“Grow Smart Bay Area” Promotes Development as a Tool for Change

GSBA_map_small.jpgClick the map to enlarge. Image: Greenbelt Alliance.

Even as our freeways and bridges in the Bay Area are choked with traffic for hours every day, the population in the region is projected to grow from over 7 million now to over 9 million by 2025. Deciding where to build housing to accommodate the growth will be one of the most significant regional decisions and one that must account not only for issues like infrastructure capacity, but climate change, open space management, job growth and health impacts.

That’s the message the Greenbelt Alliance has delivered with its series of public workshops to promote "Grow Smart Bay Area," a regional plan for infill development near transit coupled with the protection of open space and agricultural land. As a blueprint for walkable, dense development, Grow Smart Bay Area is an optimistic projection of how planners can accommodate growth within existing towns and cities without giving into the temptation to sprawl further from job centers.

Greenbelt Alliance gathered a panel of experts last week at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek to discuss the challenges of promoting these development patterns and to debate how to make the Bay Area, to borrow Greenbelt Executive Director Jeremy Madsen’s phrase, "a sustainable global metropolis."

"Grow Smart is not merely about accommodating the Bay Area’s next generation of growth. It’s about using growth as a catalyst," said Madsen. "We can use growth as a tool to make our neighborhoods more sustainable, more equitable."

To identify priority development locations, Greenbelt used the California Infill Parcel Locator database and the Smart Growth Strategy/Regional Livability Footprint Project, both developed at UC Berkeley. Those were then cross-referenced with growth projections from the Association of Bay Area
Governments (ABAG) and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s (MTC) Transportation 2035: Change in Motion report.

In the analysis, Greenbelt skipped single-family neighborhoods and focused on sites that would be mixed-use low density, downtown medium density, and
mixed-use medium high density. They identified 40,000 infill development lots in seven smart spots for growth (see map above), including northeast Santa Clara County, El Camino Real in San Mateo County, portions of San Francisco along BART and Muni lines and other transit-oriented development locations like BART transit villages.

Several of the panelists at the event in Walnut Creek made strong arguments for developing in accord with Grow Smart principles. Dr. Wendell Brunner, Director of Contra Costa Health Services, said the built environment was ever more significant to health professionals who recognize the negative consequences of sprawl and long commutes.

"There has been an enormous increase in vehicle miles traveled," said Brunner, which "leads to pollution, considerable stress and long commute times."

Brunner said the over-reliance on "car culture and the associated built environment that grows up around it contributes" to the obesity and diabetes epidemics, as well as asthma and attendant problems in urban areas.

"What we need to promote health are dense walkable communities," he said. "These are what’s essential to build healthy, sustainable communities."

San_Pablo_image.jpgSan Pablo Avenue in Oakland. Photo: Greenbelt Alliance.
multi_modal_image.jpgSan Pablo imagined as a multi-modal, mixed use street. Image: Urban Advantage.

Good plans alone won’t be sufficient, however, without political will
and persistence to be sure growth is targeted in the right areas, warned
James Kennedy, Redevelopment Director at the Contra Costa County
Department Conservation and Development and current president of
the California Redevelopment Agency. Kennedy said county planners and
redevelopment agencies needed to develop good plans, vetted by the
public, so developers could have assurances that if they met conditions
for smart growth, they could have reliable and dependable timetables for

"Specific plans are good resources," he said. "The fundamental premise of specific
plans is that it provides dependability for communities and developers."

Jeff White, Senior Developer at AvalonBay Communites, held up his company’s new Contra Costa Centre Transit Village as an example of good growth by building close to transit in counties further from the urban core. The 125-acre Centre, which is located around the Pleasant Hill BART station with 2300 multi-unit residential properties and two million square feet of office space, moved its first residential tenants in on May 1st and expects to keep selling through the end of the year.

White said the plan for the Centre facilitated the development, though he lamented how long it took to build. "What would we do differently? Build faster and at less cost," he said.

Rather than play on the historic divide between environmental stewardship and job creation, Scott Littlehale, Senior Research Analyst for the Northern California Carpenters Regional Council, said that the distance between work and affordable housing degraded workers’ living standards. 

"For many of our members now, the sprawling, decentralized development isn’t working well for us," said Littlehale. "Our members have miserable commutes."

He estimated that construction workers who commute out of Contra Costa County will spend an average of one hour longer in a car each day, or the equivalent of "six extra work weeks behind the wheel."

Al Courchesne, the owner of Frog Hollow Farm near Brentwood and the only panelist that clearly didn’t work behind a desk under fluorescent lights, said farmers were often left out of the discussion around development. "I think awareness of food and agriculture should be an intrinsic part of
this discussion of smart growth," said Courchesne, who argued planners and towns needed to do more to protect agricultural lands and prevent sprawl.

"If we want our food to come from local agricultural areas, we need to be
proactive about protecting them," said Courshesne

To underscore this point, Courshesne, Madsen and other panelists all warned of Measure F, the Brentwood Urban Limit Expansion proposition that goes before voters on June 8th, which they argued would allow sprawl to encroach on farmland and valuable open space.

Measure F, they argued, would be a good test whether there was political commitment to smart growth or if there was only lip service paid to the current buzzword.

"We have to see farmland not as something that is pretty to drive by and look at," said Madsen. It’s essential to our ongoing environmental security."

  • I understand that the study didn’t look at single-family neighborhoods, but labeling the west side of SF as a low-priority opportunity site is misleading. A new unit build on Judah or Taraval has a higher chance of housing someone who is truly car-free than any home built in CoCo County.

    The picture of San Pablo in Oakland imagines a new light rail line that would take hundreds of millions of dollars to build, but we have three underused rail lines looping through the fog belt right now.

  • icarus12

    I certainly hope we go for more density along existing or planned transit lines, but every neighborhood project that increases density meets local neighbors’ wrath, rightly or wrongly.

    A notorious example is the 38 story condo tower downtown at 555 Washington. Much of the opposition was to its height and density, as well as to the fact that wealthy people would live there.

    A less well known example is the current protest in Nob Hill over an apartment or condo complex in the place of a church that is no longer viable at Larkin and Clay (or Sacto, I’m not sure). It’s right on the #1 California line, near two cable car lines, a block from the 19 Polk, 2 blocks from a couple of bus lines on Van Ness, etc., etc. The Polk street shopping area is one block away, and a supermarket is also two blocks away. What could be a better place for density housing than that? Two curb cuts would serve the garage space underneath the building for many, many cars and take them off street parking. But the NIMBY element wants the church preserved in its structure even if it has no parishioners.

  • Winston

    The greenbelt alliance map is mostly based on the MTC’s “priority development areas” (see a map here http://www.bayareavision.org/initiatives/PDFs/PDAs_11x17.pdf ) which are sites where the planners and politicians want to concentrate growth. I suspect that the west side of San Francisco being excluded and places like Pittsburg being included has as much to do with local aspirations as it does with sustainability. Besides, the greenbelt alliance is mostly focused on landscape preservation, not on reduction in auto use and from that perspective, this plan makes sense in that it is a less difficult pill to swallow than, say, forcing densification in neighborhoods that don’t want it and restricting growth in neighborhoods that do.

  • “Two curb cuts would serve the garage space underneath the building for many, many cars and take them off street parking”

    sounds like reason enough to fight against the remodel. Make them bring a better plan tithe table.

  • They seem to have left out most of Berkeley, though we have plenty of infill sites on San Pablo, Shattuck, University, downtown, west Berkeley and other places.

  • We just got a mixed use project approved in Berkeley in the downtown area. It took 9 hearings and 18 months, but that was pretty much a speed record for Berkeley, as in much faster and contovercial than is usual. On the site of a car dealership on Shattuck, which is sort of cool.

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    Streetcar on San Pablo? We already have the 72R and it’s a pretty sparse corridor. I’m all for investment, but why not put a streetcar up Telegraph where people actually go?

    The west side of SF is not included because they are leaving themselves out. The net housing units built west of Masonic in the last 30 years is probably zero. They are happy to let the more dense areas of the city become even more dense.

  • icarus12

    To Mike@#4: If a building can fit its many residents’ cars into a single underground garage with one, maybe two curb cuts, isn’t that better than a bunch separate apartment buildings or homes, each with its own garage housing one or two cars? It seems it would leave a lot more uninterrupted curb space for other users or other uses.

    Of course, I’m all for renting/selling the residential units separate from the parking spaces. That way people who don’t own a car can live there more cheaply. And residents who want a car can see the price up front of parking in the building’s garage. I think if we make the price of parking a car obvious to every car owner, it encourages residents to make conscious choices.

  • Moley


    I agree, SPA is probably the most squalid thoroughfare in the Bay Area (along with International, I’d guess). It’s not clear who would buy all those new condo’s, especially since the ones built in Oakland during the “Brown Boom” are selling for up to 50% less than their original sale price.

    Shattuck or Telegraph is far more deserving of mixed-use development, but even then I doubt you can sell many without off-street parking.

  • icarus12, you are right. Fewer curb cuts is better and I doubt any of the Nob Hill people are opposing the project for too much parking. And yes, I wish more projects would uncouple the parking from the unit, but people don’t want to see the true cost of parking.

  • marcos

    How about public policy that does not accept growth as an imperative?

    The Greenbelt alliance is a funnel for developer dollars, as they are the fiscal sponsor for the SF HAC.

    One example: in Pleasanton California, voters passed a growth limit in the 1990s to prevent rapacious development from the slopes of Mt. Diablo.

    More recently, a lawsuit was lodged by an Oakland nonprofit, Urban Habitat challenging the growth cap. Public Advocates, which bills itself as a public interest law firm carried that suit through successfully.

    The ED of PA is Janiene Studley, Dennis Herrera’s appointee to the SF Ethics Commission where she oversees the enforcement of campaign finance laws. Studley refuses to disclose the funding source for the Pleasanton lawsuit, even though Herrera has taken contributions from developers and Ethics oversees contributions from developers.

    As the last sector which cannot be outsourced and offshored, real estate developers have the overwhelming economic might to influence local politics. But Studley refuses to disclose information that would most likely disqualify her from sitting in judgment over possibly questionable contributions. There is just that much money involved.

    Now, Pleasanton is the 3d most expensive real estate market in the East Bay and is not much of a job center. But the Greenbelt Alliance was front and center supporting a lawsuit that would strip protections from one of the last remaining middle ring greenbelt areas, Mt. Diablo’s southern slopes:


    I think that it is pretty clear that Pleasanton is small enough and that new construction would need to be pretty massive to impact price. Given that Greenbelt Alliance is conflicted due to its reliance on developer dollars, their communication on this matter should be suspect.

    Here’s my massively footnoted demolition of the “smart growth” fallacy:




  • icarus12

    To Mike@10: Many environmentalists drive cars part of the time — look at taomom on this site or myself. We DO very much want to know what our cars and our driving truly cost.

    Here are some examples: I pay $96 for a residential street parking permit. Normally, however, I park my car in a commercial garage for $350 a month. The city takes $70 in commercial car parking tax. Does the $96 for the permit, the $280 I pay for the private parking space, and the $70 I pay to the City approximate my impact of about on the City’s environment? How about the $10-$20 of parking meter payments (very rarely do I get a ticket) pay for my use of that metered space?

    Do my vehicle registration fees, smog inspection fees, and gas tax adequately compensate California for my impact on the environment? Really, I want to know. I want an accurate economic analysis, not a politicized one. And I want all of us drivers to pay what we owe.

  • I wasn’t talking about you in particular, obviously, you are active on this website. And I’m not judging you for driving, go right ahead.

    I was just saying, that a lot of people (majority of the public) thinks parking is some free god given right. But you already know that. And I completely agree that some thorough analysis of the true cost of parking and its direct effect on higher living unit costs would go a long way to dispelling that myth.

  • Carey Knecht

    Hi Josh, I was one of the researchers on the study back when I worked at Greenbelt Alliance. Your point about San Francisco is quite right, and I thought I’d explain why that happened. The estimates were low in parts of San Francisco for two reasons, but the fundamental reason is that we decided we’d rather underestimate than overestimate the region’s potential.

    First, we probably underestimated what could be built. Since the descriptions of what could be built (“place-types”) were applied across the region, we mentally pictured those developments in some of the more suburban areas. A three-story residential building would probably have more apartments in San Francisco than it would in, say, Gilroy, and we erred on the side of underestimating San Francisco’s potential.

    Second, we probably overestimated how many jobs and homes are there now. To know how many NEW homes and jobs there were, we had to estimate what could be built and then subtract what is there NOW. That was easy to do on properties currently listed as, e.g., “duplex.” But it was more tricky to do on properties that were listed as “mixed use” or “multifamily.” The upshot was that in places with lots of mixed use and multifamily buildings — like parts of San Francisco — we probably over-subtracted and therefore underestimated the potential. In fact, almost one-fifth of the parcels assumed to be redeveloping “zeroed out” because they were projected to add fewer housing or jobs than they currently have!

    Bottom line: you are quite right that in some places, the potential was underestimated, and the infill potential of the region is probably much higher!

    For more details, check out the technical methodology here:

  • If I had a quarter for every time I came to sf.streetsblog.org… Incredible post!


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