows. Indeed, this is so unlikely I suspect the problem lies with the question.

“Limit urban sprawl” may have been interpreted as razing the suburbs, a fear I’ve heard in community meetings and read in online comments. The question also talks about additional housing and commercial buildings, which suggests new growth. The strong negative reaction may have been more against any new housing and commercial buildings, not just those outside of existing municipal boundaries. In any case, there is too much wiggle room in how one could understand the question to glean much useful information from it.

These responses reflect Marinites’ opinions about what makes a good home and a good town. A plurality thinks high-density transit-oriented development would ruin our town character (41.7 percent vs. 36.9 percent). A similar plurality would not move to a more densely-populated area to live near amenities (42.3 percent vs. 38.8 percent). On these questions, Marin is more strongly negative than any other county in the region.

How does our planning stack up?

Keep in mind that, although each of the policies addressed in the above questions has stronger opposition than anywhere else, they each have plurality or majority support. Even subsidized housing, which has the weakest support, has a 9 point advantage over the opposition. Where opponents find strongest ground is in home preferences. A plurality believes high-density development would ruin town character, and a plurality wouldn’t trade higher densities for more amenities. Combine the two measures (give people choice to drive less but don’t increase density) and you get a no-change, slow-growth status quo, which is what planners have largely given Marin in the past few decades.

Plan Bay Area, which encourages localities to focus growth by pledging to focus planning and transit funding, does not fit this status quo. While most of Marin got by on its RHNA mandates by pledging to zone for housing growth, very little of it was actually built in part because of a lack of investment from host cities. Focusing investment could mean real changes.

This is best seen in the eastern half of the Civic Center Station Area Plan. Planners and proponents wanted to focus growth into an area that would, they hope, give people a choice to use the car less. But, for some residents, four- and five-story buildings where now there are parking lots means living in a higher-density area at least some are trying to avoid.

The flip side is also true. While Marinites favor giving people a choice to live car-free or car-lite lifestyles, there is little support in city or county plans. In downtown San Rafael, Marin’s urban core, new developments are subject to parking minimums, tight density limits, and inconsistent floor-area ratios. These restrictions discourage developers from creating apartments designed for those who choose to live car-free or car-lite. For example, a proposal for for-profit apartments by Monahan at 2nd & B streets was 10-20 units smaller than it could have been without those restrictions.

The Downtown SMART Station Area Plan gets closer to lifting these restrictions by eliminating density limits in favor of a hard height limit, but planners left parking minimums in place. Renters, whether car-free or not, will need to pay for a space in their building. Developers will need to dedicate floor space to parking instead of rent-paying uses, like apartments or retail.

The debate itself

They survey also begins to shine some light on the structure of Marin’s development debate.

Rhetorically, opponents’ language (“high-density San Francisco-style stack-and-pack housing”) is ideally suited to play on Marinites’ general distaste for density. As well, the policy environment, with its focus on RHNA mandates and affordable housing, keeps the conversation on a policy with a meager base. Opponents will win as long as they can tie a development policy to RHNA, affordable housing, Plan Bay Area, and the like, forcing proponents to scramble to the defense of relatively unpopular policies.

Yet the broad popularity of subsidized housing and higher densities in the region at large means opponents have an uphill battle if they want to move beyond the development politics that has dogged Marin for the past three years.

I suspect that one reason for deepening divide in this policy area in Marin is that it is just incessant. Just as we start wrapping up one RHNA cycle, Plan Bay Area begins. Just as that is settling down next year, the next RHNA cycle will come about. Marin’s development skeptics rightly feel under siege, as every victory is fleeting.

Proponents, meanwhile, are destined to continue to lose as long as the conversation is about affordable housing and housing units per acre. Unfortunately for them, they’ll get no favors from the regional housing process, which will keep shifting the conversation back to opponents’ favored ground. Instead, proponents need to talk about choice and character. Urbanist lawmakers need to say, “We need to give choices to our young people. We need to give people the option to drive less.”

The right policy package could also cut the legs out from opponents’ ground. A for-profit-friendly zoning code, sold as bringing choice, town character, and less driving could get some easier play in town meetings. If passed, it would bake into the zoning code the growth RHNA asks for, rendering future development debates much less contentious.

The takeaway

If there is a theme to this data, it is that Marin is deeply divided on issues of development. Though, again, there are no areas where Marinites are more against than in favor of a policy, those on the negative end of the spectrum are rather more strongly negative, with more 1s than 2s, than those on the positive side are positive, with more 4s than 5s.

It doesn’t hurt that in the Bay Area as a whole, likely voters are more strongly negative on these issues than unlikely voters. While we don’t have data on Marin’s likely voters, the region’s broader trend seems to reflect what we see in the county: civically engaged and organized opponents against much less visible and seemingly rudderless proponents.

Overall, Marin has played to stereotype so far, at least to some degree. Its residents have strong views on development policy that are both more negative and more divided than those in the rest of the region. Intriguingly, this includes the rest of the North Bay: both Sonoma and Napa are more positive than Marin on development policy.

Of course, land use policy is only one side of the planning coin. Transportation policy is intimately linked with development policy, and will be discussed next time.

Quiet and Safe San Rafael gets it wrong on density

A few weeks ago, Quiet and Safe San Rafael (QSSR) published the claim that 79 units per acre, zoned for potentially proposed for in Terra Linda*, is more dense than Manhattan or Hong Kong. Though they are technically correct, QSSR wildly misinterprets the concept, the data, and ignores the density already in our midst.

Density limits

A density limit in Marin restricts how many units can fit on the parcel as measured in acres. 2 units on a quarter-acre parcel works out to 8 units per acre (2 divided by 0.25 equals 8). This doesn’t include the street, parks, commercial development, or anything else beyond the building’s parcel.

I don’t know how Hong Kong does their density limits, but Manhattan doesn’t usually have per-unit density limits. Instead, New York limits how much floor area a building can have (a measure called floor-area ratio, or FAR, if you’re wondering). Again, this is based on the parcel, not the supporting infrastructure or all the other buildings.

The danger with measuring densities at a municipal level, as QSSR has done with Manhattan and Hong Kong, is that it does include all the rest of the city. It’s like measuring the size of a house and calling it all a bedroom. It is disingenuous to compare that to the parcel-based densities used by San Rafael.

So while it’s true that Manhattan averages 58 units per acre, higher than Terra Linda’s allowed 79, that includes Central Park, Times Square, the avenues and streets, the docks, ferry terminals, office buildings, plazas, schools, police stations, City Hall, the UN, the New York Stock Exchange, and all the other things that aren’t housing on that island.

Rafael Commons

Midtown Manhattan? Or senior housing in San Rafael? Image from Google Maps.

That’s ridiculous. Using San Rafael’s measuring system, a 20-story tower in Manhattan would average to 800 units per acre, far and away higher than Terra Linda’s 79. There’s a three-story senior home, San Rafael Commons, that hits 90 units per acre. Is it “more dense than Manhattan”? Not in any meaningful sense.

This exposes the danger of using density as a proxy for character, as it doesn’t measure anything about that. Character comes from a building’s form: how tall it is, how far back it’s set from other buildings or the street, etc. A single-family home can fit a second unit in the back, which doubles the parcel’s density. A three-story building could be filled with two-bedroom apartments and be low density, or be filled with studio apartments and be high density. It wouldn’t change the building’s visual impact.

Whether QSSR tried to be deliberately misleading or not, it is clear they are trying to stir up fear of tower blocks along 101. There are legitimate things to worry about in Plan Bay Area and legitimate things to critique. It’s truly unfortunate this activist group has chosen to focus on the ridiculous instead.

*Update and Correction: The intro misstated the current zoning and planned zoning and density around the Civic Center SMART station. Current zoning tops out at 43 units per acre, depending on where one looks. San Rafael’s Station Area Plan calls for densities “above 44 units per acre”, while the proposed Transit Town Center PDA calls for zoning to accommodate 20-75 units per acre. QSSR’s number comes from the average of all PDAs in the Bay Area, which is not applicable to any individual PDA like the Civic Center area in Terra Linda.

Community Marin Plan is at odds with itself

Wrong Way

by jonathan_moreau, on Flickr

Marin’s environmentalists recently released the 2013 version of Community Marin (PDF), an outline of priorities for how to conserve Marin County’s character and environment while still addressing the challenges of commuting and growth.

Though the plan makes bold recommendations for development and transportation – most prominently restrictions on greenfield development and a maximum house size – the plan’s recommendations are contradictory. It talks about infill development but demands onerous environmental and affordability requirements that make it even less likely to appear than now. And, while it talks about better transit, the plan maintains the status quo of car dominance: parking minimums, weighing transportation projects based on congestion relief, and HOV lanes on Highway 101.

Ultimately, the plan boils down to the old environmentalism that believes open space should be preserved, driving should be accommodated, tall buildings are bad for the environment, and housing markets are a myth. This has been the dominant strain of belief in Marin for at least 30 years, and Community Marin thinks that’s just fine.

The good

A fundamental environmental problem in Marin County today is the possibility of greenfield development, or development where there has never been development before. This kind of zoning is held out from Marin’s years of sprawl, especially the 1980s. That hundreds of homes could be built on Grady Ranch is indicative of this problem. Community Marin is right to call for a harder growth boundary to prevent this kind of sprawl from continuing.

In its place, Community Marin wants more infill housing, especially around downtown San Rafael but also around the Civic Center and Novato North stations.

The transportation chapter of the plan calls for all transportation projects to take climate change into account. Aggressive transportation demand management policies, like subsidized bus passes, car sharing, and Class I bicycle lanes (cycletracks), would tackle congestion.

The bad

Despite the call for more infill development, Community Marin goes out of its way to ensure any development will only be possible with considerable government largesse. Among the restrictions for housing development are 20 percent of most developed units be affordable housing; mandated use of green materials; examination of environmental impacts of development; no homes above 3,500 square feet; no development in the 100-year floodplain; full environmental review; full design review; parking minimums; and a hard 3-story height limit on most buildings. Though some of these restrictions could be mitigated by lifting restrictions on density or unit size, Community Marin is silent on these issues.

Commercial development, on top of those building and environmental restrictions, would need to pay a commercial impact fee, which compensates the county in full for the cost to build enough homes to house their employees. That means that for, say, every 600 square feet of retail space built, a commercial developer would need to provide enough money to the county to build a new affordable housing unit.

These restrictions are tantamount to a moratorium on for-profit development in Marin and would drive the cost of housing ever higher. Problems of affordable housing and senior housing would not be resolved. Even senior housing, if there were staff, would need to pay that commercial impact fee.

The only way to solve the problem of affordable housing is to allow the market to correct itself and to focus regulations on form rather than density. The recommendations from Community Marin for tighter zoning will push development into other counties even further from jobs. If Community Marin wants infill development, they need make it easier, not harder, for private entities to build.

The ugly

There aren’t new ideas in this plan to reshape how Marinites get around. Quite the opposite: biking, walking, and transit are seen as tools to address concerns of traffic congestion (as measured by the flawed level-of-service metric) and sufficient parking, not necessarily as transportation modes in themselves. Despite good suggestions – traffic calming, prioritizing Class I bicycle lanes – the overall push is to relieve congestion and improve safety, is often an excuse to remove pedestrians and bikes from ever-faster roads.

Take recommendation 8.14, which wants safer highway interchanges for all modes by improving traffic flow. That means higher speeds at interchanges, which means capacity improvements that will induce more driving, the least safe mode of transportation. Though the interchange will be safer, the population will be more exposed to crashes and death by automobile.

Most glaring are recommendations that encourage parking minimums, the steroids of automobility. Parking minimums externalize the cost of parking to the community at large, allowing the actual users of parking to get away with it for free or nearly for free. When combined with recommendations that level-of-service not be harmed by development, it’s a recipe for widened roads and intersections, which in turn makes them less safe or welcoming for pedestrians and bicyclists.

When it comes to transit, a necessary prerequisite to improved service is a moratorium on capacity improvements. Transit and cars are in competition with one another. Investments in roads and parking mean lower ridership on transit and more traffic on roads. Yet the plan seems ignorant of this well-understood law of transportation planning and calls for more road investment under the guise of “congestion relief”. A recommendation for a more extensive bus network rings hollow when another recommendation will suck ridership from the network that already exists.

If we want to decrease the mode share of cars and decrease how many miles we travel, we need to make a strategic investment in transit and bicycling alone, with roads restricted to maintenance funding.

There are other recommendations that betray a belief that Marin cannot be anything other than car-oriented. Recommendation 8.5 calls for more parking and more park & rides. Recommendation 8.11 supports the ludicrously expensive Novato Narrows project and a new interchange to service the Redwood Landfill, which will eventually close. Perhaps the framers of Community Marin don’t want to rock the boat too much, but it is bizarre to see environmentalists arguing for more cars. Given the strength of their lobby in Marin, they should throw their weight behind MCBC and urbanists to fight for fewer cars and less driving.

In all, Community Marin does well when discussing preservation concerns but falls flat when entering the realms of transportation and development. I suspect the framers of Community Marin share much in common with urbanists – the desire for strong towns and town character, a desire for affordable housing, a desire for open spaces and clean air – but they have gone about their recommendations in a way that does not reflect the proven best practices to achieve those ends. Indeed, their recommendations are often at odds with their stated ends.

Marin’s governments need to study these recommendations carefully before jumping onboard. If they’re serious about reducing CO2 emissions, about creating a more equitable housing market, about moving beyond the automobile, about investing in transit and bicycling and downtowns, this is not the blueprint to use.

Urbanism isn’t Pruitt-Igoe

from Wikimedia by USGS

Pruitt-Igoe: a 50-unit per acre scar. From Wikimedia by USGS

It’s likely that Pruitt-Igoe, the public housing project in St. Louis, is the most famous and maligned image in architectural history. Its slab-like blocks rose from a scar in the urban fabric, the Corbusian ideal and an American dystopia. Yet at only 50 housing units per acre, this towering symbol of all things bad in urban design wasn’t all that dense. If we want to talk about density, we need to set Pruitt Igoe aside.

I mention Pruitt-Igoe because the image has emerged in Marin’s affordable housing debate. Bob Silvestri recently used it as an example of what he says the state and regional governments will force the Bay Area to build in a recent forum on affordable housing. Density mandates for 30 housing units per acre, he argued, would lead us to the worst kind of affordable housing and away from best practices.

Though there are plenty of reasons to oppose the regional housing needs assessment (RHNA) process, density and the specter of Pruitt-Igoe-like towers from Napa to San Jose is not one of them.

Rowhouses, when built right, come in around 50 units per acre, with older neighborhoods going a bit higher. Boston’s North End is over 50 units per acre. Washington, DC’s fabled Georgetown comes in at over 50 units per acre. In San Francisco, Russian Hill has 50, North Beach has 90, and the area west of Union Square goes as high as 536 units per acre. If density were the downfall of Pruitt Igoe, you’d think Union Square would be the center of a particularly wretched hive of humanity, not a trendy shopping district.

Urbanism means more places like this. Image from Google Maps

Urbanism means more places like this. Image from Google Maps

The causes of Pruitt-Igoe’s monumental failure could (and has) filled reports and books, but the failure can be boiled down to a deliberate denial of urban form. Stacking 50 units per acre atop one another while leaving empty grassy space around each tower for generic community gathering is a discredited idea that should have never earned such credence in the first place.

But to use this particular packaging of this particular density as an argument against density itself is disingenuous. It ignores common sense and the facts at hand. Good urban form can be low density and it can be high density, just as poor urban form can be either one.

And good urban form is based on the needs of the human as a creature. We walk, so a good city tries to maximize the pleasure of that activity. We are social, so a good city tries to maximize the incidence of casual socializing. That requires a certain level of compactness of buildings so that we can walk to the store and we can walk to the neighbor’s home, but that look like Midtown Manhattan and it can look like downtown Mill Valley.

Let’s have a debate about height and character that is really about how to build new development than enhances character, how to grow in that uniquely Marin way and make our county better. Let’s leave behind the straw men and phantoms.

Markets are the third way to affordable housing

Boston, with 53 units per acre of pure character and almost nothing over 4 stories. Image from Google Maps

Boston, with 53 units per acre of pure character and almost nothing over 4 stories. Image from Google Maps via Placemakers.

It’s no secret that the cost to buy or rent a home in the Bay Area is extremely high and rising. Thanks to a regional economic rebound and renewed interest in the kind of walkable living that defines San Francisco, demand for Bay Area housing is at a high.

Unfortunately, this means that only the most privileged can afford to purchase a home in our inner-ring suburbs. Blue collar workers, service workers, and young professionals making less than astronomical sums are having an increasingly difficult time finding homes they can buy or even apartments they can rent. And so a debate over how to accommodate affordable housing swirls around every planning meeting and town council election.

Advocates rally behind nonprofit housing and the state’s regional housing needs assessment (RHNA) process, which assigns each municipality and county a certain number of units they must accommodate. Others, especially in Marin, say cities and counties are managing their affairs just fine and resent anything that could be construed as meddling from Sacramento or ABAG.

Yet both perspectives neglect the economic underpinnings of our housing cost. Fundamentally, we have a shortage of housing for any income. Until either side begins to address this fact, we’ll continue to face deadlock and continuing cost escalation.

Market urbanism

Our housing shortage isn’t everywhere. Stockton and Vallejo can attest to that. Rather, the cost hikes have been in the walkable areas that have come into vogue over the past 10 years. Downtowns both large (San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland) and small (San Rafael, Napa) have seen their prices rise since the end of the recession.

While some of the demand in the big cities may come from name recognition, the principal reason for the price spike is that the supply of housing in walkable neighborhoods has not grown with demand for it. We have a classic housing shortage, and the only way out is to boost supply of walkable housing for all incomes, from luxury to low-income, by making it profitable to build such housing.

To some, this will sound like nonsense. We need affordable housing, not luxury housing. But the theory that increasing supply will stabilize prices has been borne out in at least one market.

Washington, DC, has seen a massive population boom. Since 2000, it has grown by nearly 10 percent, and now is adding 1,300 new residents every month. Though housing costs have increased (partly due to a lack of financing in 2007-2008 and partly due to a lag between demand for apartments and their completion), this year they are expected to be stable despite the continuing influx of people. Regionally, nearly 40,000 apartments are coming online in the next year, with another 30,000 the following year.

No government program could have forced such broad rent stabilization without direct price controls. Next year’s stable rents will only have come about because the region’s governments have worked with demand rather than against it. In the central city, DC is working on a revised zoning code that will promote high- and moderate-density walkable living. In the suburbs, counties are converting drivable retail centers into walkable mixed-use areas, sometimes far from the Metro rail system, relieving some of the demand in the central city.

The Bay Area could join DC and stabilize its housing market only by stepping back from the dysfunctional No Development vs. Affordable Housing debate. We must boost the supply of housing for all incomes or we’ll never get a handle on the problem.

Reform the laws, boost supply

Bay Area developers face a potent mix of restrictive zoning and anti-developer sentiment. We fear that any changes to our much-beloved downtowns will destroy their character, and that rapacious developers just won’t care.

Arguably, they didn’t care in the 1950s or 1960s. Ugly concrete replaced beautiful Victorian. Grassy hills became rolling tract homes. Governments helped by marking poor neighborhoods “obsolete” and tagging for them for demolition.

The laws put in place to stop this kind of idiocy worked, and developers now try to work within a city’s character rather than against it. Developers now face strict design review to ensure developments work with local character and architecture, or are built on characterless strip malls and dead zones.

Still, some of those laws hold back development to an undue degree. Take density limits, put in place to maintain neighborhood character. These ensure that only, say, 30 units per acre can be built in a given acre. While that seems like plenty of density, they encourage the largest units instead of the most rentable mix of units. A developer can’t charge as much for a studio apartment as he can for a two-bedroom, but since both count as a “unit” he’ll build a bunch of two-bedrooms. In Marin, this has meant continuing undersupply of studios and a rent hike of 14 percent since 2011.

Other constraints, such as parking minimums and inclusionary zoning, squeeze even more money from a project, rendering small infill developments unprofitable and impossible.

Cities should reform their zoning codes to make attractive and character-rich development profitable again. Density could be substituted with height limits, which would allow cities to keep a low-rise or mid-rise character while also adding housing units. Parking minimums, too, should be abolished in favor of alternative means of transportation and neighborhood parking plans.

Even in large cities, this will encourage dense development beyond BART stations. Though BART-oriented development is useful, there aren’t enough BART stations to make much of a dent in the housing supply. More importantly, these developments are often islands of walkability in a pedestrian-hostile sea if infill development is restricted to the BART station. Real cities are integrated fabrics, with buses, walking, and biking dominating short trips. Most of the walkable centers in the region follow this pattern and aren’t anywhere near rail transit. There’s no reason not to expand those town centers into the retail strips that dot the region or the vast office parks that dominate swathes of the East and South Bay.

Matthew Yglesias has written extensively about the need for infill development and upzoning. It is simply not tenable to prevent first-wave development from being redeveloped. Our land is simply too valuable to remain parking lots for offices and strip malls.

If the Bay Area is serious about affordable housing, its governments must tackle laws that keep supply from catching up with demand. We cannot rely upon nonprofits or government largesse to solve this economic problem effectively, nor can we freeze our cities and rents and call it a day. Only the market can fix the market.

The blog Sightline Daily has an 11-part series on legalizing real affordable housing, from zoning to density to rooming houses. It should be required reading for anyone involved in affordable housing policy.

 

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