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Commentary: Why SF Housing Props G and K Matter for Smart Growth

Editor’s note: This is a guest op-ed authored by Urban Habitat, the Council of Community Housing Organizations, and Livable City tying sustainable transportation to two housing policy measures that will be put to voters on Tuesday. It does not necessarily reflect the views of Streetsblog.

Smart Growth at a Crossroads: It’s time to stand up for our true values, vote YES on Propositions G & K

We have known for a long time that urban development is at a crossroads. By all ecological and social measures, the car-oriented model of suburban expansion is no longer tenable. We know that we must re-orient regional development toward compact, diverse, human-scaled urban neighborhoods built around robust public transit: we must return to the City and its neighborhoods as the model of future sustainable development.

Cities like San Francisco are at the heart of this model, as we build out abandoned train yards and shipyards, as we “infill” old gas stations and parking lots, build up along one-story commercial corridors, and rebuild our public realm of transit, streets, sidewalks, parks and recreation spaces. We call this “Smart Growth.”

The beauty of this model is that it does not pave over our greenbelts and farmlands, but rather protects them, by reinvesting in urban centers that our economic development models ignored for over half a century, and reinvigorating them as vibrant neighborhoods that can, as the charter of the Congress for New Urbanism states, “bring people of diverse ages, races, and incomes into daily interaction, strengthening the personal and civic bonds essential to an authentic community.”

But we also know that this path is fraught with dangers: the gentrification of hip urban neighborhoods, the displacement of long-term renters, seniors, neighborhood-serving businesses, and blue collar jobs, and the struggles over who can claim and occupy “the public realm.” The vision of a diverse and vibrant City, the ideal of “City air makes you free,” as they used to say in the European Renaissance, is threatened by the very same market forces that are once again reinvesting in the City.

As our movement has matured over the last two decades and we’ve been able to reflect on the results, studies have shown the link between public investment in transportation and the influx of luxury developments and high-income newcomers that push out the working-class and immigrant communities who have called these neighborhoods home for generations. This is a troubling unintended consequence of the Smart Growth vision we all aspire to.

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Q&A With Robert Grow: How Utah Decided to Embrace “Quality Growth”

Envision Utah didn’t tell Utahns they should build light rail, says Robert Grow. Utahns expressed their hopes and desires for the future, and plans for transit construction arose from those values. Photo: Visit Salt Lake/Eric Schramm

If you’ve ever wondered how a deep-red state like Utah has managed to build some of the most ambitious transit expansions in the country, the short answer is: Envision Utah.

Starting in the late nineties, the non-profit Envision Utah brought together an incredibly broad spectrum of interests, including plenty of people without a specific stake in the process, to explore how the 10-county region surrounding Salt Lake City, known as the Greater Wasatch Area, should cope with anticipated population growth. Organizers showed people what would happen if the region carried on with business-as-usual development, then outlined the ramifications of three other potential scenarios with scientific rigor. The extraordinarily thorough process involved hundreds of public meetings, leaving no one out and turning every participant into a problem-solver. Along the way, Envision Utah pioneered a new approach to regional planning, bringing together transportation and land use decisions in unprecedented fashion.

Robert Grow says he didn't tell Utahns what to do; they told him what their values were and they came up with a plan together, Photo: Envision Utah

Robert Grow. Photo: Envision Utah

It would be fair to say that after this effort, nearly entire state was on board with the vision that came out of this process: Quality growth with compact, mixed-use development, multi-modal transportation options, and untouched wild and agricultural spaces.

If you have some time, this history of Envision Utah will hold your attention like no other planning document. (If you have a little less time, you can get the basics in this PDF.)

Robert Grow was the founding chairman who guided Envision Utah through its formative stages. He returned to the helm last year as its president and CEO. In the interim, he helped bring lessons from the Envision Utah model to 80 regions around the country. After a recent swing through the East Coast where he shared the Envision Utah story at an event organized by Transit Center, I called up Grow to see what the rest of the country can learn from his home state.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Envision Utah gets a lot of attention for having done this process and instilled these values in a place where people wouldn’t have expected it. You don’t talk about “smart growth,” you talk about “quality growth.” I was curious where that phrase came from.

It came from the fact that this was Utahns deciding how Utahns wanted to grow, and therefore we gave it our own name: “quality growth.”

If you look at many of the goals — transportation choices, housing for everyone, spending infrastructure money smart, preserving water, making sure we have clean air — people across the country have differences, but also have common things they really want. They want to have personal time and opportunity; they don’t want to be stuck in traffic and waste their lives. They want to get home for dinner with their kids or spend time with their friends. The things we value actually drive that quality growth strategy in Utah.

So we did not, quote, “instill” those values. Those values are the ones Utahns already had. So the goal was to understand not how to manipulate or push people toward an outcome but to listen to them in a way that we understand what they really wanted. And then to show them, through the scenarios, the choices.

Envision Utah has absolutely no authority. So we just show people, if you choose this, this is the outcome, but if you choose this, that’s the outcome.

What other language changes or thematic adaptations did you have to make when taking on a quality growth mission in a place where people are deeply skeptical of government, deeply skeptical of planning, deeply skeptical of urbanism?

I’m not sure they’re skeptical of all those things. Their values are their values. When they see choices and they choose how to grow, those strategies may look like strategies other places but adopted by Utahns. We used the words that Utahns used.

This values study approach which we used is not a poll. It involved almost 100 multi-hour interviews, laddering people — and laddering is a term I could describe but essentially saying: What are the attributes of living here? How does that affect your life in a functional way? What is the emotional quotient of that — how does it make you feel? And how does that attach to your values?

By value laddering you learn what people want, but you also learn why they want it. And knowing why they want it and the words to describe it, when you present scenarios you can present them in Utah words. And so Utah is here to keep Utah “beautiful, prosperous, neighborly and healthy” for future generations. We added “healthy” a few years ago. Those were Utah’s words for a prosperous economy.

Those are Utahns’ words for things you might say in completely different words somewhere else. But we didn’t pick the words. Utahns picked those words.

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Gov. Brown Could Sign Bill to Help Finance Sustainable Development in CA

Governor Jerry Brown is poised to sign a bill that would enable cities and counties in California to finance regional smart growth plans and sustainable transportation improvements through the creation of Sustainable Communities Investment Authorities.

SB 1, authored by State Senator Darrell Steinberg, is aimed at restoring some of the financing mechanisms lost after Brown eliminated Community Redevelopment Agencies last year. Steinberg introduced a similar bill in 2012, but it was vetoed by the governor, who said it was too early to create new agencies with powers similar to the ones he’d just ordered dismantled.

Steinberg looks on as Brown signs a budget cutting bill in 2011. Photo:Zimio

The bill is aimed at helping municipalities implement their newly-adopted Sustainable Communities Strategies, which were mandated in 2008 with the adoption of SB 375. That bill, also authored by Steinberg and signed by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, was the first piece of state legislation in the nation to order the creation of plans to curb suburban sprawl and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation.

As regional agencies adopt these regional plans — the most recent of which was Plan Bay Area – it’s becoming more apparent that their implementation will depend on the funding needed to provide grant incentives for development near transit hubs and the walking, biking, and transit improvements to support them.

“The state is finally promoting regional planning for sustainable communities, but with few resources to get the job done,” said Stuart Cohen, Executive Director of TransForm, a statewide nonprofit that advocates for sustainable transportation and housing policies. “SB 1 will help cities deliver walkable, affordable communities with great transportation options. What’s more, the bill includes critical language protecting residents and supporting production of new homes affordable to all Californians. SB 1 recognizes that a successful community must provide for all its residents.”

Jackie Cornejo, director of the Construction Careers Project at LAANE (Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy), called SB 1 “an ambitious bill that seeks to create a whole new vision of equitable development for every community in our state.”

“We are very excited to be working on a bill that will leverage Los Angeles’ massive build out of transit and promote sustainable development nearby so we can all live and play near our work, have access to good jobs and affordable housing,” she said.

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Plan Bay Area Passes in a Room Full of Paranoid Conservative Activists

Plan Bay Area, the 25-year regional development and transportation funding strategy, was approved by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and Association of Bay Area Governments last night. The commissions passed a plan that includes some highway expansions and won’t meet the region’s own goals for sustainable transportation, according to projections, but which nevertheless represents a step forward for smart growth.

The meeting ran past midnight after about five hours of public comment. Some spoke in support of the plan, while others urged commissioners to approve an alternative draft that would take stronger measures to encourage transit-oriented, affordable housing.

Most commenters, however, decried the plan as a fundamentally “totalitarian” imposition on property rights, defending the status quo of car-dependent suburban development patterns as “organically grown” communities. As the Greenbelt Alliance and the Marin Independent Journal have reported, some conservative groups rented buses to haul in folks to rail against the plan. Much of their rhetoric smacked of Agenda 21 conspiracy theories.

Georgine Scott kicked off the public comments by reading off a notice she had drafted, declaring that she could seize the assets of the MTC because Plan Bay Area is a violation of the constitution.

“This committee, as subservants and foreign agents, give your allegiance to the foreign corporation of the United States,” Scott said. “I thus accept your ABAG/MTC actions, as said agents making rules ordinances and hearing decisions against the mandates of said constitution, as concerns property, as acts of treason, sedition, collusion, and money laundering. I may seize your respective properties as one of the people of the state of California following this notice, hereafter agreement.”

Scott’s reading elicited a roar of applause from a segment of the crowd, as did this comment from Richard Coleman of Orinda: “If we’re going to have unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats impose high density, high-rise housing on us, then all of the officers, directors and employees of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and Association of Bay Area Governments must surrender their drivers licenses, ditch their cars, and move into stack-and-pack housing.”

Not everyone held the belief that planning for a less car-dependent future constituted a conspiracy to deprive people of their property rights.

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Wider Highways? Bay Area’s Smart Growth Plan Has Some Glaring Mistakes

Population growth in the Bay Area doesn’t have to mean more traffic and more suburban sprawl, if it’s planned for in a sustainable way. To that end, regional planners at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission recently released a draft of Plan Bay Area, a state-mandated blueprint for focusing housing growth over the next 25 years near transit hubs, where new residents are less likely to need a car to get around.

A high-occupancy toll lane on Highway 680. Photo: Laura Oda, Bay Area News Group

Sustainable planning advocates say the plan is mostly headed in the right direction, but it still falls short in some areas. One glaring mistake is that the plan calls for spending billions to widen highways to create high-occupancy toll lanes — carpool lanes that single-occupancy drivers can pay to use. Those lanes should instead be created by converting existing highway lanes, says TransForm, an Oakland-based group that advocates for better walking, biking, and transit policies on a regional and state level.

“MTC’s plan follows a 1970s-era Caltrans practice that limits Express Lanes to new construction only, without even studying the option of optimizing existing lanes,” wrote TransForm Deputy Director Jeff Hobson in a blog post. “This kind of outdated thinking is hardly the best approach to solving 21st century transportation problems – and would completely exclude some of the most congested stretches of highway from the plan.”

Because most of the revenue from HOT lanes will be soaked up to pay for the highway widenings, instead of just charging single-occupancy drivers to alleviate congestion in existing lanes, SPUR has pointed out that they will generate little money for transit improvements. Meanwhile, the new lanes will induce more demand for driving and do nothing to reduce existing congestion.

Shown in pink: Priority development areas, where housing growth will be focused over the next 25 years under Plan Bay Area. Image: MTC

“MTC’s plan continues the cycle of ‘build more lanes, attract more drivers’ by creating new options for solo drivers, but no new transportation choices,” wrote Hobson. ”Over the long term, this strategy is virtually guaranteed to land us back at square one: gridlock on heavily-traveled highways.”

The MTC’s draft plan also fails to include enough new transit-oriented affordable housing to reduce the projected costs of housing and transportation, TransForm says. While the MTC set a goal of reducing those costs from an estimated 66 percent of household income for low-income families region-wide to 56 percent, the agency actually projects those costs to increase to 73 percent of household income. That means living in a walkable community would be less affordable than it already is.

“Without stronger policies in place to prevent that from happening, folks will end up living farther and farther away from places like San Francisco, and we will then encroach on our precious farmland and open space that we’re so fortunate to have in the Bay Area,” TransForm Community Planner Joél Ramos told MTC commissioners at a recent public meeting.

The MTC does expect the plan to meet its goals in six areas, including providing enough housing for all of the Bay Area’s projected new residents without any expansion of sprawl; exceeding the state-mandated 15 percent reduction in per capita greenhouse gas emissions (the projected improvement is 18 percent); and reducing residents’ exposure to dangerous fine particulate pollution, which largely comes from trucks, by 71 percent. MTC Executive Director Steve Heminger also said that the spending plan for transit improvements focuses primarily on fixing existing systems first before embarking on expansions.

Yet Plan Bay Area falls short in addressing other major problems [PDF], with some even expected to get worse:

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Coalition of California Advocates Headed to Sacramento to Save Transit

Members of a broad coalition hailing from throughout California are headed to Sacramento next week to push policymakers to save transit funding and enact sustainable transportation planning reforms.

The Oakland-based transit advocacy group TransForm has amassed about 150 advocates to descend on the capitol for its two-day Transportation Choices Summit, the first known event of its kind, where they will meet with state representatives and urge them to prioritize walking, bicycling, and transit.

TransForm State Policy Director Graham Brownstein said the action came out of the organization’s Invest in Transit campaign, launched last year to address the “very, very serious crisis” facing transit systems in California. The state has made dramatic funding cuts totaling more than $4 billion over the last decade, and TransForm recognized the immediate need for “creative policy reforms that will stabilize, and then grow transit funding in California,” said Brownstein.

The cornerstone of the campaign is a push to ensure that a major portion of the revenue from California’s nascent cap-and-trade program will be dedicated to transit operations and affordable housing projects located near transit.

The cap-and-trade revenue could go a long way toward restoring the damage done to transit funding under the Schwarzenegger administration. By selling emissions permits, Governor Jerry Brown’s administration anticipates the cap-and-trade program will generate $1 billion in the 2012-2013 budget and $10 billion annually by 2020, according to TransForm [PDF].

Brownstein said transit agencies need all the help they can get to avert a much deeper statewide crisis.

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Would Romney Build Roads or Rail?

All eyes are on Texas Gov. Rick Perry these days, the faraway frontrunner in the Republican race. But as the primary goes on (and on and on) more Republicans might take note of the fact that in a matchup with President Obama, only one candidate stands a chance of winning: former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

As governor of Massachusetts, Romney had a mixed record on transit and smart growth. Photo: Daily Caller

According to the most recent polling data, Obama trounces Gov. Perry. He makes mincemeat of Bachmann and Gingrich. Only one poll shows a winning Republican candidate, and that’s Romney, with a two percent edge over the president in a recent USA Today poll.

We took a hard look at Rick Perry’s approach to transportation last fall, when he was running for re-election. As Texas governor, Perry championed a mega-highway plan that would make the Road Gang blush. He blocked metrorail extensions and vulnerable users legislation.

But what about Romney? His record as a red governor of the blue state of Massachusetts is a little more complex, and worth exploring.

In a recent Boston Globe story comparing current Democratic Governor Deval Patrick with his predecessor, Romney emerges as the more inspired candidate when it comes to smart growth. (It doesn’t help that Patrick was caught driving around in an SUV last week while telling his constituents to observe car-free week.)

According to the Globe, Patrick has done away with a program originated under Romney to encourage “mixed-use, walkable, downtown-centered, transit-oriented growth” and counter sprawl.

Under the Romney program, communities got credit for green building, saving energy, preserving open space, and zoning reform, among many other categories. Those that scored highest went to the front of the line to receive about $500 million per year in grants and revolving loan funds for infrastructure including water and sewer projects. The idea was to put state funding to municipalities through a filter, and reward innovation in sustainability at the local level; previously the money was just doled out.

Romney also pioneered an interagency partnership in Massachusetts not unlike the Obama administration initiative that brought together HUD, USDOT and EPA. Romney’s Office for Commonwealth Development brought together state agencies on transportation, environment, housing, and energy — a collaboration which has served as a model for other states. To head it, he hired Doug Foy, the head of the Conservation Law Foundation and “arguably New England’s most important environmentalist,” according to ModeShift.

Romney’s administration encouraged brownfield, instead of greenfield, development and created a bond program to encourage transit-oriented development. And ModeShift says he was “for RGGI (the Northeast regional greenhouse gas emissions compact) before he was against it.” Read more…

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Alex Steffen: We Can’t Avert Climate Change Without Dense Cities

Alex Steffen goes by the title “planetary futurist,” which makes me realize I should probably spruce up my title to something that makes me sound like I should be wearing a cape, too. What he does is write about sustainable cities, on WorldChanging.com for seven years and more recently in his book, Carbon Zero.

He just gave a TED talk about how to make cities more sustainable. And while he’s primarily looking at climate impacts, he pretty conclusively dismissed the notion that the problem can be solved with clean fuels.

“We tend to seek simple answers,” he said. And if we assume the problem is fossil fuels, he said, “the answer must be to replace fossil fuels with clean sources of energy. And while we do need clean energy, I would put to you that by looking at climate change as a clean energy generation problem, we’re setting ourselves up not to solve it.”

With a rapidly urbanizing planet and eight billion people projected to live in or near cities by midcentury, Steffen asserts that it may just not be possible to generate enough energy to power all those cities – if those cities continue to look like the ones in the developed world today, anyway. The solution, he said, is density.

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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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Federal Regulations at Odds with Demand for Urban Housing

Despite growing demand, developers of mixed-used development face an additional hurdle thanks to outdated federal regulations. Photo: CNU

The real estate market is undergoing the most rapid period of change in a generation — and the shift is decidedly urban. A succession of recent studies have found there is an under-supply of urban-style housing — attached and small-lot, single-family homes — on the scale of about 13 million units. On the other hand, there is an estimated oversupply of detached housing in the car-based suburbs of about 28 million units.

Public policy hasn’t quite caught up with the market, say the experts at the Congress for the New Urbanism. The Federal Housing Administration and its subsidiaries, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, are discouraging urban-style housing developments.

HUD lending standards dictate that mixed-use development projects can’t be more than 15 to 20 percent retail. Fannie caps retail share at 20; Freddie at 25 percent. And these standards set the tone for the private market — a tone that is consequently skewed toward single-family housing, and away from the pent-up demand for urban development with walkable amenities.

“It’s really disrupting the market,” said John Norquist, president of Congress for the New Urbanism. “It’s making it hard to developers to finance good projects.”

CNU is seeking reform. The organization has built a broad coalition including the National Association of Homebuilders, the National Association of Realtors, the National Town Builders Association, and the Center for Neighborhood Technology. Together, this reform group is planning to initiate discussions with Shaun Donovan, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development; Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), chair of the House Committee on Financial Services; and the U.S. Treasury.

“Our sweetest dream is that the Obama administration — the Treasury Department and HUD — would say, ‘Let’s change this before the end of the year,’” Norquist said. “The secretary of HUD, Shaun Donovan, has said very favorable things about this. He recognizes it.”

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