Author: Andrea Mardesich

Public meetings are broken. Here’s how to fix them.

Neighborhood planning is governed by a biased, unrepresentative system

By Patrick Sisson, Curbed, February 12, 2020

“The public meeting has become enshrined in this nation’s local politics as the conduit for the opinions of the common citizen and [as] an essential part of grassroots democracy.

“The problem of misrepresentation at public meetings, neighborhood councils, and other such hyper-localized public forums stems from their design.


“Held at times of day that can make it hard for many people to attend without missing work, usually without day care options, and sometimes in locations not favorable to those with disabilities or who rely on transit, these meetings already exclude many groups before they even start. Then there’s the matter of format: Experts and officials typically sit behind a table and give speeches and make presentations, with a microphone set up to take comments from neighbors who can spare the time to spend hours waiting for a few minutes on the mic.

“ ‘The dynamic is just so unproductive,’ says Sara Aye, a designer and executive director of Greater Good Studio in Chicago, which focuses in part on improving public engagement.

“In 2018, Ayes and team at Greater Good Studio designed a public engagement plan for Raising Places, an initiative by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to enlist community members to design their own programs to promote healthy childhoods.

To make a meeting work, get started before the event

“Greater Good approached the project like organizers. They reached out to the community, held lots of one-on-one conversations, and enlisted community groups to take leadership roles and help with outreach. The nine-month outreach program focused first on diagnosing and understanding the issues, with weeks of events focused on observation, immersion, and the discussion of root causes with the community, as well as framing goals. 

Greater Good Studio has also experimented with meetings that turn what’s normally a staged, one-at-a-time [public comment] conversation into something more freeform. … In five California cities for the state government, Greater Good organized feedback events into something more akin to a science fair. Different stakeholders and local coalitions set up at tables spread around the room, and community members circulated around the stations all night, chatting and delivering feedback and having conversations.

Is local control a good idea in the first place?

“There’s another school of thought that says the best meeting may be not having a meeting at all. If the benefits of building certain projects are diffuse, says Boston [University’s Katherine] Einstein, it means assembling a supportive coalition at a neighborhood level may be too high a bar to set. Maybe the better process is setting more policy at the city or even state level, to allow more projects to move forward to benefit the community as a whole.

Read the full article here.


A plan to combine the Bay Area’s dozens of transit networks

SF-based Assemblymember David Chiu wants to put different agencies on the same track

By Adam Brinklow, Curbed, February 5, 2020

“The Bay Area almost has more public transit than it knows what to do with — and that’s the problem according to Assemblymember David Chiu. 

“His new bill Assembly Bill 2057 would establish a single universal bus fare across the Bay Area and one single discount standard for every agency, create a combined transit map and departure time reference, and develop a new type of transfer that works across every transit line.

“The legislation also establishes a consulting team for bigger, more grandiose implementations down the line, like a single fare for all Bay Area transit, and (the holy grail for harried commuters) a scheduled alignment between different systems.

“Eventually, someday, the region could achieve something like unity, merging dozens of disparate systems into a single one. Or that idea could breakdown if, as is often the case, agencies can’t force compatibility between so many moving parts designed to work separately. In any case, Chiu’s initial foray will help suss out how this vast project might work.

“Most Bay Area commuters use more than one system, but there’s little if any coordination between the agencies. Caltrain and BART will time transfers at Millbrae station, for example, but switching from BART to Muni or AC Transit is a gamble at best most days.

“For now the bill remains a hazy outline. But once there’s more meat on its bones, it will pass through committee hearings in Sacramento at a later date.”

Read more here. 


Fighting sea level rise the natural way

An interview by Lori Pottinger, Public Policy Institute of California, February 3, 2020

PPIC interviewed Letitia Grenier, a member of PPIC’s Water Policy Center research network and a senior scientist at the San Francisco Estuary Institute. Below are selections from the interview.

“We tend to think of climate change as causing a slow, linear rise in sea level, but it’s not always gradual … We could see quick changes and sudden jumps in sea level.

“Rising seas will affect how we manage runoff from major storms. It’s not enough to manage water coming down rivers and rising from groundwater — we also have to account for concurrent king tides and storm surges … [and] build infrastructure that … takes into account flooding from behind and below.

“Our water infrastructure was developed to address specific issues … [without] figuring out how to make the overall watershed work well for all the things we need it to do. Instead, we optimized the system in each location for one function.

“There is huge potential to redesign systems to let natural processes help us solve some of our complicated problems.

“Compared to a concrete flood basin, a marsh provides not just flood protection but also creates habitat for at-risk species, protects the shoreline, sequesters carbon, filters and breaks down contaminants, and creates recreational opportunities. And traditional engineered infrastructure has a lifespan… In contrast, ecosystems are always changing; they can adapt in ways that engineered solutions can’t.

“We also need to work across jurisdictions… Our current system has too many agencies with missions that aren’t well aligned. So we’ll need to voluntarily coordinate to make our watersheds work as they should — and provide incentives to bring agencies together over watershed planning. It will take time to make this change, and … these big social challenges are harder to resolve than the science side.”

Read the PPIC interview here.

Danville ballot measure sparks debate over open space

A view of the property. Photo Credit: Guy Marzorati/KQED

By Guy Marzorati, KQED, February 11, 2020


“Just south of the entrance to Mount Diablo State Park, in the East Bay town of Danville, horses and livestock roam more than 400 acres of emerald-green hillsides, a rare vestige of the Bay Area’s agricultural past.

“The future of this pastoral land, owned for decades by the Magee family of ranchers, is at stake in one of the region’s most controversial measures on the March primary ballot. The debate over the measure has residents split over the benefits (and even the definition) of open space.

“If it passes, Measure Y would uphold a plan to turn the privately owned hills into a 69-home development, while unlocking public access to [213 acres of] hiking and bike trails.

“The ballot fight is an example of the ‘development paradox’ that confronts cities and environmental groups hoping to add or maintain open space in the expensive Bay Area, said Daniel Press, an environmental studies professor at UC Santa Cruz.

“Open space ‘means different things to different people,’ Press said. ‘Technically, that property could be developed. Just because it’s open right now reflects past history; [it] is a statement about right now and it’s not a statement about the future.’

 “But the Danville Open Space Committee gathered thousands of signatures to challenge the project on the March ballot. ‘It is blatantly illogical to have a campaign that says we’re bringing open space by slamming a 69-home development on open space,’ said a member of the Committee. ‘The open space, as you’re looking at it right now, exists.’ 

“But to supporters of Measure Y, the Magee land isn’t open space, it’s private property. ‘This view is open right now. It is a stunning vista. But you can’t hike here. You can’t be an equestrian here,’ Danville Mayor Karen Stepper said. ‘It’s not your land to use, but it will be when it’s owned by East Bay Regional Parks.’

“The alternative, Stepper said, could be a future development that dedicates the entire ranch land to more sprawling housing construction. ‘That would be 78 homes on five-acre lots, so that doesn’t leave you any room for trails, bikes, or even the limitations and the traffic improvements,’ she said. ‘So we don’t want to see that happen.’ “

Read the full article here.

This aerial view shows the Magee Ranch Preserve housing plan and open space that was approved by the Danville Town Council on July 2, 2019. The proposal is the subject of a referendum, Measure Y, on the March 3 ballot. (Town of Danville, via East Bay Times)

Height limit exemption effort starts in San Mateo

Group’s initiative would allow higher buildings, greater density, at transit

By Zachary Clark, Daily Journal, February 7, 2020

“With Measure P set to sunset by the end of the year, a group of San Mateo residents is pushing to extend existing building height limits in the city while exempting areas around transit from those restrictions. 

“The initiative would extend voter-approved height and density limits in the city for 10 years while removing those restrictions around the city’s three Caltrain stations until new height limits are established through the general plan update underway. The initiative also contains provisions that remove barriers to affordable housing development in the city. 

“Measure P, a 2004 extension of a measure approved by voters in 1991, caps building height in the city, including areas around transit, at 55 feet, and limits density to 50 units per acre. 

“ ‘Don’t be fooled, this measure is not trying to meet the region’s most pressing problems,’ said Michael Weinhauer, a member of San Mateans for Responsible Government. ‘It’s nothing more than a Trojan horse for unrestricted high-rise development of 12 stories or higher in downtown, Hillsdale, and other transit sites. It ignores the traffic and infrastructure problems associated with more housing, no matter where it is located in our community.’

“Housing advocates, on the other hand, support the proposed initiative and argue it’s necessary to bring about construction of much needed homes.”

Read the full article here.


Bay Area gets boost to affordable housing from unlikely source

Advocacy groups push successfully for affordable housing near train stations

By Emily DeRuy, Mercury News, February 6, 2020  

“New apartment complexes built near Caltrain stations must reserve at least 30 percent of their units for low-income residents. 

“The board that oversees the transit agency approved the policy on February 6, along with rules that residential projects built on Caltrain land must be at least four stories and hold at least 50 units per acre.

“[The board] rejected a request from advocates to give affordable housing developers the right of first refusal on properties that can be developed.

“ ‘Generally, they don’t work out very well for any of the parties,’ said Jim Hartnett, Caltrain’s executive director, of such requirements.

“Robust competition, added Brian Fitzpatrick, manager of real estate and property, ‘is our best bet.’ 

“Caltrain, the pair said, must create space for the rail network to thrive and grow in the coming years and also determine how best to use what little land the agency thinks it can spare. That means weighing what will bring in the most revenue with community demand for affordable housing.

“ ‘For us it’s about balance,’ Fitzpatrick said, later adding, ‘if you create affordability, you are going to take a hit’ when it comes to revenue.

“There’s also no requirement that such sites be reserved for housing, although several board members agreed housing should be the priority.

“Board member Ron Collins, the mayor of San Carlos, said setting minimum on-site affordability and density requirements will set an example for how cities and counties can spur affordable housing development in the region moving forward.

“Collins pointed to recently built homes near the San Carlos train station as a cautionary tale, noting that the council ultimately allowed a three-story development rather than the six that were initially proposed.

“That, he said, was a ‘monumental mistake,’ because while the city had a requirement that 15 percent of the units be affordable, the lower density made that unrealistic. In the end, he said, just 10 percent of the 220 units were designated for lower-income residents. ‘That was a hard lesson for me to learn,’ Collins said, adding that when a city reduces density, ‘you also reduce your leverage.’ ”

Read the full article here.  


Oakland 2100 – The Game
Oakland 2100. Photo: Sarah Allen, AICP

Oakland 2100 – The Game

By Sarah Allen, AICP

Oakland 2100 is a public engagement game that combines a wooden relief map of downtown Oakland with Legos of various colors to allow participants to identify where and how they would like growth to occur over the next several decades. Different sizes and colors of Legos represent different land uses and densities and allow for creative and real-time collaboration to determine how best to accommodate growth.

Organized and initiated by project team Noah Friedman, Steve Pepple, and Courtney Ferris, this temporary traveling exhibit and game was played in several locations in 2019 including the Jack London Farmers Market, SPUR Oakland, Oakland Impact HUB, a branch of the Public Library, the West Oakland Youth Center, and the Jack London Business Improvement District. The project culminated October 4, 2019, at the downtown Oakland office of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) where several youth and student groups were hosted to play. This final evening to showcase the game coincided with a First Friday Art Murmur event at the AIA office.

Photo: Sarah Allen, AICP

This “game” offered a serious method of engagement to identify community desires and values related to design and urban planning; however, the biggest benefit may have been to education, collaboration, and understanding. For example, the activity set rules to make the development process more realistic with some real-life challenges that developers, residents, and the city face on a daily basis. Participants were guided to understand and negotiate the physical, financial, and political constraints within which the built environment is shaped.

Photo: Sarah Allen, AICP

While the results of the events may not be formally used in producing plans and ideas for how to move Oakland forward — the game was neither produced nor endorsed by the City — the effort proved a useful tool to inform the community. Allowing for creativity and play engaged constituents and led to a better understanding of how cities are planned and developed. The ultimate goal, it seems, was to start a conversation about the trade-offs involved in each land use decision and to show community members how to participate in shaping the future of their built environment. You can find out more here.

Sarah Allen, AICP, is APA California–Northern Section’s Regional Activity Coordinator (RAC) for the East Bay. She began her career with the city of Lafayette’s planning department as an intern 13 years ago and is now a senior planner, working on current and long-range planning projects, including the development of a public outreach strategy for the impending General Plan Update.

Meet a local planner – Martin Carver, AICP

Meet a local planner – Martin Carver, AICP

By Catarina Kidd, AICP

Martin Carver, AICP, is Managing Partner of Zero­City, LLC in Santa Cruz, Cali­for­nia. He holds a master of city and regional planning from Cor­nell Uni­ver­sity and a BA in en­viron­men­tal studies ­/politics from UC San­ta Cruz. As a volunteer, he has served as a board member for Tierra Pacifica Charter School, Insight Santa Cruz, and Bloom of the Present.

What is your professional focus? 

We work with muni­ci­pal­ities, school districts, and uni­ver­si­ties to achieve net zero green­house gas emis­sions using com­mu­ni­ty-scale renewable energy projects. I work with a partner to combine comprehensive city and climate action planning with implementation of energy projects. The time has come to think bigger about collective efforts with public/private partnerships to increase renewable energy production and move beyond the modest “one-rooftop-at-a-time” approach.

What led you to this work?

Around 2000, I began consulting with my own firm, Coastplans. This was mostly general plan work, advance planning, housing elements, and CEQA documents. In 2015, as a result of the recession’s impact on my firm and my clients, my private practice was reinvented with a partner, and became “ZeroCity, LLC.” The firm offers energy planning, which is what I have focused on for the last five years.

What are the concepts in this particular specialty? 

We saw a need for local cities to gain a foothold in energy development and community choice aggregation. In the Central Coast area, I served on the formation committee of Monterey Bay Community Power. Even before PG&E’s power safety shutoffs started, we thought the technology and economics were there for local microgrids with which local cities could sustainably provide more reliable and cheaper power.

What is a microgrid?

Essentially, a combination of solar, batteries, and wind power feeds into your own poles and wires, and not into PG&E transmission lines. There could even be room for building one or two additional wind turbines to feed into the microgrid, and opportunities for nearby landfills to provide gas. The prices for power are set by how much it costs to produce energy. To be competitive, microgrids cannot charge more than PG&E.   

Most cities have opportunities in terms of public rights-of-way and excess land around water treatment plants and other facilities that can potentially host microgrids. The microgrids form a basis for a new municipal finance, a new way for cities to fund operations. 

Any recent examples? 

I put together a team and am currently working on a plan to provide power to major customers in the Gonzales Industrial Park, which hosts tenants such as Del Monte Foods, Taylor Foods, and Constellation Wines. These are multi-billion dollar companies with large energy needs. Microgrids are an approach that makes sense and sets them on a path of sustainability. We are now in the final stages of negotiating a public-private partnership, and the key factor for viability, private money, has come to the table. With Phase 1 producing as much as 80 Gigawatt hours (GWh) a year, it would be one of the largest microgrids in California. 

Where can we learn more about energy sustainability?

Over the past several years, I have written several papers about the foundational ideas, recent developments, and analysis of microgrid programs. They can be found here:

What advice do you have for new or mid-career planners?

Think about what draws you in. I always gravitated to long-range planning in private consulting. I started my post-graduate planning career in Sacramento at Mintier-Harnish where I learned about housing elements, general plans, and CEQA. I also worked for the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission and the Monterey County Resource Management Agency’s Long-Range Planning Team. In addition, I worked on the Marine Science Campus Coastal Long-Range Development Plan, the Science Hill Master Plan, and the Silicon Valley Center/NASA Ames Campus Master Plan, all through the University of California. All of these were rewarding experiences. 

It’s good to do both public and private sector work — it rounds you out. The idea that you just stay in one organization or job for 20 years doesn’t fly anymore. Truthfully, I never did that well in public sector offices and their politics. I always wanted to focus on the work, and consulting matched with my personality and work style. You should consider those factors when deciding your path.

Talk about your experience dealing with recession and business cycles. 

It’s important to understand the economics of planning as a business. When the 2008 recession began, it became obvious that housing markets drive city planning. Not entirely, but a lot of it. So when the bottom drops out, there are no consulting jobs, no agency planner jobs. I was lucky because I had a large general plan project underway through 2011 that kept me whole for that time. 

After 2012, there was no work for the year, and it was a pretty tough time for me and for many planners, public and private. I took on temporary work with the County of Monterey for a few years. In 2015, I started getting calls from former clients. Since then, there has been a lot work; however, there is always the possibility of a downturn. Be sure to have enough resources and savings to stay afloat during the hard times, and know the lean times will pass.

Interviewer Catarina Kidd, AICP, is senior development manager at FivePoint and a guest writer for Northern News. All interviews are edited.

Yes, this study found that new housing drives down nearby rents

“But there’s a catch when it comes to SF”

By Adam Brinklow, Curbed San Francisco, January 15, 2020

“Traditional thinking holds that housing shortages drive up prices, and thus creating new housing relieves demand and pushes prices down.

“But in the Bay Area, especially in SF and on the Peninsula, contrary thought holds that factors like inflation and appreciation will always work faster than we can build. Indeed, neighborhood activists often insist that new housing drives rents up by gentrifying new areas and making them attractive to even more high-priced development, at the expense (literally) of existing residents.

“In December, the Upjohn Institute … published findings about the effect of new housing on housing prices in large U.S. cities, including in San Francisco.

“Generally speaking, the results were that for three or so years after a building’s completion, the adjusted effects on rents in the surrounding neighborhood ‘hover[ed] around zero,’ per Zillow data, and then afterward declined, by an average of about five percent.

“The big catch — and the reason why these numbers are unlikely to resolve the arguments in SF — comes in the form of the most common bugbear for any statistical outing: sample size.

“The team started with nearly 1,500 buildings to study. However, after narrowing that pool down with a variety of additional standards, they ended up with just 92.

“And how many of those final buildings were in San Francisco? By the time all was said and done, just one.

“So while this research does suggest that most housing markets react to traditional supply and demand incentives the way one would expect, the possibility that San Francisco (for whatever reason) is a special case remains frustratingly unresolved.”

Read more here.

Growing cities up: California’s SB 50 is a model for addressing the urban housing crisis.

By Christopher S. Elmendorf, Professor of Law, UC Davis, in, January 14, 2020

“Earlier this month, California state senator Scott Wiener began the third year of his push for a state law to override local zoning and authorize midsize apartment buildings near transit stops. The latest version of his bill, SB 50, comes with a twist that augurs well for its passage and eventual impact.

“Longtime residents, especially homeowners, resist neighborhood change. They’re also the dominant force in local politics. The preserve-the-neighborhood norm would be innocuous if it was limited to a few locales, but when all of a metro region’s municipalities throw up barricades to new housing, the cumulative effect is disastrous.

“The ambition of SB 50 is to turn the clock back to an earlier era — not just pre-1970, but before the Great Depression, when single-family homes in growing cities were commonly torn down and replaced by small apartment buildings.”

“Today, the expansion of urban housing stock is basically confined to formerly industrial and commercial zones. The majority of buildable land in major cities remains locked up in the zoning straightjacket. Once a tract has been zoned and developed for single-family homes, it’s stuck.

“To mollify opponents, Wiener has made it clear that his bill would not touch local authority over demolition controls, design standards, permitting procedures, impact fees, and more. But the less that the bill preempts, the easier it will be to evade.

“The new version of SB 50 deftly resolves this dilemma. Instead of immediately ‘up-zoning’ all residential parcels within a half mile of a transit stop — as the prior versions would have done — the bill defines a default zoning ‘envelope’ for these parcels. Local governments will get two years either to accept the default or propose an alternative ‘local flexibility plan’ that creates an equivalent amount of developable space…

“A flexibility plan takes effect only if approved by the state housing department; otherwise, the SB 50 up-zoning kicks in, by default.

“A local flexibility plan must ‘increase overall feasible housing capacity,’ as the new SB 50 declares. To deliver on that goal, the state agency could insist that a flexibility plan put reasonable limits on fees, permitting times, demolition controls, and more.

“California has long been the poster child for housing-policy dysfunction, but the problems facing San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Jose, and San Diego are also playing out in superstar cities across the nation and worldwide.”

Read more here.”