Posts Tagged ‘california’


What California’s new climate change law means for urban neighborhoods

December 4, 2008

A few months back, California’s legislature passed SB 375, landmark new climate change legislation that, for the first time, linked land use and transportation planning decisions directly to greenhouse gas emissions reductions. Recently, this hit our neighborhood mailing list with a fervor, with people up in arms that this law was just a ploy to increase density in urban neighborhoods. There’s a lot more to it than that, though, so I figured it warranted a post—especially as California has historically been on the vanguard of progressive environmental legislation, so it may only be a matter of time before other states see similar measures in place.

First, a very big caveat: I’m a policy planner, and my job is to help cities and counties figure out what laws like SB 375 mean for them and to (hopefully) encourage them to make progressive planning and policy decisions. Consequently, I have some very strong opinions about all of this, so make of that what you will.

All about SB 375
So what does SB 375 really do for cities, then? It’s important to remember that this law is still in its infancy. We don’t yet know exactly how lawmakers or the courts will enforce it. California cities are watching closely, though. No one wants to be the next Stockton, which recently had its new General Plan shot down by the state attorney general because the plan promoted too much GHG-producing sprawl. (Stockton eventually struck a deal to intensify its transit-accessible downtown, build a bus rapid transit system, and create a climate action plan, among other things.) In the coming years, what is and isn’t required by the law will become much clearer.

Will SB 375 help it happen?

AC Transit BRT: Will SB 375 help it happen?

SB 375 is legislation designed to help implement AB 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, which requires California to reduce GHG emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. I’m not going to open the “what causes global warming” box—you can do that yourself. Suffice it to say that the state of California is satisfied that human activity has enough of an effect on global climate change to warrant proactively changing our patterns of development and our reliance on automobiles. Hence, AB 32 and SB 375.

Here’s the new law in a nutshell:

  • The California Air Resources Board (CARB) will develop GHG emissions reductions targets for each region of the state that will allow California to meet its AB 32 goals.
  • California metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) must develop strategies to achieve these regional targets through land use and transportation planning, even if the targets are in conflict with local plans. (For Oakland, the local MPO is the Association of Bay Area Governments, or ABAG.) There are a few exceptions for counties without MPOs.
  • Both regional transportation funding and regional housing plans must be consistent with the GHG reduction plan to achieve the targets. (This is important because transportation funding is currently overseen by the Regional Transportation Planning Agencies, or RTPAs, in most parts of California. That means that the RTPA—the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, or MTC, in Oakland’s case—must work closely with the MPO. Ideally this happens anyway, but now it’s the law.)
  • Development projects that conform to the regional plan and are transit-priority projects will be eligible for streamlined CEQA exemptions and expedited permitting processes, even if the projects are not consistent with local plans. (Transit priority projects, or TPPs, are projects within a half-mile of major bus or rail lines that are at least 50 percent residential and have a density of at least 20 units per acre.)

There’s a lot more there, of course—for instance, each region now needs to incorporate the plan detailing how they will achieve the GHG reductions into its long-range Regional Transportation Plan (RTP), and there’s a requirement that MPOs create alternative plans if they believe that they can’t reach their targets, which affects funding opportunities in ways that most people don’t care about—but those are the nuts and bolts. For the nitty gritty details, check out this analysis. (There are also, of course, lots of requirements that the state, MPOs, and RTPAs work with community members and other stakeholders to determine what the emissions reduction targets are and how to reach them.)

So SB 375 just throws local plans to the wind?
Not exactly, but it does provide a big incentive for local communities to work with regional bodies as they develop their plans to ensure city plans are consistent with regional goals. This isn’t new—in the Bay Area, for instance, most cities already work with ABAG to ensure that their general plans include the city’s fair share of regional housing, and city and county transportation plans are typically developed in conjunction with the RTP. But 375 adds new carrots and sticks to the mix: it gives residential and transit priority projects access to streamlined approval processes if they’re in keeping with the regional plan, opens up new funding sources for these projects, and withholds federal transportation funding from projects that aren’t in the regional plan. Right now, there’s no indication that residential development will be forced on cities where it’s unwanted; instead, the law simply offers some compelling incentives to encourage communities to consider new development. There will likely be extensive regional conversations and negotiations to determine exactly where housing will go and who will benefit.

What happens when the local and regional plans are in conflict?
This is still extremely unclear. We’ll probably have to wait for this to happen and see how it’s addressed by the state and the courts. There are some precedents, however. In Massachusetts, for example, Chapter 40B (the Massachusetts Anti-Snob Zoning Act—seriously!) takes a similar carrots-and-sticks approach to encouraging local communities to build affordable housing. Under the 1969 statute, developers have access to a streamlined comprehensive permitting process when their projects contain a minimum percentage of affordable units. Local zoning boards have flexibility in approving such projects even if they aren’t consistent with approved zoning regulations, and developers can appeal to the state to supersede local zoning regulations if a municipality is not meeting a minimum threshold for affordable housing. Like 375, 40B was designed to strongly encourage cities and towns to “do the right thing” of their own accord (and more broadly, to fight NIMBYism). The law certainly hasn’t solved Massachusetts’ affordability crisis, and it’s constantly challenged—but at the end of the day, it has led to small but significant steps in the right direction. We may see similar progress from 375, although the California law arguably has somewhat bigger teeth and better incentives.

What does all this mean for a city like Oakland?
The short answer is that we don’t know yet. However, Oakland currently engages MTC and ABAG in its planning processes and participates actively in regional planning, so hopefully that means that the city’s general direction will be in sync with the new regional plan. Oakland is transit-rich and has countless infill opportunities, so expect the city to be a target for new residential development. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. Many of Oakland’s neighborhoods—and especially those on transit trunk lines (Broadway, Telegraph, San Pablo, International, MacArthur) that meet the TPP requirements—have infill potential, with formerly industrial sites like those along Auto Row opening up. And while Oakland grew out in the second half of the twentieth century, the center city neighborhoods lost population. New housing in the city’s core can potentially add new tax revenue, new shoppers, new schoolchildren, and more. All of that may translate into more federal and state dollars for various services and amenities.

New housing will increase residential density in some neighborhoods, but at the same time, growth can open up opportunities for revitalized commercial corridors, nightlife, arts, parks, and more. At a very basic level, 375 is advocating reinvestment in California’s cities and downtowns, which I think will be a very good thing for Oakland in the long run. Will there be added traffic and parking headaches? Possibly, since more people may bring more cars. However, these are things that the city can (and should) regulate: implement and enforce residential parking permits and metered parking in commercial areas, for instance. Promote innovative thinking to improve transit service throughout the city. Encourage locally-based services and amenities so that residents don’t have far to go. Create an urban neighborhood where you don’t need your car to get by.

About that density thing….
The urban planner in me says I have to pause for a moment to dispel the “density is bad” myth that persists in many American cities. Density is simply a way of measuring how many people live in a square mile, or how many housing units are on an acre of land. It isn’t good or bad until you start assigning numbers and values to it. Intensity is a similar measurement, but in the urban context generally measures how many square feet are developed per acre. (I say “generally” because the terms are sometimes used interchangeably or in entirely different ways—there’s no universal definition of either, so it’s important to know how your particular city or region uses a term.) Density is not the same as building height. There are dense neighborhoods comprised of one-story single-family homes, and areas with high rises surrounded by open space that aren’t as dense. Most cities regulate building height as well, but there are different tools to measure and manage height. (Typically cities use height limits and something called a floor-area ratio, or FAR, which is a method of measuring the massing of buildings; these are combined with density or intensity zoning regulations to shape a community’s look and feel.) For the purposes of SB 375 and climate change mitigation, though, what we primarily care about is the concentration of people.

This Oakland block is densely developed at 85 units per acre, but theres not a high rise in sight.brFrom the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy

This Oakland block is densely developed at 85 units per acre, but there's not a high-rise in sight (from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy)

In the American landscape, densification of cities has a complex and contentious history. The federal Urban Renewal program of the ’50s and ’60s saw the mass destruction of cities across the country as freeways and large blocks of housing or offices replaced smaller-scale neighborhoods. Density, intensity, heights, and massing all increased simultaneously. The redevelopment was supposed to “save the city,” but instead, the program arguably destroyed urban life in many communities. (I say this with a very strong bias, as I grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, the poster child for Urban Renewal’s failures; there are, of course, some cities in which central business districts did benefit from renewal efforts.) But we need to acknowledge this history, while at the same time underscoring that increasing density in the center city was only one small goal among many much more politicized goals of the Urban Renewal program. Let’s be clear: SB 375 is not “Urban Renewal all over again” in any way, shape, or form.

What does density look like today?
Just how dense is 20 units per acre, the threshold for SB 375’s transit priority project (TPP) designation? It may not be as dense as you think. Understanding what density means—and what it doesn’t—is critical as neighborhoods grow and change. Here’s a great primer to help visualize density, from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Boston. (There’s a free sign up required, but it’s worth it.) And here’s a rough idea of what density means, based in part on the Sierra Club’s definitions:


<1 unit/acre: Very low density; exurban or rural development; large-lot suburban development.
3 units/acre: Typical single-family suburban development. [Example: some areas of San Ramon, an Oakland suburb]


10 units/acre: Row houses interspersed with single-family homes and apartment buildings. [Examples: lower density areas of larger cities; older suburbs; Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood]
50 units/acre: This is what my neighborhood, a mix of single-family homes and mid-rise apartment buildings, is currently zoned; our actual density is a bit less. The population density of our area is guesstimated at around 23K people per square mile in contrast to Rockridge’s 10K, according to these guys (who may or may not have accurate data—but they also think our neighborhood has a “high hip index,” so they can’t be all wrong!) [Examples: Oakland’s Westlake and Adams Point neighborhoods]


100 units/acre: Predominantly apartment buildings of three to five stories with occasional single-family homes and mid-to-high rise apartment buildings. [Examples: San Francisco’s North Beach]
200+ units/acre: Mostly mid-to-high rise apartment buildings. [Examples: Upper East and West Sides of Manhattan; areas near San Francisco’s Union Square]

Population density is important because that magic number determines everything from what types of businesses will be successful to how viable different types of transit will be to how much park space is needed in a community to how many seats schools need to have. More isn’t always better, but there are some thresholds to meet. Certain types of transit, for instance, will only succeed with a baseline population density nearby; similarly, some businesses won’t thrive without a minimum customer base. It’s a balancing act. This is where I hope SB 375 will be most effective: helping regions examine that balance to plan healthy, sustainable, and—above all—livable communities that have enough residents to support walkable schools, jobs, shops, and restaurants; effective transit; active recreational opportunities; and the other local amenities that can make urban living wonderful.

11 units per acre

Homes on the Emeryville/Oakland line: 11 units per acre (from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy)

Last, but not least….what about the suburbs?
What happens to the Tracys and Antiochs of the world with SB 375 and a push to jumpstart urban areas? Only time will tell. But climate-friendly living and walkable communities certainly aren’t limited to large cities; small cities can enjoy similar amenities on a different scale. (Don’t try running a light rail through a small town, for instance—but an express bus that runs from the town center once or twice a day could be a great addition.) Moving forward, compact development patterns and new transit opportunities in the suburbs can help to preserve the open space that remains while strengthening the communities that already exist there. I do think we’ll see an end to large-scale development of suburban and exurban greenfields in California, though. And with fresh memories of $4 gasoline, increased awareness of GHG emissions, and more housing options close to jobs, it’s likely that fewer families will be choosing homes that require lengthy car commutes. Where will that lead us? What do you think our landscape will look like in a decade or two?

Other Resources
This View of Density

Demystifying Density
Corridor Housing Initiative (Twin Cities)
Visualizing Density: 0-5 units per acre | 5-17 units per acre | 17-100+ units per acre


The City Dweller’s Guide to the Election: Part I (California)

October 23, 2008

Okay, I’ve kept politics out of this blog up till now, but as the November election gets closer, it’s time to start sorting through all those races and ballot measures that are coming up. I though it would be interesting to look at these issues with an eye towards what might be best for Oakland, and for cities in general. This is Part I, which focuses on the California statewide ballot initiatives. Part II will look at local Oakland measures, and Part III will tackle the national race. Here goes!

Prop 1A: Safe, Reliable High-Speed Passenger Train Bond Act for the 21st Century
YES. This would be even more important if the East Bay spur of the rail were still under serious consideration, because that would have connected Oakland and the other East Bay cities to what may well be one of the most life-changing infrastructure improvements in California in generations. High speed rail not only provides connections between all of the state’s cities, but it helps get traffic off the freeways, and ultimately may help us get the freeways out of the cities altogether. This initiative will build dedicated tracks for passenger rail to avoid scenarios like the horrible LA train collision earlier this fall. In most parts of our country, freight companies own the tracks, so passenger trains must stop and wait for freight trains to pass before they can go on their way; some Amtrak trains wait for hours to allow a late freight train to pass through. A new system is costly, yes, but most good infrastructure is; we’ve simply grown accustomed to not paying for new infrastructure (and not even keeping up what we already have terribly well). We need a new era of public investment in our facilities. If you’re under 45, this will probably be the most important transportation infrastructure project in your lifetime. Be a part of it, and help California set a new precedent for train travel! A very big YES on 1A!

Prop 2: Standards for Confining Farm Animals
YES. This one is hugely controversial. Basically, it requires that calves raised for veal, egg-laying hens and pregnant pigs be confined only in ways that allow these animals to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs and turn around freely. I think that’s a great thing. The argument against it is that it’s too expensive to raise animals this way, so stores will start importing these products from out of state. I don’t buy it. It is similarly “too expensive” to pay living wages to workers in the U.S., and so we import products made by children in Indonesia. The funny thing is that people have started caring about Indonesian kids, and realizing that there’s a tradeoff to things that are cheap. I think the same will be true of raising animals for food. If other states follow suit—and fuel costs continue to rise—we’ll see the relative cost of raising animals humanely drop. In the meantime, I think it will also be a boon for California’s small farms, many of which are doing this already, and for backyard agriculture. A chicken for every yard. Yes on 2.

Prop 3: Children’s Hospital Bond Act
A lukewarm YES.
No, it’s not *that* Children’s Hospital bond measure! This one would benefit children’s hospitals (and hospitals in general) across the state. Is it true that the Prop 61 money isn’t even spent yet? Yes, but that’s intended for grants through 2014, and is a much smaller pot of money that doesn’t begin to make a dent on needs. Oakland’s own Children’s benefits from both measures (and has already completed its Prop 61 work) and does desperately need seismic improvement even if the measures on the last ballot weren’t the right way to get it—and for that reason, I say yes on 3. (The best argument against it, I think, is that the state is already massively bonded and should be avoiding any more debt right now. I buy that, too; if we’re only going to bond for one thing this year, it ought to be high-speed rail.)

Prop 4: Abortion Waiting Period & Parental Notification Initiative
How many times has this one been on the ballot?? No, no, no to creating disincentives for pregnant teens to seek counseling and support for difficult decisions like abortions. An issue for Oakland, as for other communities, because we have a high incidence of teen pregnancy….and they need all the support they can get. I’m not opposed at all to involving parents in this process, and ideally they’re actively involved, but there shouldn’t be a mandate or waiting period that will interfere with teens’ rights to choose. No on 4.

Prop 5:
Nonviolent Offender Rehabilitation Act (NORA)
YES. This is another tricky one that will have a big impact on Oakland, where drug busts barely phase me anymore. There are compelling arguments for and against it, but at the end of the day, I say yes on this. It prioritizes treatment over incarceration, and I think we have pretty compelling evidence that California prisons just aren’t working (and may actually be making the gang/drug problems worse). This proposal is based on Prop 36, which has largely succeeded at treating nonviolent drug offenders. This one also includes youth treatment, which is significant—we know that our prison system is failing youth right now, so if this provides an alternative for just a few of those kids, we may have fewer adult offenders down the road. Substance abuse and mental health are woefully underfunded across the country, and I do have faith that, given the resources, many drug offenders can become productive members of our community. Let’s just hope it works. Yes on 5.

Prop 6: Safe Neighborhoods Act/Runner Initiative
NO. Like much of what seems to wind up on the California ballot (have I mentioned what a screwed up system of governance this is?? Remind me again what we pay our lawmakers for?!?), this proposition has a happy sunshine goal, but a pretty misguided way of getting there. Of course I want a safe neighborhood, but this isn’t how I’m going to get one. It introduces a number of unfunded (or partially funded) mandates for counties, cities, and housing authorities, and moves a chunk of funding from crime prevention programs to crime prosecution. More youth will be tried and jailed as adults (yup, we know how well our prisons work for kids!) It’s incredibly expensive (try one BILLION dollars!) for a not-especially-well-thought-out program, too. The list of people opposing it is ridiculously long, and includes not only the Oakland police chief, but also the mayor and entire city council (not to mention most of the elected officials in shouting distance of Oakland, plus many community organizations I highly respect). No on 6.

Prop 7: Renewable Energy Generation (aka “Big Solar”)

NO. Surprise surprise. This is another one that sounds like it should be a good idea, but really isn’t. Clean, renewable energy is great. Done right, it will actually cost us less and establish California as a leader in the field, which is important for Oakland because we have a green jobs initiative to build an urban workforce for energy and related industries. But Prop 7 goes about this the wrong way, and will actually make it cost more. It’s inflexible, so we’re not positioning ourselves to change with the science. And it excludes the small local renewable companies from the benefits, which just isn’t right—they were the ones forging this path long before the big producers got on board. (For what it’s worth, though, the big boys aren’t on board for this proposition either.) No on 7.

Prop 8: Eliminates Right of Same-Sex Couples to Marry
Has your life changed dramatically since same-sex couples gained the right to marry last spring? No? Okay, so why take away someone else’s right—just to be mean? (Smear campaigns aside, this doesn’t change nonprofit status for churches or force new teaching in schools—churches marry people spiritually, not legally, so their practices are unaffected, and schools already teach tolerance of all families and will continue to do so regardless of how marriage is defined.) From a more practical perspective, this one is important to Oakland because our city is home to many gay and lesbian families, especially families with children, who would be very directly affected by losing the rights associated with civil marriage. Let’s keep our communities family-friendly for everyone. No on 8—don’t discriminate!

Prop 9: Victims’ Rights & Protection Act of 2008
Okay, so right off the bat, this one is another constitutional amendment, which should raise a red flag. The California Constitution is not something we should be amending every November depending on how the wind blows. This is yet another proposition that tries to address very real problems with our criminal justice system in a convoluted, not-especially-effective way. Yes, victims should have rights. But they already have the notification rights that are included in this proposition. Should those rights also include being paid restitution before any other creditors? Maybe, maybe not; consider a multi-million dollar fine, for instance, for a criminal who also owes child support. Not so sure that the victim ought to get every asset before the kids. Should the wait for parole increase? Maybe, but amending the constitution is not the way to do that, either. The point of parole hearings is that people are evaluated case-by-case based on the nature of the crime and the individual, so a blanket approach to barring early releases defeats the system. At the end of the day, this proposition throws more people in jail who may or may not belong there, and gets rid of some basic rights like due process. I don’t like getting rid of rights, in case you can’t tell. (Also interesting is that the only major supporter of this proposition, Henry Nicholas, stopped advocating for it after he was indicted for felony drug conspiracy. Oops.) No on 9.

Prop 10: California Alternative Fuels Initiative (aka “Big Wind”)

NO. This is a proposition that was hastily put together by all the people opposed to Prop 7. Yay, I love legislation from the ballot box. Read everything on Prop 7 again, except put “will cost much more” everywhere it says “will cost more.” It still doesn’t do much for the little guys. We need renewable technology, but I’m comfortable leaving that to our legislature to work on. (C’mon, we need to leave them *something* to do!) No on 10.

Prop 11: Voters FIRST Act
YES. Is this going to affect Oakland? Hard to say, but I’ll count it that way. Basically, I have no issue with commissioners drawing district boundaries, and I think we should be redrawing district boundaries as demographics change. The notion that appointed officials are more likely to be corrupt than elected officials just seems a bit off. Right now politicans get to draw their own district lines. (I know, if you don’t live in California, you’re shaking your head in disbelief right about now.) If anything, bureaucrats seem *more* likely to draw them fairly, not less. Let’s give it a shot, at least. Yes on 11.

Prop 12: Veteran’s Bond Act of 2008

YES. This extends an existing program, and with more veterans coming home every day (many of them to Oaktown!), it seems to me that we ought to keep this around. Opponents include a guy in Mountain View, who doesn’t actually object to the act, but thinks it ought to define veterans as those who served in combat, not just anyone who was in the armed forces. Proponents include everybody else. (Okay, that’s a little exaggeration—but really, there basically aren’t any opponents on record!) So I say yes on 12.

Next up: local issues, including the Oakland City Council race and some important local funding measures.