Author: Francine Farrell

Van Ness BRT is finally running. What does it promise?

Van Ness BRT is finally running. What does it promise?

By Earl G. Bossard, April 10, 2022

“When it was first surveyed in 1856, Van Ness was intended to be the City [of San Francisco’s] spine. …Serving as a firebreak after the 1906 earthquake, Van Ness saved the western part of the city. By the 1920s, … Van Ness [became] the west coast’s largest Auto Row. Once the Golden Gate Bridge was built, it shifted toward regional auto travel. … In September 2013, the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit Project, the core of the Van Ness Improvement Project. Construction of the project began in October 2016.” Source: SFMTA)

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority (SFMTA) Van Ness Avenue Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) Project is open after more than five years of construction, and 18 years after voters approved a bond measure to add high-quality bus rapid transit lanes to facilitate faster travel and safer, more pleasant walking on Van Ness Avenue. The project was undertaken simultaneously with massive utility work that replaced water, sewer, gas, and other lines, some more than a century old.

Image of muni bus in BRT lane
Van Ness Avenue BRT. Photo: Earl Bossard

Opening ceremonies for the BRT project included a ribbon-cutting ceremony outside the Veterans War Memorial on April 1. SFMTA Director of Transportation Jeffrey Tumlin introduced Mayor London Breed, State Senator Scott Wiener, and other key federal, state and local players. After Mayor Breed cut the ribbon, attendees were treated to a BRT ride up to Bay Street where we gathered and shared our opinions of the new BRT. I had a brief chat with Tumlin, asking him about the prospects for some ideas for improvements I would be suggesting in this article. (I discuss his responses later.)

Mayor Breed cuts the ribbon. From the left are State Senator Scott Wiener and Van Ness restaurateur Joe Betz. Photo: Earl Bossard.
Mayor Breed cuts the ribbon. From the left are State Senator Scott Wiener and Van Ness restaurateur Joe Betz. Photo: Earl Bossard.

I took three opening-day BRT rides and walked the route for the fourth time during recent months, this time observing reactions to its opening. I noticed BRT buses taking advantage of their center-running restricted transit lanes to avoid delays in the mixed-traffic lanes caused by right-turning motor vehicles. I saw emergency vehicles race down Van Ness in the red BRT lanes, perhaps saving a life or reducing fire damage because of faster responses. The BRT’s promised time-savings were difficult to gauge as motor vehicles passed us while we stopped for passengers and when our bus was climbing uphill. When I asked passengers departing BRT for their reactions, I got this response: “It was much faster and will save me a lot of time on my regular journey to work.”


To evaluate this BRT’s effectiveness, consider what this project was designed to accomplish. SFMTA outlined nine goals for Van Ness Avenue BRT to address citywide needs:

  1. Separate transit from auto traffic to improve travel time and service reliability.
  2. Reduce delays associated with loading and unloading and traffic signals.
  3. Improve the experience for transit patrons.
  4. Improve the safety and comfort of pedestrians
  5. Raise the operating efficiency of Van Ness Avenue.
  6. Upgrade streetscape to support an identity as a rapid transit and pedestrian environment.
  7. Reduce operations costs.
  8. Support the civic destinations on the corridor and integrate transit infrastructure with adjacent land uses.
  9. Accommodate private vehicle circulation and commercial loading.


The SFMTA website highlights the project’s achievements meeting the project’s goals.

“… Major upgrades have been made on Van Ness Avenue [with the new BRT, including] …

  • Eye-catching red lanes, new landscaping, and other improvements that make Van Ness Avenue the place to live, visit, and work …
  • [Improved] transit service that addresses traffic congestion on Van Ness Avenue …
  • Some much-needed work underground [including] … extensive utility maintenance, civic improvements, and safety enhancements that have revitalized this historic corridor …
  • [Added] bulb-outs and median refuge spaces to shorten crossing distances, and extended countdown signals so that those crossing can see how much time they have before the traffic signal changes.
  • … Pedestrian Signals … [are] now located at every crosswalk, and at the locations for boarding platforms …
  • Additional directions [are] provided for people who are low-vision and blind.
  • Buses pull up directly to the curb at boarding islands to allow a smoother boarding experience for all passengers and their mobility needs, as the slope of the ramp is lower.
  • Newly paved sidewalks and bright lighting allow for safer walking or rolling on the corridor.”


While many might agree that the project has improved conditions along Van Ness, consider how this project can be a foundation for eventually making Van Ness a world class example of effective, multimodal, environmentally friendly urban travel in a magnificent place to live, work, or visit. Future modifications could help advance San Francisco’s Transit First priority, adopted in 1973. “The policy — which prioritizes movement of people and goods with a focus on transit, walking, and biking instead of private automobiles — continues to guide [San Francisco’s] efforts amidst rapid growth and change.”

UC Berkeley Professor Robert Cervero contrasted “High End BRT and BRT Lite” to differentiate projects which claim to be BRTs, but fail to deliver the full benefits BRTs can provide. The Van Ness project, for example, has many high-end BRT features: dedicated bus lanes, enhanced shelters, frequent services, smart cards, multi-door loading, and multiple technology features. However, it lacks some high-end features, notably grade separations, integrated local and express services, and off-vehicle fare collection.


The Van Ness Travel Corridor

Curitiba, the Brazilian city that pioneered BRT, has followed a “trinary road system” that uses BRT-dedicated lanes and frontal access roads on the center axis, and parallel roads — a block away on both sides — that carry most of the motor vehicle through-traffic. In a modification of that pattern, San Francisco has parallel one-way streets (Franklin and Gough to the west) that now carry about double Van Ness’s daily traffic. Polk Street, to the east of Van Ness, has new bike lanes.

Van Ness BRT could be extended

Officials cite a 32 percent decrease in travel times expected for BRT transit buses along Van Ness. But this may not be enough to convince large numbers to switch from cars to the BRT. The BRT route is just 2.4 miles long, only slightly longer than the 1.9-mile standard set by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy to qualify a line as a BRT.

If the Muni Route 49 Rapid were extended from the existing Van Ness BRT southward, with a faster direct connection to BART at 16th/Mission, it could make the BRT faster and more competitive with autos.

BRTs could attract visitors arriving at SFO to use transit

Faster BRTs connecting with BART could make using public transit in San Francisco more attractive to visitors arriving at SFO. With the proper incentives they could pick up a Clipper card at the airport instead of a rental car. Only those planning to go beyond the city would need rental cars and could pick them up at fringe locations.

Reducing the number of cars and car trips in the city

The key to meeting many of Transit First Policy’s goals is a continued reduction in the number of automobiles and automobile trips. If this mode shift continues, eventually the right-most vehicle lanes on Van Ness could be eliminated in favor of wider sidewalks and protected two-way bike lanes. (Watch the first 00:01:45 of “Bike way access problems in Davis, CA” to see how protected sidewalk bikeways work in Budapest, Hungary, and could do so in San Francisco.) Van Ness could be transformed into a truly grand promenade such as Barcelona’s lively La Rambla, with entertainers, food carts, and dining.

Reducing truck delivery blockages

Protected sidewalk bike lanes could promote active transportation for longer distances and be used by e-cargo trikes to make deliveries to businesses and apartment buildings along the corridor, reducing the presence of traffic blocking delivery vans that could be diverted to neighborhood transfer/pickup stations. Space could be allocated near BRT stops for double-decked bicycle parking and bike-share stations. Underground bike parking silos, like those in Tokyo, could be installed near major trip generators and bike/scooter stations.

Talking with the chief

I asked SFMTA Director Tumlin about the possibilities of San Francisco adopting a motor vehicle externalities fee such as London, England, is considering. The fee could be incrementally applied and varied according to the air pollution, noise, space, and safety effects (i.e., costs) the vehicle would be expected to impose on San Franciscans. The fee could first apply to fossil-fuel-powered vehicles, and later, and at lower rates, to hybrids and electric vehicles. Tumlin thought the tax would be unlikely to get the required supermajority vote and would not be considered now.

I also asked him if much of the remaining curbside parking along Van Ness could be removed to allow for more pickup, drop-off, or delivery spaces. Some spaces were now provided for these purposes, he said. I believe more attention should be given to the SFMTA goal of accommodating commercial loading by reserving more curbside spaces for it.

Odds and ends

The lack of grade separations used by other high-end BRT systems may increase travel times along the Van Ness corridor, especially at locations with opposing transit movements like Market and Geary/O’Farrell. Transfers there may be more frequent and difficult. Although grade separations would offer significant safety and timesaving benefits, they would be very costly and difficult to provide in constrained urban areas and would take a long time to complete.

Wind protection would enhance the narrow bus stop shelters at BRT stops.

Off-vehicle fare collection and gates could reduce vehicle boarding times and the number of non-paying riders.


Within months we should have data regarding the initial ridership and performance of the Van Ness BRT. It will take longer for post Covid-19 pandemic conditions to stabilize sufficiently for us to determine what modifications could make Van Ness Avenue a truly splendid travel corridor.

As is, the new BRT will attract more users to public transit, advancing San Francisco’s Transit First policy.

Earl Bossard, APA Planner Emeritus Network and SPUR member, has been a California resident since 1972 when he started teaching at San Jose State University’s Department of City and Regional Planning where he is Emeritus Professor. He has been a Research Associate at the Mineta Transportation Institute since its founding in 1991. Bossard spent nine years outside the US, lecturing in 14 countries and riding BRTs in Curitiba, Bogota, Guangzhou, and Istanbul. He served on the City of Davis’s Bicycle, Transportation, and Street Safety Commission and its predecessor for 14 years. Bossard holds a PhD in city and regional planning from Harvard University and an MS and a BS in economics from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

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Find your niche, be strategic, then go for it!
Alex Hinds

Find your niche, be strategic, then go for it!

A guide for students graduating in urban planning

By Alex Hinds

A version of this article previously appeared in “FOCUS 18: Journal of the City and Regional Planning Department, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo,” December 2021.

After being hammered by the Great Recession, Covid-19, a destabilized climate, wildfires, floods, racial and socioeconomic inequities, and potential insurrection, the field for planners, community development specialists, and design professionals has expanded to reflect new realities.

As emerging professionals, you will be far less tethered to either working as a public sector arbiter of often outdated rules or working for the private sector, largely following an outmoded playbook. Planning, its rules, and our behaviors are becoming smarter, fairer, and better. So are retooling to address the compelling issues of the day, tracking what is working (or not), and adapting accordingly.

Despite the very unfortunate circumstances of the past two years, we have seen many promising adaptations, such as enabling more outdoor eating activities and an increased acceptance of working from home offices over the Internet — for those fortunate enough to do so. At the same time, soft skills — active listening, conflict resolution, and cross-cultural empathy — are being increasingly recognized as essential if we are to reach out and engage with each other through an equity-oriented lens.

Are you about to graduate? If so, you will want to carefully consider various internships and whether you will be best suited to work in the public, private, or nonprofit sectors. Ask yourself: Are you looking to land a behind the scene, steady career? Are you after a good pension? Do you trust a mostly market-driven, non-profit, or regulatory approach? Are you hell-bent on changing the rules from the inside? However you answer, most opportunities are likely to be very demanding, and your big career break is likely to come later than sooner.

My big career break came 30 years ago, after stumbling upon San Luis Obispo’s awesome Thursday evening farmers’ market. Higuera Street was closed to cars and abuzz with people buying and selling local food and produce, listening to live music, and hawking their varied beliefs, all just a short walk away from SLO County’s Planning and Building Department offices. Hmm, what a cool place, I thought. A few months later I was driving down from Lake County to begin work as SLO County’s new Director of Planning and Building.

It’s been more than 20 years since I worked for San Luis Obispo County and as a part-time planning instructor at Cal Poly SLO. I benefitted immensely from a learning-by-doing experience in both places and reluctantly moved to new challenges and opportunities elsewhere.

Landing and succeeding at a dream job doesn’t just happen. I suggest researching the local issues and expectations of a position and the place before applying for the job. And avoid long, wordy cover letters and cookie-cutter résumés. Organize your cover letter and résumé to showcase your ability to do the work and achieve the outcomes the employer is seeking. Often the first job out of school is the hardest to land, so be flexible on the location and position.

Time flies, and I have morphed from a young planner/advocate into a planning elder. Perhaps some of what I learned along the way will prove helpful as you seek your niche in the planning profession.

  • Play to your strengths. Where appropriate, volunteer to work above your pay grade.
  • Planning and community development is a team sport. Be respectful to all, and generous with praise.
  • Strive to innovatively address compelling issues and characterize desirable outcomes.
  • Keep current with science as we transition away from fossil fuels. Update policies, codes, and programs accordingly.
  • Pursue awards that showcase your (and your team’s) best work. They help inform the profession.
  • Maintain your credibility and encourage widespread public participation by reaching out and listening to all people, including the underrepresented.
  • Accelerate your learning. Consider purposeful international travel and collaboration, when it’s again safe to do so.

Alex Hinds is the International Co-Director for APA California – Northern Section. He previously co-founded and worked for the Center for Sustainable Communities at Sonoma State University (SSU) and was a planning lecturer at SSU and at Cal Poly, SLO. From 1984 to 2008, he served successively as Planning Director for Lake County, Planning and Building Director for San Luis Obispo County, and Community Development Agency Director for Marin County. Hinds led the award-winning 2007 Marin Countywide Plan update with its trendsetting sustainability and climate implementation programs. You can reach him at

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Meet a local planner: Naphtali H. Knox, FAICP

Meet a local planner: Naphtali H. Knox, FAICP

With 52 years of professional planning experience in multiple states, Naphtali Knox, FAICP, donates significant time to the planning community as editor-in-chief of Northern News since 2005. He was principal and owner of Naphtali H. Knox and Associates for 27 years, retiring in 2009. Prior to that, he was Director of Planning and Community Environment for the City of Palo Alto for nine years. For six years before Palo Alto, he was Director of Physical Planning and Construction at The University of Chicago. Knox’s other prominent roles include University Community Planner for the University of California statewide, Chief of Comprehensive Planning for the City of Des Moines, and construction engineer at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. He has received multiple awards and national recognition for his work and leadership and has served as president of the California Planning Roundtable. He holds a B.Arch from the University of Minnesota and an MCP from the University of Pennsylvania.

Your career experiences are tremendously diverse: the military, cities, universities, consulting, and business owner. What has drawn your attention?

While I always strive to be professional and objective, I am biased toward affordable housing. I recall being interviewed by the Palo Alto Planning Commission before being hired in 1972. One commissioner asked me what I would do for people who can’t afford housing. Even back then, affordable housing was an issue. I created for Palo Alto the first inclusionary housing program in the West, which produced two duplex, for-sale units in a small subdivision. Those were the first four inclusionary units built and occupied in the US (1973).

Your undergraduate degree is in architecture. How did you become interested in planning?

I was a straight-A student but struggled in my architectural studio (design classes). So my professor advised me to eschew a graduate degree in architecture and instead look to that new field, city planning, for my master’s. I was accepted at MIT, Harvard, and Penn, but I was without funds. But Penn offered a full scholarship and an assistantship.

I had been in ROTC at Minnesota and needed permission from the Air Force to go for a master’s. The Air Force OKed the Master’s but ordered me to complete the four-semester program in three semesters. That was hard, really hard. But I owe my career to Penn and my life to the Air Force, as it was in Colorado where I met the woman who would be my wife for going-on 64 years.

What work did you do in your time with the Air Force?

In Colorado Springs, I was responsible at first for reviewing landscape and building plans for the new academy. But in 1958, I became a kind of clerk-of-the-works, representing the Air Force in change-order negotiations among the contractors and the architect, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill.

It was a fantastic experience with a large-scale project. When I arrived at the academy on a freezing February day, giant earthmovers were flattening hilltops and filling in canyons. When I left two years later, building interiors were being finished and serving counters were being moved into the massive dining hall. Congress had allocated $100 million for the campus ($1 billion in today’s money) and set in the legislation that the project must be finished on time — the first class would enter the new campus in 1959 — and within budget. Change orders normally require more time and more money, but the Air Force could offer neither. I learned a lot about finding architectural and construction solutions that wouldn’t require either more time or more money.

I also met and worked with the lead architect of the Air Force Academy, Walter Netsch of SOM. When I later worked for The University of Chicago, starting in 1966, Netsch had just finished designing its magnificent Regenstein Library and became a go-to architect for other university buildings. You never know whom you will meet and later connect with in your life’s journey.

Image of professor sitting at desk at U Chicago 1967 copyWho were the most influential people in your career?

Three professors at UPenn. I was in a class taught by Lewis Mumford, author of The City in History, a 1961 National Book Award winner. In those days, urban design was called civic design. That was my minor, and Mumford was my teacher.

William L.C. Wheaton, who taught housing and emphasized that housing, jobs, and transportation are layers of the same cake. You need a place to live, a job, and a way to go between the two. So when you deal with any land-use issue, you need to slice through — deal with — all three layers. I still visualize that three-layer cake.

Professor Martin Meyerson, who later became acting chancellor at UC Berkeley before returning to Penn as President. He advised me to leave the University of California in 1966 and opened the door for me to interview at The University of Chicago to become their assistant vice president for university community planning. I did that (or tried to) with a staff of three, but in less than a year I became the director of physical planning and construction for the campus — with a staff of 32.

Those early relationships established during graduate school had a significant bearing on my career.

Some early life influences?

Picture of Fourth Street St Paul August 2005 copyI grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, a medium-sized city on the eastern side of the Mississippi River with narrow streets, hills, bluffs, and a waterfront. In hindsight, I was introduced to urban context there. My father worked as a US Post Office mail sorter in a 17-story Art Deco building overlooking rail yards. As a preteen, I would take the trolley from home to downtown to see my dad and look out the window and watch the trains below. I’m sure that the time spent downtown influenced my love of cities.

People may be surprised to know…

At about age 13, I worked as a stock boy at the corner grocery. The stock room was in the basement. I had to carry heavy boxes up to the main floor and stock shelves. When I was at the University of Minnesota, I was on scholarship and needed to raise my own money for school. During one summer, I worked nights as a watchman at a meatpacking plant and days as a runner in a parking lot. It was a difficult time for me.

What is your advice for mid-career planners?

You are not through! Nearing age 40, I thought I was going to be in campus planning forever. I was a founding member of the Society for College and University Planning in 1966. Then, I returned to city planning via Palo Alto, and by age 50, found consulting very fulfilling. Balance how good you are professionally, and how much you can do, with what your weak points are, and you will find something that works for you.

What failures have you had to handle?

After I was planning director, I thought I could get a job as a planner almost anywhere. But the environment for new employment was bad, inflation was super-high, and I couldn’t find anything. So, I grabbed an opportunity to be an affordable housing developer. It wasn’t a very successful leap. I was very depressed and thought that was the end of my career. But 18 months later, Naphtali H. Knox and Associates was born and lasted 27 years.

Tell us more about your turn from depression to owning a business and thriving.

My upturn was helped immensely by a planning contract I won to provide Santa Clara County with housing bond coordinator services. That contract, which was renewed annually for 20 years, was my bread and butter. During that time as a consultant, my firm worked throughout California from Susanville to Petaluma to Walnut Creek to San Diego County, and many cities in between, primarily crafting general and specific plans and housing elements. How important it is to take chances and be humble! You will learn, even in adversity, that you are worthy and resilient.

What’s a great way to enrich one’s skills?

Travel broadly and attend planning conferences, especially mobile workshops, as much as you can. An architecture background made me visually oriented. I traveled with organized groups of planners to Scandinavia and to the USSR. I traveled over the course of four years with the Jewish Federation of San Francisco to consult on planning with two urban communities in Israel. Those trips are broadening and fulfilling. You get to see other places and problems and discover new or different solutions that work. And occasionally you meet a colleague who will become a long-term contact.

What do you do for wellness?

I swim 1500 yards three days a week and work out on upper body weight machines on alternate days. We shouldn’t let ourselves get so deep into our work (and that includes editing Northern News) that we ignore our families or bodies. No deadline, client, or meeting is ever more important. So, take care of yourself and maintain a sense of humor.

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

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The adaptive reuse of commercial space as housing in California

The adaptive reuse of commercial space as housing in California

From PD&R Edge, HUD, March 7, 2022

Demand for office and retail space in commercial buildings is declining with the transition from brick-and-mortar shopping to ecommerce and the increasing appeal of remote work, both of which have been accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic. At the same time, the affordable housing crisis has led policymakers, advocates, and planners to consider commercial space as a new tool in California’s larger strategy to increase housing supply.

To understand the viability and conditions surrounding commercial space conversion, the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley released two studies and hosted a webinar in November 2021 to discuss the findings. The event, “Converting Commercial Lands to Housing: Potential Impact and Promising Models” (one-hour video here), featured a panel moderated by managing director Ben Metcalf. The panelists included Diana Jahns, resident of a commercial-to-residential housing project; Elliot Kwon, graduate student researcher at the Terner Center; Andrew Cussen, developer at Regency Centers; and Tom Pace, director of community development for the City of Sacramento, California.

Image of adaptive reuse of commercial space
Adaptive reuse of commercial space can be appealing to housing developers given common building features, such as high ceilings and large windows that are suitable for loft apartments, which is the case for Warehouse Artist Lofts. Photo credit: Jarrod Affonso

Distribution of commercial land conversions in California

Issi Romem, a Terner Center fellow, presented the findings from the first study, “Strip Malls to Homes: An Analysis of Commercial to Residential Conversions in California,” which offers data on existing conversions across California and models the future of conversions under current policies and development practices. A key finding is that commercial land is ubiquitous, with locations in wealthy and poor areas and the downtowns and peripheries of cities. More specifically, the data show that in the state’s four major metropolitan areas — Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, and San Diego — the conversion rate is higher at the city center and tapers off as distance from the center increases.

Gathering data from 2014 and 2019, the researchers estimate that 10 percent of new housing was constructed on commercial land, with Los Angeles accounting for almost three quarters of these conversions. The researchers and panelists agree that the larger percentage in Los Angeles is due to more permissive legislation, and marketing of the new legislation to developers.

Adaptive reuse of commercial buildings as housing

Although demolitions are the most common type of commercial conversions, panelists were interested in how to encourage developers to choose adaptive reuse of buildings, a more environmentally sustainable option that avoids demolition waste and carbon emissions. The second paper, “Adaptive Reuse Challenges and Opportunities in California,” coauthored by Kwon, found that architectural design, legislative constraints, and economic feasibility are the top three factors affecting adaptive reuse potential. The original building design determines how many units can be included. Many commercial developments were built in the mid-20th century and have design features common to that era that limit the natural lighting and ventilation needed for suitable living space. The high ceilings common to these buildings, however, are an attractive feature that make adaptive reuse ideal for lofts that can serve as live-work residences.

The panelists acknowledged that legislation for rezoning is important to help or encourage housing developers to repurpose commercial space. For example, Los Angeles’ adaptive reuse ordinance, passed in 1999, helped expedite regulation and clarify building and zoning codes. Pace compares the timing of Los Angeles’ legislation with that of Sacramento, whose legislation for by-right conversions was not passed until 2013. Although both cities had active legislation during the study period, Pace argues that Sacramento’s housing produced from commercial space significantly lags Los Angeles because time and effective marketing are needed to see the impact of policy changes.

Image of Warehouse Artist Lofts (WAL)
Warehouse Artist Lofts (WAL) is a commercial to residential housing conversion that offers artist lofts, where residents can live and work remotely in one space. Photo credit: Jarrod Affonso

The panelists also weighed in on the topic of economic feasibility for the future of commercial conversions. Pace explains that in Sacramento, commercial conversions to nonresidential uses are sometimes more desirable because bringing a building up to code for residential use generates higher developmental impact fees. He suggests that state or local jurisdictions eliminate or waive these fees to encourage adaptive reuse for housing. To increase conversions to high-density developments in specific locations, the state can fund needed infrastructure improvements that result from repurposing commercial space. This funding is especially important in high-demand areas, where developers are more motivated to convert existing buildings into larger structures.

Emerging trends, limitations, and opportunities of commercial to residential conversions

Romem argues that even with more permissive legislation, the models show that housing produced on commercial lands would account for only 4 percent of California’s Regional Housing Needs Assessment allocations in the Los Angeles and San Francisco metropolitan regions. Cussen points out that developers may find it more financially advantageous to convert commercial properties into hotel space, package distribution centers, or other industrial uses. Because of this tendency, policymakers and strategists should not rely on converting commercial land as the only housing solution.

Another threat is that the concentration of commercial buildings at the neighborhood level has implications for the geography of wealth distribution following conversions to apartments, which the Sacramento and Los Angeles legislation specifically targets. Romem and colleagues found that, although commercial buildings are located throughout the city, they exist in clusters, and they caution that relying too heavily on conversions as a housing solution [that] could lead to class divisions in which the wealthy live in low-density, single-family residential zones, and the less affluent reside in high-density commercial corridors.

If policymakers are intentional about where adaptive reuse can occur, however, an opportunity exists to revitalize these commercial corridors, which often are also transit corridors. Pace emphasizes the benefit of placing housing where neighborhood resources, such as grocery stores and public transportation, are within walking distance, such as in Sacramento’s WAL, an affordable mixed-use, mixed-income residential building where Jahns resides and works from home as an artist. WAL is a successful adaptive reuse project that aligns with changing needs around the demands for remote work, but it also showcases the role of conversions in meeting affordable housing needs while creating a sense of community at the neighborhood level.

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BOOKS: Evolving community engagement toward the hands and senses rather than the loudest voices

BOOKS: Evolving community engagement toward the hands and senses rather than the loudest voices

Reviewed by Asher Kohn, AICP, April 13, 2022

Photo of Dream Play Build flyer

“Cities are deeply personal,” write James Rojas and John Kamp in the preface of their recently-published book on community engagement, “Dream Play Build: Hands-On Community Engagement for Enduring Spaces and Places.” This simple declaration, that urban planning is about managing senses and emotions as much as it is concerned with geometry and space, is the foundation of an original and thought-provoking book on improving community engagement methodology. The urban form is not just land uses and circulation patterns, of course, it is “individuals who have to compromise through space,” according to the authors. Why not put at the forefront of community engagement the individuals who will be affected by future development and how they will experience the new spaces?

For many planners, community engagement is a system that feels broken. Few schools train their planning students in how to pursue engagement, and as Rojas and Kamp point out, many planners treat engagement like school: brief lectures about planning concepts followed by seminar-style conversations. For academically-trained planners, this may be the most familiar way to talk about about a plan, a project, or the profession. It has diminishing returns, however, especially now, as equity in engagement takes center stage.

Rojas and Kamp recommend that planners instead engage with their senses.

Dream Play Build outlines two engagement programs: model building and site exploration. These programs serve to step back from planning policies and issues and instead allow the community to focus more on emotional reflections. The authors point to “emotions …, moods, and atmospheres” that can be elicited by using abstracted models (hair curlers for buildings and ribbons for bike paths, for example) to represent their neighborhoods, present and future. In their site explorations, the authors ask, “What do you hear? What do you feel? What do you see? What do you smell?” The book gives implementation instructions on how to turn these qualitative feelings into useful planning data, while allowing the community to skip the jargon.

Photo of Found objects, post-Covid Bay Area modelWhereas community engagement may deal with the tools that are needed (to consider infrastructure, for example), the Dream Play Build approach focuses on solutions the community wants to see — “parks that were inviting to a diverse range of residents,” to name one. The crux of their proposal, according to Rojas and Kamp, is that traditional community engagement rewards people who have the time and skill to develop oral arguments and who have mastered the language of planners. The book quotes one transportation planner as saying that “the general town-hall-meeting format” causes people to “double down once they have stated their opinion and it’s been affirmed by others.” By comparison, building models and exploring places lead to consensus on shared experiences — rather than a gradual surrender to the loudest opinions. In many ways, Dream Play Build asks planners to think like activists — advocating and building consensus for a planning solution — rather than as planners forced to defend a side in tense community fights.

This is a radical approach, to be sure. For many of its readers who are professionals, 170 pages may not be enough to convince them to throw out years of engagement practice. Two pages of notes cover Chapters 1  through 5. A deeper bibliography, with more examples to help practitioners, would help to onboard them to Rojas’ and Kamp’s process.

In addition, and perhaps befitting the book’s “Play More, Talk Less” approach, suggestions for online engagement would be helpful. The book criticizes online-first engagement practices, exacerbated, they say, by algorithms that thrive on polarizing communities. It would perhaps have been better to recognize that many jurisdictions require their planners to drive engagement not just in person, but on their laptops and phones as well, and make recommendations accordingly.

“Trust” appears only 11 times in this book, yet it seems to be an underlying theme. If planners trust the communities in which they work — and are “less deterministic and prescriptive,” as voiced by a practitioner in South Colton — the communities will see glimpses of the future they want. Trust begets trust, and by opening engagement to the hands and the senses instead of only to the loudest voices, Dream Play Build proposes a revolution — not just in how community engagement is undertaken, but in the set of skills required to engage those most affected.

This revolution is intimidating. But in fixing a broken system, it may be planners who ought to be intimidated, not the public.

Photo of Asher KohnAsher Kohn, AICP, is a Planner with M-Group. He holds a master’s in city/urban, community and regional planning from the University of Illinois (Chicago), a JD from Washington University (St. Louis), and a BA in history from the University of Maryland. You can reach him at

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With historic federal investment incoming, regions must collaborate on planning

With historic federal investment incoming, regions must collaborate on planning

Editor’s note: This post was originally published on by Adie Tomer, Jennifer S. Vey, and Caroline George on March 10, 2022

Thanks to historic commitments by Congress and resilient local economies, the next five years have the potential to be a grand era of reinvestment in metropolitan America. The American Rescue Plan Act (ARP) and Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) have committed billions of dollars for communities to modernize their infrastructure networks, ranging from older water systems to cutting-edge broadband. Meanwhile, the House and Senate are set to make big bets on innovation-focused growth centers and targeted industries. State and local budgets also performed better than expected through 2020 and 2021, leaving additional fiscal resources available for economic and community development.

Periods of intense investment like this don’t come around often. Communities and the country need projects and policies that deliver transformative, long-term value. That’s where planning comes into the picture.

Most metro areas already have established economic and workforce strategies, transportation plans, and comprehensive housing and land use plans to prioritize what industries to invest in, where to develop real estate, and what infrastructure is needed to connect them. But if metro areas can coordinate those long-range plans around common goals, the chances of delivering lasting value go up. If not, expensive projects could fail to maximize outcomes — or worse, end up working against one another. Either way, a generational opportunity would be wasted.

Unfortunately, there are few existing mechanisms or incentives to encourage this sort of coordination. Even though the federal government formally promotes regional economic strategy-building, there is no requirement that different plans talk to each other. Coordination also isn’t required between state and metropolitan plans, or between plans developed by neighboring jurisdictions within the same metro area. The situation gets considerably more complicated in the country’s largest metro areas, which are home to the most jurisdictions, the most diverse industries, and the widest array of investment alternatives.

The federal government helped start this next great wave of metropolitan capital investment, so it should ensure that investment will be used to best effect. We recommend Congress establish a new planning coordination program within the Economic Development Administration (EDA), which would support local governments and business organizations in metropolitan areas of at least 1 million people to formally integrate objectives and priority projects across multiple long-range plans. For a relative pittance compared to the costs of capital projects, the federal government can incentivize metropolitan partners to develop the coordination template America needs to make good on its investment ambitions.

The bones of America’s planning paradigm are strong. Cities, counties, and special-purpose governments like utilities use tools such as zoning codes and capital budgets to decide where public dollars are spent and attempt to influence where private investments occur. Metropolitan planning organizations and councils of government convene local governments to plan regional investments, particularly interjurisdictional transportation like highways and transit lines. The private and civic sectors play a role too, often working with local governments to design long-range economic development strategies, including how to deliver more inclusive career pathways, what big bets to make on innovative industries, or drafting master plans for specific districts.

The federal government is also an established partner in many planning exercises. Since 1991, federal surface transportation law mandates that metro areas designate a regional government to lead transportation planning and, at least every five years, develop a long-range transportation plan. Laws administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) mandate the creation of three- to five-year consolidated plans to qualify for agency grants. The Department of Commerce and the EDA use the certification of a Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) or equivalent plan every five years to qualify for a range of EDA grants. The Department of Labor funds workforce development boards to define and act on regional workforce priorities. And these are just a sampling of federal planning requirements.

Yet for all the planning taking place, there is often little coordination among these various processes, and the result is formal plans that often directly contradict one another. In some cases, those contradictions may occur between the local and regional levels. This is the case when a regional entity like the Association of Bay Area Governments in metropolitan San Francisco wants to build more housing, but locality after locality limits housing construction. In other instances, the conflict may be within different planning documents written by the same local government or regional entity; for example, most large American cities have been unable to match their land use and development practices to their climate goals. Even timing can be a conflict: A metro area’s major planning cycles can fall on different years, with different offices and staff leading them, making coordination all the more difficult.

This is a missed opportunity. With so much complementarity between infrastructure, real estate, and economic and workforce development, making sure formal plans talk to one another can increase the odds that metropolitan development leads to agreed-upon outcomes—advancing particular industry sectors, for example, or enhancing local commercial corridors. That means ensuring that policies and strategies identified in these plans—focused on businesses, transit, land use, education, marketing, parks and public space, etc.—are aligned toward these specific ends.

Now is an ideal time to support this kind of coordination with federal incentives. The federal government knows this is a good idea — it’s why HUD, the EDA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Transportation all run offices and programs to promote the concept. Even the Government Accountability Office has affirmed the need, particularly within economic development. The federal government also has the regulatory power to compel regional and local actors to work together across different disciplines. What regions require are the resources and staff time to help them do it — and the mandate to make it multiple people’s job. Now, with EDA reauthorization conversations starting in Congress, there is a legislative vehicle to address the need.

The new EDA planning coordination program we propose would provide grants to support staffing resources within those entities responsible for regional planning. Since CEDS already includes industrial and infrastructure goals, CEDS authors within a given metro area could be the primary recipient(s) and make sub-awards to transportation, housing, workforce, and other regional planning entities. The grants would cover staff time to regularly convene regional actors, coordinate with the public (including a steering committee), and revise formal plans. The core output of the program would be evidence of those revisions, including adjustments to overarching goals, capital projects, and other policies.

Ideally, Congress would help the EDA improve its staffing to support these new regional activities. Staff in the EDA’s regional offices are vital conduits for explaining how federal programs work, sharing best and failed practices from across the country, and communicating needs back to EDA headquarters. Likewise, the EDA’s Washington, D.C. office should receive more staffing to consolidate all the lessons and experiences into a common knowledge hub for nonparticipating regions, smaller places, or peers across the economic development and research communities.

Some metropolitan leaders are already experimenting with new ways to merge regional planning and major investments. In Kansas City, the bistate KC Rising initiative between Missouri and Kansas brings together the business, government, and civic communities to align their efforts around seven common pillars. And the multisectoral board of the Greater Portland Economic Development District in the Pacific Northwest used their CEDS process to formally adopt a new set of integrated values and principles. These are the kinds of emerging models that a new EDA program can support — and that the EDA should seek, collect, and share with other regions to inform their planning work.

Congress should finish the job it started when it approved historic levels of investment in metropolitan America by supporting a coordination program like the one recommended here. Planning is far cheaper than capital projects or tax incentives — and it is money well spent if it ensures physical investments lead to better projects with better outcomes that advance regional prosperity, resiliency, and opportunity.

Adie Tomer is a Senior Fellow at Brookings Metro. Jennifer S. Vey is a Senior Fellow at Brookings Metro and Director of the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Center for Transformative Placemaking. Caroline George is a Senior Research Assistant at Brookings Metro.

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How cap-and-trade keeps people in their homes in East Oakland

How cap-and-trade keeps people in their homes in East Oakland

Podcast, April 6, 2022

The California cap-and-trade program is building up cash while lowering carbon emissions. Next City looks at one way the money is being put to use [in East Oakland].


Photo of Next City webinar copyCalifornia’s cap-and-trade program collected more than $2 billion from polluters in 2021 alone, and cities are using that money for a range of programs, including one in Oakland that sends counselors to help people stay in their homes.

[Essentially, cap-and-trade is a tax on carbon emissions. Thirty-five percent of cap-and-trade money must go to disadvantaged communities through a competitive grant process. “Disadvantaged” refers to those disproportionately affected by air pollution. The money can be used for amenities, some of which might cause “climate gentrification.”]

The Oakland initiative — Better Neighborhoods, Same Neighbors — targets a five-square mile neighborhood for $28 million in improvements, including a 1.2-mile-long community trail, expanded bike-share, 2,000 trees, and the creation of one of the largest urban aquaponics farms in the country.


In this [32 min.] podcast, Next City Executive Director Lucas Grindley talks with Housing Correspondent Roshan Abraham about his story on the team of housing counselors dispatched to ensure that those improvements don’t lead to the displacement of East Oakland residents.”

[$846,000 of the $28 million will go to the team, which has a goal of contacting 14,000 people by the end of the Better Neighborhoods four-year grant cycle. The team wants to empower East Oakland residents by making them aware of resources available, and showing them how to navigate the system. The counselors support tenants who receive eviction notices and help them respond to summonses (140 currently need such support). The team also conducts tenants rights workshops and offers legal cafes and housing cafes.]

[In the podcast, we] meet one of the counselors, Bee Coleman with East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative [EBPREC]. One resident told Coleman that she felt the housing counselors had answered her prayers and ‘you were sent by God.’

“That was her takeaway after having been alone, literally, in the fight for years, and feeling like she did not have support,” said Coleman.

You can listen to this half-hour episode on Apple or Spotify, or via megaphone here.

Republished with permission. Bracketed paragraphs are paraphrased from the podcast.


Read in greater detail in Next City an earlier 4 min. piece by Roshan Abraham, “How Oakland anti-displacement advocates use carbon emissions cash.”

The Chronicle covers how an East Oakland grass-roots effort is using money from the same $28 million to help residents tackle climate problems. Planting Justice, along with Oakland’s Parks and Recreation Foundation, is currently working to plant 1,000 fruit trees at residences. The effort is part of the Community Greening project, which aims to plant a total 2,000 trees in the next two years.

Return to Northern News here.


Strategies to promote affordable commercial space in cities

Strategies to promote affordable commercial space in cities

When it comes to helping small businesses find and develop commercial space in which they can succeed and thrive, affordability, accessibility, and supporting collaboration are key.

By Patricia Voltolini, Melissa Kim, David M. Greenberg, Julia Duranti-Martinez, and Michelle Harati in Next City, March 14, 2022

The following is an excerpt fromEquitable Pathways to Small Business Recovery: An All-Hands Approach,” a playbook that offers a framework for paving equitable pathways to small business success, and concrete strategies for supporting capital access, small business capacity, and commercial real estate. This project is a collaboration between Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) and Next City, supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Download a complete copy of the playbook to read more.

Even prior to the pandemic, finding affordable commercial space posed significant challenges to small businesses. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance found that average commercial rent increases can range from 7 percent to 26 percent annually, with higher increases in dense, walkable neighborhoods. Among the reasons for skyrocketing commercial rents is the preference among many real estate developers and lenders for a single large tenant — often national chains. In this environment, small business revenues frequently cannot keep pace with rising rents, and purchasing commercial buildings — which can help protect tenants from sudden rent increases — is also often prohibitively expensive for small businesses.

Many small businesses that managed to remain open through the pandemic are struggling to pay rent. The Federal Reserve found that 43 percent of small employer firms experienced challenges paying rent in 2020, with BIPOC-owned firms more likely to report difficulties than white-owned firms. Though no national estimate of commercial rent arrears exists, recent research suggests that 46 percent of businesses with annual revenues under $100,000 are one or more months behind on rent, compared to 36 percent of larger firms. Commercial rent arrears have the potential to set off a wave of evictions of BIPOC tenants, with devastating effects on the finances of individual entrepreneurs and the communities that depend on their services.

The pandemic has also rapidly accelerated a decade-long rise in commercial vacancies propelled by online retail and shifts to online and home-based work in some industries. In addition to these challenges, hot-market cities such as New York and San Francisco already struggled with high storefront vacancies resulting from property warehousing, where building owners hold properties empty in the hope of eventually securing high-paying tenants. In the wake of COVID-19 closures, retail vacancies nationwide are projected to rise, with significant implications for commercial corridors and business districts. Pervasive vacancies are linked with decreased property values, trash accumulation, pests, and fire risks. Particularly along commercial corridors, high rates of vacancies can reduce foot traffic and sales for remaining businesses, contributing to more closures.

In contrast, practitioners noted that in many rural areas, commercial space is often scarce, and the few available buildings often require substantial rehabilitation and environmental remediation — costs that are out of reach for entrepreneurs with limited capital. These challenges are further compounded for tribal nations, where centuries of federal policy depriving Native communities of their lands have both limited development and created complexities in land tenure and permitting requirements that make it difficult for entrepreneurs to secure commercial leases or use land as collateral for loans.

With federal CARES Act and American Rescue Plan Act funds, as well as potential new investments in physical and human infrastructure outlined in the $1 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and $3.5 trillion Congressional budget proposal, local governments have an opportunity to advance transformative policies that fight commercial displacement, preserve existing spaces, and develop new affordable spaces and community ownership opportunities for BIPOC-owned small businesses.


To stave off commercial evictions, some cities provided commercial rent relief as part of their emergency small business assistance during the pandemic. For example, the City of Pittsburgh provided grants of up to $3,000 to landlords who agreed to reduce rents for 3-6 months for commercial tenants. The State of Oregon used a portion of its federal CARES Act allocation and state general funds to commit $100 million for small business support statewide, including commercial rent relief. Property owners were eligible to receive up to $100,000 per commercial tenant, conditioned on forgiving all back rent and fees and not evicting commercial tenants after receiving funds. In northwestern Ohio, the Greater Toledo Small Business Stabilization Fund leveraged public, private, and philanthropic dollars to provide emergency grants of up to $10,000 for small businesses to pay operating costs incurred during the pandemic, including rent.

Dinette world image
Dinette World. Photo: Brian Crawford, CC by 2.0

Some cities are considering longer-term solutions to curb high commercial rents and vacant property warehousing. The New York City Council passed legislation in 2019 to create a vacant storefront registry and recently held a hearing on commercial rent regulation, a longtime priority for advocates fighting small business displacement. Just before the pandemic, San Francisco voters approved a ballot measure to impose a tax on commercial properties kept vacant for more than six months, while Washington, D.C., has had a similar law in place for nearly a decade that applies to both commercial and residential properties.

Along with commercial rent relief and anti-vacancy measures, cohort members noted many opportunities for local governments to support the wide spectrum of space needs small businesses have throughout their life cycles, from providing free temporary access to public space to facilitating permanent ownership of commercial buildings, as described below.


Temporary space can help entrepreneurs build an initial client base and grow their business as they transition to a longer-term lease or permanent space. To support this early-stage entrepreneurship, local governments can work with community partners to identify and access free spaces, and provide grants to coordinating organizations. For example, Duluth’s American Indian Community Housing Organization hosts the Indigenous Food & Art Market in the One Roof Community Housing parking lot. As one cohort member described, “Our Indigenous entrepreneurs started with a winter market, and from there, we have seen those businesses really start to grow and to develop.” A similar initiative in Portland, Oregon, the Portland Indigenous Marketplace, has supported Indigenous artists and entrepreneurs with a collaborative, culturally respectful environment and free vendor space at local nonprofit parking lots. After a year of successful events, the organization received a grant from the county government and incorporated as a nonprofit, and transitioned to hosting virtual marketplaces during the pandemic.


Cohort members described opportunities to support nonprofit partners and small businesses in purchasing commercial spaces as a long-term solution to commercial displacement. The Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA) in San Francisco, for example, has used funding from the City of San Francisco Small Sites program to support both affordable housing and commercial and cultural preservation efforts in the Mission District, a historically Latinx neighborhood experiencing rapid gentrification. So far, MEDA has preserved 100,000 square feet of commercial space in the District, which it rents out at below-market rates to neighborhood businesses and organizations. The organization is now exploring ways to help small businesses directly acquire their own spaces, as part of a community ownership and wealth-building strategy.

Local governments can also support the development of small business incubators that provide below-market rents, shared common spaces, and access to support services. The Beaver Street Enterprise Center in Jacksonville provides offices to 48 small businesses at below-market rents, including access to free event and meeting spaces. As a nonprofit, Beaver Street offers flexibility to small businesses experiencing cash-flow problems and did not evict any tenants during the pandemic. The organization also provides free coaching, trainings, and networking events to its tenants as well as a broader network of entrepreneurs. Change Labs, a Native-led nonprofit based in the Navajo and Hopi nations, leads a small business incubator that supports Native entrepreneurs on tribal lands. The program creates annual cohorts of 20 entrepreneurs that receive intensive coaching, mentoring, and peer support, along with co-working and meeting spaces. Entrepreneurs who complete the program are also eligible for a $10,000 loan to seed their business.


Community ownership models balance anti-displacement goals with wealth-building strategies, and foster meaningful community decision-making over development. Often used for permanently affordable housing, community land trusts (CLTs) can also steward commercial properties and lease spaces at below-market rents to small businesses. The Rondo Commercial Land Trust Project in St. Paul, Minnesota, offers over 9,000 square feet of affordable commercial space, and seeks to retain, stabilize, and promote small, BIPOC- owned businesses along a major commercial corridor in the historically Black Rondo neighborhood. The CLT currently has six commercial tenants, includes affordable housing in its portfolio, and shoulders a larger share of costs than typical commercial property owners.

Commercial real estate or investment cooperatives can also offer affordable space to small businesses while providing wealth-building and leadership opportunities to BIPOC community members. The East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative (EBPREC) is piloting a mixed-use development with 6,000 square feet of commercial space at below-market rents for BIPOC-owned startups, with a focus on arts and cultural spaces, as part of a community-led effort to revitalize a historically Black cultural and economic corridor in West Oakland, California. As the EBPREC’s first commercial acquisition, the project will be cooperatively owned and financially supported by community shareholders. The Community Investment Trust (CIT) in Portland, Oregon, is pursuing a similar model by providing opportunities for low- to moderate-income residents to own commercial real estate collectively in their neighborhoods. The CIT’s first project was an underutilized commercial retail mall in southeast Portland that was only 66 percent occupied. Since the CIT’s acquisition, the mall is now 95 percent leased and houses over 25 mostly BIPOC-owned small businesses and nonprofits.


The following principles apply to all of the strategies listed here for promoting affordable commercial space in cities.

Be intentional

Practitioners emphasized that commercial rent relief should be targeted to small, locally owned businesses in sectors hardest hit by the pandemic. Pittsburgh limited its commercial rental assistance grants to locally owned commercial tenants with 15 or fewer employees, while Oregon’s program focused on businesses with fewer than 100 employees. The Greater Toledo Small Business Stabilization Fund focused its grantmaking on hard-hit industries like retail, food and drink, and child care, as well as BIPOC-, women-, and veteran-owned businesses and those located in low- and moderate-income Census Tracts.

Second Street, Eureka image
Second Street, Eureka, California. Photo: Jan Kronsell, June 2006

Local governments can also work with community partners to map available commercial spaces that suit a variety of small business needs, including underutilized city-owned sites, and develop criteria for development and disposition that prioritize BIPOC-owned small businesses and commercial corridors in BIPOC neighborhoods. For example, the Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA) rents its commercial space in San Francisco’s Mission District to small businesses based on four criteria: social impact, commitment to local hiring, offering affordable products/services, and local ownership. MEDA’s business development team and CDFI work with each prospective commercial tenant to develop business models and occupancy agreements that suit their needs.

Be inclusive in strategy development and implementation

Local governments can collaborate with BIPOC entrepreneurs and community-based organizations that know their neighborhoods to identify potential spaces, assess the range of small business tenancy needs, and work with partners to support commercial development models that are responsive to the community’s needs. MEDA convenes a 20-organization collaborative that partners with the City of San Francisco to develop comprehensive community development initiatives in the Mission District that prioritize anti-displacement and cultural placekeeping of longtime Latinx residents, small businesses, and community-serving organizations.

Practitioners also emphasized that these collective efforts are most impactful when they provide meaningful leadership and community ownership opportunities for BIPOC entrepreneurs and community stakeholders. For example, the Community Investment Trust in Portland, Oregon, began by surveying low and moderate-income residents in East Portland about their financial preferences, which identified real estate investment as a priority. The coordinating organization, Mercy Corps, then convened a larger team of volunteers and pro bono technical assistance providers to work with residents on building out the investment trust model and to identify a suitable site for the trust’s first acquisition. Shareholders build equity through investing $10-$100 per month in the CIT, and must reside in the project’s neighboring zip codes, which helps keep wealth and decision-making power in the community.

Ensure program accessibility

Noting the challenges that BIPOC-owned small businesses experienced in accessing PPP funds, practitioners emphasized that local governments should prioritize getting commercial rental assistance and other emergency small business funding out the door quickly. Developing application questions and requirements that are not overly burdensome, having enough staff who are trained in analyzing applications efficiently and can support applicants throughout the process, and using accessible technology are all critical components of infrastructure for disbursing funds. Partnerships can help provide this infrastructure. The Greater Toledo Small Business Stabilization Fund pooled resources from KeyBank and Jumpstart, CARES Act Emergency Block Grant funds via the City of Toledo, the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, and ProMedica, while LISC Toledo managed the application and grant distribution process. LISC Toledo offered the short grant application in 14 languages, and did not require any documentation from applicants unless they were selected for awards.

Even when local governments commit resources to small businesses for commercial acquisition and space improvements, practitioners noted that BIPOC- owned small businesses rarely have the capital to front the costs for this work and wait for local governments to reimburse them. Providing up-front financing and having dedicated, knowledgeable staff who can accompany small businesses through the acquisition or rehabilitation process are critical for ensuring access.

Level the playing field by addressing capacity needs for deployment

Practitioners identified a need for more public funding to support acquisition and rehabilitation, and to subsidize below-market rents for commercial spaces. Said one cohort member:

So many banks and funders are interested in funding programs, which is good—programs are important. But space is important too. We have space that we need to build out; we could make more space. It’s a matter of getting the funding for that.

Acquisition and rehabilitation financing is just as important in rural areas and smaller towns as it is in hot-market cities. Practitioners shared that many rural areas do not have much available commercial space, and existing structures may require significant rehabilitation and environmental remediation in order to be usable. Practitioners recommended that local governments combine federal SBA funding, New Markets and other tax credits, and American Rescue Plan funds, as well as create their own acquisition funds for nonprofit partners. In smaller towns, practitioners suggested a pooled fund at the county or multi-county level. In addition to providing financing and technical assistance, local governments could consider opportunity-to-purchase policies for commercial properties, similar to residential opportunity-to-purchase policies in place in Washington, D.C. and San Francisco, which give tenants a first shot at buying their building when landlords sell.

Practitioners also emphasized the importance of resources for staff and support services alongside funding for space. The value that community partners can offer goes beyond affordable rents to providing a supportive environment for entrepreneurs to stabilize and grow their businesses. As one practitioner illustrates:

The incubator setting is one where you have access to space, support, and safety under the same roof. And it’s really important as it allows entrepreneurs to automatically access the ongoing resources that are provided in the space and learn continuously while also allowing the TA [technical assistance] provider to remain on top of what the small businesses’ needs are so it can respond appropriately.

Set up a monitoring process with accountability mechanisms

In addition to tracking indicators that capture the extent to which commercial rent relief and affordable commercial space are actually reaching hardest-hit BIPOC-owned small businesses, practitioners recommended including criteria that evaluate broader community benefit, community ownership, and wealth-building opportunities.

This article was originally published in Next City, March 14, 2022. Republished with permission.

The authors work at Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC). They are Patricia Voltolini, a Senior Research Associate; Melissa Kim, the Senior Program Officer for Capacity Building; David M. Greenberg, Vice President of Knowlege Management and Strategy; Julia Duranti-Martinez, Program Officer for Capacity and Research; and Michelle Harati, Senior Program Officer, LISC Policy.

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Listening Sessions: APA and CPR want to hear from you

Listening Sessions: APA and CPR want to hear from you

The housing crisis is worsening and getting more complex. How can planners lead effectively while preventing the displacement of our neighbors?

The California Planning Roundtable and APA California want to hear from the state’s APA members, via the California Chapter’s Sections, about how the last few years of legislative land-use efforts have affected them personally and in their professional settings. Ultimately, Cal Chapter and the Roundtable will also seek strategies to realize housing affordability and prevent or mitigate displacement, including concerns about, and ideas for, implementing recent housing bills. CPR hopes to synthesize information from across the state to share at the Chapter’s conference in the fall; to use that data to inform the Chapter’s stance on housing and land use legislation; and potentially to create agency for the Chapter to assist the legislative process. The current effort is to learn how the legislation and its implementation are affecting professionals and their workplaces statewide.

Listening sessions on Providing Homes for People

In an effort to address California’s tremendous housing crisis and the effects of historically low housing production and continuing high housing demand, California’s political response over the last several years has been to enact numerous bills. These include SB 35, SB 330, AB 2162, SB 8, SB 9, SB 10, and increasing opportunities for ADUs. In general, the legislation has required local agencies to alter their traditional processes and discretionary project review for single-family zoning and environmental review, potentially decreasing development fees. While these bills work toward addressing supply and fast-tracking housing (especially those projects with affordable components), they do not sufficiently address (except through longer-term supply pipelines) concerns about housing affordability and security, gentrification and displacement, and equitable community benefits. In addition, entrenched bureaucratic and political perspectives continue to challenge affordable housing development, not to mention market speculation.

California’s planners are at the center of ensuring that implementing these bills will deliver real results, even in the face of local political opposition to the changes in process dictated by state mandates. This presents a challenge to and an opportunity for California’s planners to help rethink local government systems and processes in light of the state’s tremendous need for affordable housing, but it has come at a cost for practicing planners.

CPR’s series of listening sessions is designed to ask, and to learn from, planners throughout California about how these pieces of legislation are affecting them, their workplaces, and their concerns and hopes as we implement these bills.

The Roundtable and Cal Chapter hope to ask:

  1. As a planner, how do you feel about the fact that the state is in a housing crisis? As leaders in land use, what can APA California do to support you in addressing this crisis?
  2. How has the new state housing legislation affected your workplace and the agencies you staff?
  3. What challenges do you face, and what opportunities do you see in your professional work when you try to address housing and equity issues?
  4. How can we as planners ensure that this new legislation will prevent displacement to the extent possible and will be implemented in a way that directly advances APA’s goals for affordability and equity, while also improving infrastructure and sustainability?
  5. How can the planning profession learn and respond in a way that highlights our relevance and ability to solve local, regional, and statewide land use and housing problems?  

In order to broadly identify the opportunities and challenges in implementing the last several years of housing and land use bills, the California Planning Roundtable is co-sponsoring this effort with APA California and each of its local sections to collect, synthesize, and distribute the comments received during the listening sessions. The Roundtable will then work with APA California leadership to look at ways to use the information in both legislation and implementation.

Proposed agenda for the listening sessions

The following is a proposed agenda for each Section to follow. Remember that the point of these sessions is specifically to solicit planners’ thoughts and in a consistent approach across all sections. We anticipate sessions lasting two hours. The comments should be recorded and consolidated by the hosts and shared after the meetings.

  1. Introduction of topic and facilitators. Discuss intent to share at conference. 15 minutes.
  2. Overview of legislation (“Lite.” This is not a presentation of or on the legislation, rather we are soliciting attitudes about the legislation). Create presentation handout for this. 20 minutes.
  3. Facilitated discussion to go through the questions one at a time. Let silence fall if needed. Don’t fill in blanks. Let folks think. If a section has a large number of participants (more than 10-15), break into discussion “rooms” to report back to the whole group. Allow 20 minutes for the first two questions, then report back to the group. Allow 15 minutes for the second set of questions, then report back. Keep 10 minutes solely for the last question, then report back. 75 minutes total.
  4. Any last remarks and questions can be sent via email. Thank you and adjourn.


Interested Northern Section planners should contact Director-elect Michael Cass. General questions should be directed to Miguel A. Vazquez, AICP.

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Lisbon’s Walkability

Lisbon’s Walkability

Cynthia F. Campbell, director for International and Philanthropic Innovation in HUD’s Office of Policy Development & Research, reflects on transit in Lisbon, Portugal, and the importance of home, April 4, 2022. Republished with permission.

Recently, during my first international vacation since the pandemic began, I visited Lisbon, the capital city of Portugal. I was struck not only by the city’s architectural beauty but also its walkability. I found wide avenues with dedicated bike lanes and broad sidewalks for pedestrians. The historic city center along the waterfront was closed to automobiles, allowing for safe and enjoyable strolling. Lisbon’s historic tram system has been operating since 1873, and it was interesting to see the array of streetcars still in use. A robust tuk-tuk business, targeted mainly to tourists, made transportation around the city easily accessible.


Photo of Cindy Campbell
Cynthia Campbell, Director of PD&R’s International and Philanthropic Affairs Division.

I became fascinated with the intricate designs adorning the city’s sidewalks and historic plazas, so I researched the topic and found this very interesting New York Times article that discusses their history and how the city is maintaining them. The Lisbon City Council established a paving school in 1986 that trains pavers, or calceteiros, to maintain and install new pavement designs. The article notes that the school has trained 224 calceteiros since its founding. When you stroll through Lisbon, these intricate patterns and designs make you feel as though you are in an art gallery.


Photo of pavement in Lisbon
Lisbon is notable for its walkability and generous pedestrian areas. Photo credit: Cynthia Campbell

I also noted the city’s ubiquitous bike lanes. During the pandemic, Lisbon increased its network of bike lanes from 65 miles to 124 miles. I noticed that these bike lanes are protected from automobile traffic by barriers, curbs, or complete separation. Lisbon is very bike friendly, and I noticed hundreds of cyclists zipping around the city, especially during commuting hours.


Photo of bike path in Lisbon
De-emphasizing automobile traffic allows space for not only pedestrians but also bicycles. Photo credit: Cynthia Campbell

I am a retired naval officer, and I was traveling with some former Navy shipmates. While in Lisbon, we visited another former naval officer who is retired and living permanently in Lisbon. During his time in the Navy, this officer taught at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, and one of his former students was a Ukrainian naval officer. When Russia recently invaded Ukraine, he reached out to his former student to offer assistance. The Ukrainian naval officer accepted this generous offer and asked the retired officer if he could house his mother and son as well as his sister and her daughter. The Ukrainian naval officer’s wife also serves in the Ukrainian Navy, and his sister’s husband is in the military as well. The retired officer took in the Ukrainian’s entire family.

Photo of Lisbons tram system
Lisbon’s historic tram system has been operating since 1873, while tuk-tuks (pictured in front) provide tourists with an easy way to see the city. Photo credit: Cynthia Campbell

We were able to host the family for dinner with lots of hugs and support. With the help of Google Translate, we heard them describe their harrowing journey to Lisbon. The home of the officer’s mother was destroyed, and the family members could take only one bag each with them during their harrowing escape. The mother even showed us some video that she filmed as she was leaving her home. It was horrifying to see and hear the firsthand story of her escape from Ukraine.

The good news is that the family is adjusting well to their new home in Lisbon with the generous support of our friend and his family. Fortunately, they have enough room and, more importantly, large enough hearts to take in this amazing family. I’m sure that the Ukrainian naval officer is relieved to know that his family is safe and in good hands with his former U.S. Navy officer.

All in all, it was a great visit to Lisbon!

This article originally appeared in HUD USER, PD&R Edge. Republished with permission. You can view the original article here.

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