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Newcomb Ave. Sustainable Streetscape Project Completed in Bayview

A raised crosswalk and landscaped sidewalk bulb-outs now grace the entrance of this block of Newcomb Avenue. Photo: SFDPW/Flickr

After a six-year-long process, residents of Newcomb Avenue in the Bayview joined city staffers yesterday to mark the completion of the “Model Block” project, a prototype for street design that’s better for the environment and more conducive to neighborhood life.

The block had been characterized by speeding traffic and illegal dumping. With this redesign it should be a safer, more sociable street thanks to the addition of landscaped chicanes, sidewalk bulb-outs, 20 new street trees, raised crosswalks, and other traffic calming improvements. The new landscaped surfaces will absorb rainfall and prevent stormwater from overloading the sewer system.

“To see the finished project, something this great in the Bayview, is unbelievable!” said Newcomb resident Mardina Graham in a press release from the Department of Public Works. “I have lived in the neighborhood all my life and have never seen anything like this before, perhaps in other neighborhoods yes, but not here.”

Residents will organize community cleanup days to keep the street “clean and green,” according to DPW, while the performance of the new stormwater treatment facilities — projected to reduce runoff by half — will be monitored by the city.

Landscaped chicanes along the curbs are designed to slow drivers. Photo: SFDPW/Flickr

See more photos after the break.

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The Latest Target of House Spending Cuts: EPA’s Smart Growth Office

For much of this week, the House has been debating next year’s appropriations bill for Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies. The bill includes harsh cuts to many key safety and environmental programs, including the EPA’s Smart Growth Office. According to the Obama administration’s statement of policy on the bill, “The bill terminates funding for EPA’s Smart Growth program, which contributes to efforts to assist communities in coordinating infrastructure investments and minimizing environmental impact of development.”

San Francisco's Mint Plaza won an EPA Smart Growth award last year. Photo: SF Weekly

Smart Growth America opposes the cut, calling it “shortsighted” and saying it would be “detrimental to economic growth.” According to SGA:

The EPA’s smart growth programs assist communities on a diversity of projects, like creating a range of housing and transportation choices for residents and workers, growing local economies, protecting the environment and public health, and improving local infrastructure. For example, the rural communities of Driggs and Victor in Idaho received a Smart Growth Implementation Assistance award to help identify steps to redevelop their downtown economies. Hundreds of other communities across the country have received similar assistance under the smart growth program, but these economically vital efforts would come to an end under the House legislation.

Four Democrats sent a letter to their House colleagues yesterday asking them to oppose the cuts.

“The program, with its voluntary, market-driven approach, has directly assisted communities across the country, helping them increase economic development, protect the environment and public health, improve their infrastructure, and ensure efficient use of government services,” the letter stated. “The Smart Growth programs face such high demand that they are only able to help 9 percent of current applicants.”

The House has been voting on amendments for the past few days, essentially approving further cuts and rejecting anything that would restore funding.

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Newcomb Ave. Sustainable Streetscape Model Breaks Ground in Bayview

Mayor Ed Lee speaks at the groundbreaking. Photo: Aaron Bialick

Construction began on a model for sustainable streets in San Francisco today when Mayor Ed Lee and city officials broke ground on a block of Newcomb Avenue in the Bayview District, promising a much friendlier streetscape for residents and the environment.

“You see a vision right in front of your door,” Mayor Lee told an audience of residents and agency officials who collaborated on the project. “A vision that’s going to bring about slowing the traffic, trees, permeable landscaping – all kinds of things that you see other neighborhoods get.”

The treatments in the Model Block project [pdf], such as greener sidewalks and bulbouts, over twenty trees, raised crosswalks, and chicaned street parking with permeable pavement, aim to treat stormwater as it falls, enhance the public realm, and create a safer street by calming motor traffic.

“This is one block of our many streets of San Francisco that altogether cover 25 percent of our city,” said Department of Works Director Ed Reiskin. “But they were designed more for people to drive through than to be on, and to cover up the environment rather than to work with its natural processes.”

The innovative practice of treating stormwater with streetscape plantings, known as greenstreet treatments, has been commonly used in Portland, Oregon. That city lacks more expensive infrastructure like San Francisco’s rainwater storage facilities and controlled combined sewage system, which are not always able to handle loads of rainwater that fall on the streets.

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SF’s Mint Plaza Takes Home EPA Smart Growth Award for “Civic Spaces”

Flickr photo:

Flickr photo: David Lytle

In its annual Smart Growth awards ceremony, the Environmental Protection Agency awarded San Francisco’s Mint Plaza with its “Civic Spaces” prize, honoring the City and County of San Francisco, as well as developers and architects that transformed the former Jesse Street alley into a busy public realm. The award was announced yesterday in Washington DC, in coordination with the EPAs 40th anniversary festivities, where San Francisco joined New York City and Portland among others receiving commendations.

Mint Plaza was the result of a public-private partnership that used private funding to build a public plaza owned by the city, with relatively little city investment. According to the EPA’s announcement, the project cost $3.2 million to build, of which only $150,000 came from public funds. The balance was raised by Martin Building Company, which created a Community Facilities District (much like a Community Benefit District), levying a 30-year special property tax on certain buildings around the plaza to leverage tax exempt bonds. Martin also established Friends of Mint Plaza, a non-profit organization that raises funds to manage ongoing maintenance and programming at the plaza.

Jason Elliott, policy adviser to Mayor Gavin Newsom, said the EPA award was an honor and said Mint Plaza “represents people taking affirmative ownership in their micro neighborhoods.”

“This is a community coming together to invest in their own public realm,” said Elliott, who highlighted the trial traffic diversions on Market Street and said they can complement destinations in the neighborhood. Without creating destinations like Mint Plaza, he said, the public would have nowhere to bike and walk to, neighborhoods would not be revitalized. “We can do a lot of the things we think we’re good at, but when we have the private sector step up and take the proactive responsibility for reinvigorating their own communities,” it expands on what the city can accomplish.

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Livable Communities Act Clears Senate Committee

The Senate Banking Committee voted 12-10 yesterday in favor of the Livable Communities Act, legislation that would bolster the Obama administration’s initiatives to link together transportation, housing, economic development, and environmental policy.

donovan_lahood_jackson.jpgShaun
Donovan, Ray LaHood, Lisa Jackson: Together forever? The Livable
Communities Act would codify the partnership between HUD, US DOT, and
the EPA. Photo: EPA

The administration has been taking steps since last March to coordinate between the Department of Transportation, HUD, and the EPA. This bill, carried in the Senate by Connecticut’s Chris Dodd, would formalize those partnerships and authorize substantially more funding to work with. 

Most of the action would flow through HUD. This year the agency is funding $150 million in grants
supporting regional efforts to improve access to transit and promote
walkable development. The Livable Communities Act promises to scale up
that program significantly, creating a new office within HUD, called the
Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities, that will distribute
about $4 billion through competitive grants.

The initial round of grants would fund comprehensive plans — local
initiatives to shape growth by coordinating housing, transportation,
and economic development policies. Most of the funding — $3.75 billion
– would be distributed over three years to implement projects
identified in such plans.

While some Senators from rural states had expressed skepticism
about the benefits of the bill for their constituents, yesterday’s vote
split strictly along party lines, with Democrats Jon Tester of Montana
and Tim Johnson of South Dakota both voting in favor.

To make the case for the bill to his rural and Republican counterparts, Dodd singled out Envision Utah,
a campaign that has built public support for smart growth policies in
one of the country’s reddest states. Not a single GOP Senator voted for
the bill, however, even Utah’s Bob Bennett, who told UPI, "I think the overall philosophy is wise, but I will be voting against it."

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Detroit Residents Press EPA for Stronger Air Pollution Monitoring

In Washington, "grassroots lobbying" is more often associated with industry-funded issue campaigns than ground-up local advocacy. But residents of Detroit's industrial southwest neighborhoods took the term back to its roots on Friday, getting a personal visit from Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials after a groundswell of complaints about decaying air quality.

sm_DSC01515.JPGCyclists in southwest Detroit. (Photo: Detroit Synergy)
From the Detroit Free Press' report:
Environmental Protection Agency officials watched intently Friday as a computer that measures air pollution on the spot showed spikes around industrial plants in southwest Detroit. ...

Next to the plants in the 48217 ZIP code and nearby areas are whole neighborhoods boxed in by oil recycling plants, asphalt makers, a steel plant, a stinky composting yard, a salt factory and an expanding oil refinery.

"This is what we live with," said [Jayne] Mounce, who lives near Marathon's oil refinery and petroleum terminals.

This week, Mounce said she had taken her own air samples with the help of national environmental monitoring group Global Community Monitor and found lead-laden dust, which could come from a steel mill nearby. A few months ago, similar sampling found a dangerous chemical in the air -- methyl ethyl ketone, a gas that can cause numbness, tremors and gait problems.

The story notes that EPA officials have "fewer than 50 air monitors" in the entire state of Michigan, where the industrial base has shrunk in recent years but remains a prime economic mover -- and generator of air pollution. Nonetheless, the Detroit residents' plea for stronger air quality standards is an unusual sight compared with the more common practice of localities seeking more lax rules or more time to comply with EPA pollution limits.

Methyl ethyl ketone, the gas found in local air sampling, is commonly found in manufacturing plant emissions as well as specific products such as industrial glue and the exhaust of cars and trucks, according to the Centers for Disease Control's toxic substances registry. In 2005 it was removed from the list of hazardous air pollutants regulated by the EPA under the Clean Air Act after a federal appeals court ruling that endorsed the move.
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Dodd Vows to Pass Livability Bill Amid Skepticism From Rural Senators

Even as the Obama administration ramps up its work on a sustainability initiative that treats transportation, housing, and energy efficiency as interconnected aspects of development policy, the effort remains without an official congressional authorization — a situation that Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-CT) vowed to fix yesterday.

dodd_working.jpgSenate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-CT) (Photo: The Washington Note)

During an appearance in his home state with Ron Sims, chief of the administration’s inter-agency Office of Livable Communities, Dodd vowed to work for passage of his legislation authorizing $4 billion in grants for Sims’ work.

"I only have about eight to 10 months," he said, according to the Hartford Courant. "My goal is to see the Livable Communities Act become law before I retire."

Dodd, whose panel has jurisdiction over housing and urban development, is working with that 10-month deadline as he anticipates retiring from Congress at year’s end. His push to create a long-term foundation for the administration’s sustainability effort also could run into resistance from rural lawmakers whose states have tended to benefit from a transportation spending system based on road-mile formulas.

The first stirrings of rural skepticism came on Thursday, when Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK) questioned the administration’s move to emphasize "multi-modal" transport projects that would combine roads, transit, and bike-ped access.

Begich asked the U.S. DOT’s No. 2, John Porcari, to make sure that rural states are "not lost in the mix." That sentiment was echoed later in the day by Sen. John Thune (R-SD).

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Report: White House Budget Office Helped Weaken EPA Pollution Rule

Pensacola, Florida. Springfield, Missouri. Fort Wayne, Indiana. All three of those metropolitan areas have populations between 350,000 and 500,000, and all three would have been required to install nitrogen dioxide monitoring stations near major roadways under a new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule cracking down on the pollutant.

sunstein.PNGCass Sunstein, chief of the White House budget office's regulatory arm. (Photo: Wonk Room)
But as the Center for Progressive Reform (CPR) noted soon after the EPA unveiled its rule, an initial draft setting the minimum population for local air-quality monitoring at 350,000 was changed to 500,000, leaving out cities such as Fort Wayne and effectively weakening the nitrogen dioxide rule's accountability.

Another watchdog group traced the change to the White House Office of Management and Budget, which evaluates new agency regulations through a smaller arm called OIRA (short for the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs). The president's nominee to lead OIRA, Cass Sunstein, has taken heat from green groups for his past criticism of government's role in the rule-making process.

What's the significance of the OMB's change to the EPA rule? "The fewer the monitors, the more likely it is that many metropolitan areas will be able to exceed EPA’s limits without detection or correction," CPR president and law professor Rena Steinzor wrote on the group's blog in late January.

Steinzor's post also addressed the significance of the new nitrogen dioxide rule, noting that the pollutant tends to be especially common, and dangerous, in lower-income neighborhoods located near busy roads:

Scientific evidence links human NO2 exposure with various respiratory health problems. ... The biggest source of NO2 pollution is automobile emissions, though power plants and heavy industry are also significant contributors. NO2 pollution levels tend to be greater in urban areas and near major roadways, which means NO2 pollution tends to disproportionately harm the poor and communities of color.
(h/t Wonk Room)
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EPA and HUD Make Big Investments in Sustainable Development

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are making significant progress on their joint effort, with the U.S. DOT, to connect cleaner transportation options with affordable  housing and denser urban development.

fairmount539__1237909144_3098.jpgA future commuter rail station along Boston's Fairmount Line, one of five areas selected for EPA sustainable development aid. (Photo: Globe)

The latest moves came as Obama administration officials gathered in Seattle for the annual New Partners for Smart Growth conference, where HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan officially tapped Shelley Poticha and Ron Sims as leaders of his agency's sustainable communities office.

On the HUD website, Donovan's aides are seeking input and suggestions from local planners as they prepare to award an initial $100 million in grants to cities with plans for transportation and land use reform.

Not to be outdone, EPA took the opportunity to launch two pilot grant programs aimed at using clean water funds to boost community development and rebuilding brownfield communities around transit access.

The water-funding pilot will focus on New York, California, and Maryland, while the brownfields -- former industrial sites where hazardous materials may impede environmental cleanup -- selected for transit-oriented development aid are located in Indianapolis, Iowa City, Denver, Boston, and the San Diego area.

The three federal agencies involved in green development work are also beefing up their message, connecting a number of recent policy shifts on their respective fronts into a larger narrative of progress towards a more harmonious approach to transportation and housing. For a recap of the recent steps taken by the EPA, HUD, and U.S. DOT -- many of which were covered by Streetsblog Capitol Hill -- check out the agencies' January bulletin [PDF].
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EPA Strengthens Nitrogen Dioxide Rules for First Time in 35 Years

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today announced
a new "one-hour standard" aimed at limiting Americans’ short-term
exposure to nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a pollutant created by cars, power
plants, and other industrial sources.

US_regulate_national_auto_emissions.jpg(Photo: TreeHugger)

NO2,
a main ingredient in smog, is linked to adverse
respiratory health effects such as chronic asthma. In creating a new
one-hour NO2 exposure limit of 100 parts per billion (ppb), the EPA
noted that the risk of short-term NOX exposure is particularly acute
near major highways.

As EPA chief Lisa Jackson said in a statement:

This new one-hour standard is designed to
protect the air we breathe and reduce health threats for millions of
Americans. For the first time ever, we are working to prevent
short-term exposures in high risk NO2 zones like urban communities and
areas near roadways. Improving air quality is a top priority for this
EPA. We’re moving
into the clean, sustainable economy of the 21st century, defined by
expanded innovation, stronger pollution standards and healthier
communities.

The rule will be enforced by setting up monitors near roads in areas
with more than 500,000 residents, according to the agency, with a
deadline of 2013 for the beginning of pollutant tracking. The EPA said
it plans to work directly on 40 new monitors for cities and towns with
the most significant NO2 exposure.

It’s worth noting, however, that major cities have remained out of
compliance with EPA air-quality standards for years without
losing
significant amounts of federal highway money, as the federal
government often threatens. Moreover, the EPA has not changed the
current annual NO2 standard of 53 ppb.