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Thursday 03 April 2003

San Francisco Development, NIMBYism and Sprawl

One of the usual suspects has sent me a great article on development in San Francisco that’s hard to excerpt in any meaningful way. It repeats most of the things I’ve been saying about urban planning, and makes a few points I hadn’t thought of. It’s quite long, but I’ll try to give a Readers’ Digest version of it here with some comments:

San Francisco has the room to build the housing the city needs, to slow spiraling rents and sales prices, to forestall manic sprawl, to restore sanity to a market wholly out of kilter.

But it won’t.

If the mayor, supervisors, and citizens of San Francisco were to wake up one day and decide they wanted to confront the housing crisis, they could do so with relative ease. It would require nothing more than building the housing already permitted under existing laws and zoning plans, creating enough homes and apartments to house tens of thousands of people.

Which is what San Francisco wants, isn’t it? The residents of that city are famously concerned with the well-being of their fellow man, and with opening up opportunities for the ‘disadvantaged’.

San Francisco’s drum-tight housing market is not the result of a newfound NIMBY attitude, the sort of adolescent suburban fussiness that comes from waiting too long at a stop sign. It’s the end product of a unique — and chronically shortsighted — political culture 50 years in the making that is now part of the city’s genetic structure.
In wave after wave of downzoning, successive San Francisco governments shut out ever more housing, until today, the most densely zoned parts of the city are sparser than the areas that during the 1950s were zoned lowest-density. San Francisco’s total population, meanwhile, decreased from 830,000 during the years after World War II to 780,000 now.
But at century’s end, something has gotten lost in this process, something that is important to the way San Franciscans imagine themselves. As we push thousands more people out toward Brentwood, we become the engine of unprecedented environmental destruction, and globally unmatched energy consumption. We become complicit in the construction of far-flung cityscapes hostile to walking, to bicycling, to public life, and the resultant mingling of social and racial groups that such public life engenders. And by squeezing out successively higher rungs of the lower and middle classes, our city’s own public life loses flesh. By allowing unmet demand to cascade downward through the price levels, we force the downtrodden to choose the street, rather than $25-a-night tenement rooms.

See also this. Neighborhood goups in most cities complain long and loud about “gentrification” whenever anyone wants to do any building, but people also don’t seem to want to allow cheap housing.

There’s also an interesting idea here: that artificial limits on the urban housing market are a major cause of sprawl. That the Birkenstock crowd marching down Market Street shouting ‘no blood for oil’ is partly responsible for the suburb/SUV disaster is particularly insightful.

Events in the recent history of the Bay Area have created massive resistance everywhere.

Patrick Kennedy, an outspoken veteran of East Bay housing wars, is particularly familiar with this fact. Like anyone who’s lived there, developer Kennedy enjoys a love-hate relationship with the city of Berkeley. He’s won approval for a multistory apartment complex in downtown Berkeley. He’s advocated for an environmentally friendly, European-style downtown with smaller apartment units, taller buildings, and reduced parking. He has been an outspoken proponent of a new general plan for Berkeley, which will allow taller apartments to be built in the downtown area. He’s been the city’s leading campaigner to “decriminalize housing,” according to one local environmental group. In doing these things, he has earned the wrath of his fellow Berkeleyites. He’s capitalist developer scum, they say, and he ought to be run out of town.

“Berkeley is a perfect example of cognitive dissonance,” says Kennedy. “They talk and talk about affordable housing, then trash the general plan. Berkeley’s the only city in the Bay Area that’s lost housing in the last 20 years.”

They want affordable housing (about which see this again), but they don’t like developers or anyone who smells like a developer. Who is it that they expect will build this affordable housing? Why is it that the most ‘liberal’ places in the United States, presumably the places that would most readily accept and feel empathy for the poor, the ‘diverse’, etc., are some of the most expensive? The pinker your neighborhood, the more likely you are to in fact have a great deal of real-estate wealth.

The change in the economics of the Bay Area’s suburbs was little noticed, but dramatic. As if to mock developers who built office and industrial parks near where their potential employees presumably lived, anti-housing ordinances typically gained momentum just as groundbreaking began on jobs-oriented projects.
In San Ramon, Dublin, and Pleasanton, voters will consider “anti-sprawl” ballot initiatives in November that would require the approval of any housing development over 10 units to be put to a vote of the citizenry. Livermore is considering such a measure next year, while petitions are circulating in Antioch that would require any development of 20 or more housing units to, likewise, be put to a citywide vote.

And limiting housing “developments” to less than ten “units” each will limit sprawl how, exactly? Better to limit housing developments to no less than ten — or more, actually — units per acre. The very term “sprawl” implies that the problem is a lack of density. (See this.) Why is it, then, that the only anti-“sprawl” ordinances I’ve seen that say anything about density in fact mandate less density? It can’t be actual sprawl in the dictionary sense that they’re trying to put an end to; but I can’t figure out what it actually is that they’re trying to eliminate.

The entire article deserves your attention.

Posted by tino at 22:49 3.04.03
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