Cities resist regional plan to limit sprawl


BART is just steps away from a new senior housing complex rising in West Oakland. Planners say more transit-oriented developments will discourage driving, improve street life and cool the planet. Photo by Jason Winshell / SF Public Press.

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.”

A tabletop model of the Bay Meadows housing development that will rise next door to a Caltrain station in San Mateo. Photo by Jason Winshell / SF Public Press.
Commuter traffic on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay. Photo by Tearsa Joy Hammock / SF Public Press.

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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.