Author: Francine Farrell

Markets, machas, and municipalities: a planner’s walking tour of Santiago

Markets, machas, and municipalities: a planner’s walking tour of Santiago

By Veronica A. Flores, June 21, 2022

With encouragement from loved ones and the blessing of my supervisor, I embarked on a three-month sabbatical earlier this year through Argentina, Chile, and Peru. My goals were simple: complete a volunteer project, practice Spanish, explore, and eat good food. I was nervous because I had never been away from home for so long, but the challenge made the experience that much more rewarding.

My schedule allowed me to linger in places for longer and travel to cities and towns that tourists usually skip. It also gave me a chance to meet with locals and to get a stronger sense of Santiago, the capital of and largest city in Chile (metro population 7,000,000). I appreciated discovering and returning to my favorite markets or restaurants, eating one of my new favorite appetizers of machas a la parmesana, and people-watching in the plazas, including Plaza de Armas and Plaza Baquedano. I stayed just a few blocks from Cerro Santa Lucia (Santa Lucia Hill) which provides a 360-degree view of the city.

Santiago from Santa Lucia Hill

I frequented the parks with a picnic lunch and a book, and enjoyed walking through and sitting in all the different paseos including Paseo Bandera with its nearly four blocks of rainbow-colored pavement swirls (image later).

Looking back at my varied experiences, one standout was meeting with local professionals: Northern Section’s International Planning Directors, Hing Wong, FAICP, and Alex Hinds, provided me with an email introduction to David Silva and Roberto Moris, two members of PLANRED.

Roberto Moris, left, is a professor of architecture at Escuela de Arquitectura & Estudios Urbanos UC. David Silva, right, is a practicing lawyer with Correa & Silva Abogados.

PLANRED stands for “Red de Planificadores de Chile,” or “Planners Network of Chile.” It is the APA equivalent in Santiago. Wong, Hinds, Silva, and Moris previously collaborated on a virtual series, “COVID-19 Conversations,” which discussed how different countries were responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Silva and Moris first met while working for the government and they aren’t practicing planners. But they have taken leadership roles in PLANRED, which emphasizes the relationship between planning and other fields.

After I shared that I was interested in learning about the “real” Santiago and eating local dishes, what started as a lunch turned into an impromptu walking tour. We started in the Lastarria neighborhood, known for its restaurants and lively nightlife. It was very walkable, with a mix of restaurants, shops, hotels, some residential buildings, and the Museo de Visual Artes.

Jose Victorino Lastarria historic area

The northernmost end of the neighborhood’s main street, Jose Victorino Lastarria, ends in a mini-alley closed to cars. Different vendors line the alley 24/7. A 10-minute walk got us across the Mapocho River to Mercado Tirso de Molina, a local market and food hall, which we reached via a shortcut through the busy, very crowded, and tourist-oriented La Vega Central just across the street.

During our walk, I noticed a change in the type of architecture and the height of the buildings we passed. David and Roberto pointed out a building that was modeled after a ship, with “port windows.” At Mercado Tirso de Molina, I learned there is no “must-try” Chilean dish. David and Roberto explained that traditional Chilean food is really just Peruvian food, and we all ordered ceviche. (I was in both Chile and Peru during this trip, and I enjoyed the ceviche in Chile much more than in Peru.)

After lunch, we made our way towards the historic city center. We passed a number of interior malls — I presumed the indoor shops provided an escape from extreme heat or weather. But the Mapocho River looked about as dry as some California reservoirs, so the shops could not have been a refuge from rain. It turns out that these galerías were formerly aqueducts. Walking around, I saw that various buildings were connected by a number of canals-turned-malls. I later used some of these galerías as sheltered shortcuts.

Paseo Bandera, a popular pedestrian street

We walked along the rainbow-colored path of Paseo Bandera, where I learned that the beautiful pavement was never meant to be permanent. It seems Bandera Street, located near the main plaza and the city government palace, was closed to traffic while the Santiago Metro was under construction. During that time, the four-block stretch was converted into a temporary pedestrian promenade. As construction neared completion, locals, including the mayor, realized they enjoyed the pedestrian promenade too much to allow it to revert to a busy street. Eventually, enough support was gathered, along with funding, to make this a permanent installation (video 2:19) with a grand opening in 2018. I had walked along the colorful street before, not knowing it was the result of community effort.

Another interesting tidbit I learned from David and Roberto: Santiago comprises a number of municipalities, and each municipality has its own mayor and makes its own rules. This came up as we were walking northbound along La Paz, a main thoroughfare straddling the Independencia and Recoleta municipalities. I saw a lot of potential for street improvements along this main thoroughfare, but the mayors of the two municipalities could not agree on what to do.

Santiago municipalities. Credit: Osmar Valdebenito, CC BY-SA 2.5

We had gone only a few blocks from the bustling business neighborhood of Bandera Street, but I could see and feel the change as we walked towards the Recoleta and around La Vega Central. Recoleta was very colorful and vibrant, despite a number of what appeared to be abandoned buildings. I saw real potential and was surprised that past rehabilitation efforts did not pan out. That emphasized for me how the existence of so many different municipalities within Santiago made it hard to realize some building developments and street improvements, especially where projects straddle municipal boundaries.

Our walking tour concluded near Plaza de Armas, Santiago’s main central square. Before parting, David and Roberto showed the path of our walking tour on one of the brass maps embedded in the plaza pavement.

Santiago map on pavement of Plaza de Armas

I had joined a handful of walking tours during my sabbatical, but this one with David and Roberto was my favorite. Both graciously shared their time and knowledge and encouraged me to ask about what I was seeing. I’m so thankful I was able to meet with these local professionals, and even more grateful for the opportunity to go on this sabbatical. While I enjoyed some tourist sites, an experience like this made my trip memorable.

Veronica Flores is a senior planner in the Legislative Affairs Section, San Francisco Planning Department, and the elected administrative director of Northern Section, where she has served on the board in various capacities since 2016. She holds a master of urban planning from San Jose State University and a B.A. in sociology from UC Berkeley.

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Meet a local planner: Zachary Dahl, AICP

Meet a local planner: Zachary Dahl, AICP

Image of Zachary Dahl

Born and raised in the small northern California town of Fort Bragg, Zachary Dahl, AICP, had a passion and interest in urban planning from a young age. He is currently the Deputy Community Development Director at the City of San Mateo, CA. Dahl has over 20 years of public and private experience in planning. His previous roles include planning and building director with the Town of Los Altos Hills and planning services manager with the City of Los Altos. He holds a bachelor’s degree in city and regional planning from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. Dahl was active in APA leadership roles at both the state and national levels and he helped organize the first student planning conference at San Jose State in 2003. Dahl now volunteers to support ULI’s Urban Plan, an educational program for high school students that opens them to concepts and ideas of planning, development, and economics.

What motivated you to pursue a career in planning?

My grandfather was a civil engineer, my great uncle was the visionary architect Charles Moore, and my parents are an artist, contractor, and photographer. All of them fueled my passion for and interest in urban planning. I didn’t actually know about city planning but was very interested in attending Cal Poly San Luis Obispo to study either architecture or engineering. I loved bridges and thought maybe I could be an engineer who would one day design another Golden Gate Bridge!

My grandfather was a strong role model. I loved visiting his office and seeing photos on his wall of the buildings his company had built, including Hartford’s General Hospital. I never got to meet my uncle Charles Moore who passed away when I was 11. But I’d heard so much about him, read his books, and visited his buildings. One of his buildings, Sea Ranch Condominium #1, is still in the family. I love visiting there; you can feel his presence in that building.

I came across urban planning while going through Cal Poly’s course book and fell in love with the profession.

Tell us more about your involvement with APA

At Cal Poly, I joined the Associated Students in Planning (ASP) through the city and regional planning department. Through ASP, I became aware of APA and got involved with the local Central Coast Section. Later, I was nominated as Cal Poly’s Student Representative on the Central Coast Section Board for my final years of college. As a student rep, I attended my first national APA conference in New Orleans in 2001 — an amazing experience. I also connected with the Student Representative Council (SRC) and was nominated as the Region VI Representative. The 2002 conference in Chicago left me disappointed with APA’s effort to involve students. The few student-focused activities felt like APA didn’t really care about supporting students — their future members. Student discounts and registration assistance were minimal, and many fees were the same as for professionals.

After the conference, I raised these issues and concerns with my connections at APA. A number of people in APA’s leadership responded, and I was subsequently appointed to APA’s election reform task force. I believe the task force planted some serious seeds, because it now seems that APA is doing a better job of engaging and supporting students.

What was it like to serve on national’s election reform task force?

I had lobbied to be on the APA’s membership task force, as this was at the core of the issues I raised and cared about, so it felt a little like tokenism to be appointed to the election reform task force. But it was a positive experience. I got to meet with other planners from around the country and work with them to improve APA’s election processes. Still, when you’re a student in a room with seasoned professionals, it’s hard to find your voice. I was just a planning student with probably half-baked ideas. But, along with several other students on the SRC who kind of rattled the cage, I like to think we pushed APA to invest more effort into its student membership.

And you also helped organize the first student planning conference?

After graduation, I moved to Santa Cruz and got plugged in with the Northern Section of APA California. I had a friend at San Jose State (my predecessor on the SRC Council), who was on the Northern Section Board. We were both passionate about planning and politics, and had lots of big ideas about how we were going to effect change. Both of us felt that the APA could do better for students, which resulted in the idea of having a student-focused planning conference.

The conference came about mainly through a group of SJSU students in their urban planning program. My SRC predecessor was one of the leaders, and we collaborated to put together a day-long conference. It included a mobile workshop, speaker panels, and a keynote speaker. All things considered, we students did a pretty good job. I have to give credit to Hing Wong, FAICP, and the Northern Section Board, who provided our group with a grant to cover conference expenses. Students who attended paid only a small admission fee, $5 or so.

You switched from private to public sector. When and why?

I might have stayed in the private sector longer. I was exposed to projects and did things that probably were way above my pay grade and my experience level at the time, but in 2007 I began to worry about where the economy was going. Obviously, I didn’t foresee the crash, but it felt like something bad was going to happen. I was looking at my company’s workload and thinking about our vulnerability if the economy cooled. Our projects depended on development, and a drop in project volume would put me at risk. I had wanted to gain some experience in the public sector, which I saw as stable; so I made the switch.

I feel every professional should spend time on both sides of the counter, experiencing the planning profession through different lenses. As a professional, you benefit when you’re able to think about something through both of those lenses.

What planning challenges are you are coming across in San Mateo?

The biggest challenges are in housing and the way the regulatory landscape is shifting. It’s a shift we won’t fully see until the dust settles (if it ever does). Local jurisdictions have to implement within the framework of all the State legislative requirements that are coming out. It’s kind of like the legislature is saying, here you go, figure it out, we don’t have all the details, but don’t get it wrong or you could be exposed to a legal challenge from the State, a developer, or an advocacy group.

Tell us more about ULI “UrbanPlan” and your involvement

It is an engaging educational program for juniors and seniors in high school, plugged into the economics or government curriculum. Students, grouped into development teams, are tasked with responding to an RFP from a city to redevelop a large parcel of land in an urban context. The students use large Legos to develop a 3D mixed-use development and strategically place parks, commercial, office, and residential uses. The exercise touches on many things we do as planners, like dealing with neighborhood opposition, financial constraints, and jobs/housing targets.


Image of facilitator with students in 2015
Teacher Wendy Holm talks to students during UrbanPlan Facilitation Day at Boston Latin School in Boston, Massachusetts, on Wednesday, January 14, 2015. Photo: ULI UrbanPlan

There are two facilitations where volunteers coach the student teams and help them think comprehensively about the RFP and build the model. Then my colleagues and I volunteer as a faux city council where the student teams present their proposed development, and we select the group that put together the best proposal. At the end, we provide all of the groups with feedback, and the students get to ask questions about the work we do. It’s a really fun and rewarding experience.

How do you balance work and life?

It’s always a challenge to keep up with the demands of work without letting it take over. My non-work time is focused on my family as my wife and I raise our two sons, ages seven and four. That is so rewarding and fulfilling, and as they grow up, I get to enjoy more activities with them. Just the other week, I took them to their first Giants game. When I do have spare time, I enjoy the outdoors, gardening, hiking, carpentry, golf, and traveling.

Any advice for budding planners?

Don’t try to climb the career ladder too quickly. There’s a lot of value to spending time at each rung, and it will hurt a lot more going down than climbing up. If you climb too fast, you may get in over your head, setting yourself up to fail.

Also, build your professional network, and never be afraid to reach out to someone. Fostering connections is important, and your network will help you build and broaden your outlook. If there’s a planner who intrigues you, reach out and say, hey, can we get coffee and talk about the work you are doing?


Interviewer Dhawal Kataria, AICP, is a transportation planner at Kittelson & Associates and a guest writer for Northern News. All interviews are edited.

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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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50 years of BART: Inside the original BART cars

50 years of BART: Inside the original BART cars

BART News, June 10, 2022. Republished with permission.

In celebration of its 50th Anniversary on September 11, 2022, BART looks back at the transit system’s five decades of service and innovation in a new series of stories.

Upholstered seats, gold plush carpet, tinted picture windows — the original BART cars were the epitome of stylish design and comfort.

“It felt like you were in a den or library,” said Jay Bolcik, the former BART Manager of Schedules and Service Planning and a rail historian at the Prelinger Library in San Francisco.

The interior of the original BART cars.

Manufactured by the aerospace company Rohr in Chula Vista, California in the late 1960s, the interiors of the original BART cars express that classic 1960s aesthetic with faux wood paneling and sponge-padded wool carpet which one newspaper described “gold-greenish.” The 22-inch-wide seats, another newspaper wrote, were “comparable to those in the most luxurious automobile or jet airliner.”

The need to best automobiles was ever-present. BART’s early planners and designers were tasked with luring Bay Area residents away from their private vehicles and introducing them to the wonders — and convenience — of mass transit.

“The inside of the cars was designed to meet or exceed the comfort of your car,” Bolcik said. “The goal being that as motorists are in traffic, the BART train with its passengers zips by at 70 or even 80 miles per hour, flashing past them. In other words, BART was just as comfortable as a car, but faster, and someone else was doing the driving.”

Unlike many automobiles at the time, the BART cars were also air-conditioned, and every rider was promised a comfy seat on which to sit. The cars contained 72 seats apiece; some seats were later removed to make room for wheelchairs and bicycles. They did not initially contain grab bars or hanging straps, as later trains did. The cars were also insulated and “very quiet” — in stark contrast to the older subway cars found on the East Coast, Bolcik said.

“They were trying to set a new standard and not look like a traditional subway,” Bolcik said. “What doesn’t look like a subway? Big windows, carpeting, good lighting, and comfortable, wide seats.”

At the time of BART’s opening, in 1972, the transit agency serviced about 100,000 riders a week, meaning the initial design was viable. The story changed as ridership rose over the next few decades. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, BART served upwards of 400,000 people each day.

The Rohr-manufactured cars had to be redesigned to accommodate the increasing number of customers — more standing room and fewer seats equals more passengers in a car — and to contend with the wear and tear that accompanied the additional riders.

Tragedy also spurred change. The initial seats were made of vinyl fabric over polyurethane stuffing. The latter material proved to be highly flammable, despite having been treated with flame retardant.

On January 17, 1979, an electrical fire erupted on a San Francisco-bound seven-car train in the Transbay Tube. Though all passengers and BART personnel were safely evacuated by a passing train, firefighter William Elliott died while attempting to extinguish the fire.

In response to the incident, BART worked with California Public Utilities Commission, to identify and reduce hazards, spurring a fire-hardening program that lasted into the 1980s. BART officials conducted extensive testing and research to improve safety. The tests determined that the polyurethane seats had to go. They were switched for spring-padded seats.

“The interiors of all the original cars were redone to improve safety,” Bolcik said. “The effort gave the cars that ‘new car feel’ as it welcomed passengers back.”

The cloth seats did not stand the test of time — and proved to be a vector for grub, grime, and especially gum. In 2014, BART spent $1.9 million to replace the old cloth seats with easy-to-clean vinyl seats.

“Cleaning the wool seats required sending them out for dry cleaning,” a BART press release from 2015 explained. “BART spent about $6,000 on dry cleaning each month. The new vinyl seats are nice and clean after a wipe down with an inexpensive antibacterial wipe.”

Starting in 2008, the carpet went, too, and BART’s bluish-gray carpeting — an artifact of the 1990s — made way for easy-to-clean vinyl flooring. Before the change, the carpet required frequent deodorization and machine scrubbing.

The vinyl seats that replaced BART’s wool seats.

By the early 2010s, it became clear that BART needed new cars entirely to make way for significant improvements in propulsion, communications, and fault monitoring.

They’re also designed with maximum cleanliness and capacity in mind. (Read more about the Fleet of the Future and find answers to frequently asked questions at

“The whole concept of the new cars was flexibility,” said John Garnham, BART’s Group Manager of the Rail Vehicle Capital Program. “For the next 40 years, we can change the interior configuration to match the demand and preferences of the commuting public.”

According to Garnham, the seat configuration in the new cars can easily “be rearranged and changed.” Seats can be taken out, put back in, and positioned to meet the needs of riders, whether it’s a New York-style subway configuration, with seats on the perimeter, or “lounge-style seating,” in which the seats form a sort of L shape.

A look inside a Fleet of the Future car.

To Bolcik, there’s something “sleek” about the old, Space Age-era cars.

“They made incredibly elegant decisions that balanced design with engineering,” he said.

This rendering, courtesy Hernandez-Eli Architecture, depicts a legacy BART car transformed into a short-term rental and residence.

Fortunately for rail historians like Bolcik, a handful of BART’s legacy cars will be preserved. Earlier this year, BART announced eight groups who will receive decommissioned cars to transform them into everything from vintage arcades and bike sheds to bars and short-term rentals. There will also be a BART History Center at the Western Railway Museum in Rio Vista CA with preserved cars.

The legacy cars have served BART riders for five decades, and with BART’s repurposing program, they will continue to serve Bay Area residents — albeit in a different capacity — for years to come.

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When you have to forget everything you know about Planning

When you have to forget everything you know about Planning

Creating a Sustainable Urban Development Plan for the Greater Banjul Area, The Gambia

By Holly Pearson, AICP

I remember the precise moment I realized I had to unlearn all my expertise, everything I thought was the right way to approach an urban planning exercise. It was about two months into my contract as a senior urban planning analyst with the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS), working with a team of planners and engineers to synthesize background research and stakeholder input into a comprehensive plan for the Greater Banjul Area (GBA), capital city region of The Gambia in West Africa. I had been hired for the project based on my years of experience with comprehensive planning in the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as a few international planning projects I had worked on in Latin America with Ecocity Builders.

Map base: Google maps

In October 2021, I was on an official UN mission to the Banjul area. The Gambia, which carves out from Senegal a narrow sliver of land following the boundaries of the Gambia River watershed, has a current population of just over 2.5 million — roughly equivalent to the combined population of San Francisco and Alameda Counties. The capital city region, consisting of the municipalities of Banjul, Kanifing, and Brikama, plus a handful of smaller communities and villages, is home to 55 percent of the country’s population.

Like many African city-regions, the GBA is urbanizing rapidly, and much of the development is informal and unplanned. The goal of our UNOPS project was to prepare a sustainable urban development plan for the GBA that addressed the numerous challenges facing the region. These include major land use conflicts between the Port of Banjul and the adjacent urban core of the capital city, poor infrastructure, unregulated development, insufficient housing supply, informal settlements, loss of agricultural and open space lands, environmental degradation, and local climate change impacts.

My epiphany occurred during a stakeholder workshop with officials from national and local governments, the Port, tribal leaders, utility companies, and other key groups. I had prepared my part of our presentation on the existing draft policy framework for the GBA Development Plan, which included a point about strengthening both the process and regulatory context for review of proposed new development projects and the capacity of the local governments to carry out these reviews. My UNOPS colleague, Talía Rangil Escribano, who had been based in The Gambia working on the project for a little over a year, pulled me aside. “It’s not the local governments that issue approvals for development projects,” she whispered. “It’s DPPH,” the Department of Physical Planning and Housing.

UNOPS’ Talía Rangil Escribano, second from left, with Holly Pearson, AICP, center, at a strategic issues workshop. Photo ©UNOPS

I looked back at my slides, thinking on my feet about how I could quickly edit my presentation. DPPH is a division of the national Ministry of Lands and Regional Government. I suddenly felt a bit embarrassed about my error and my lack of familiarity with the structure and roles of government entities in The Gambia. But that moment didn’t just prompt a literal step back to think about how to revise my talk for that day’s workshop — it also prompted a big metaphorical step back from all my knowledge, all my assumptions, all my biases — formed by my education and my work experience in the wealthy, powerful, and orderly countries of North America. It suddenly hit me with the force of a Gambian monsoon storm — I didn’t really understand anything about how things worked in this small West African nation.

I am no stranger to unfamiliar political contexts or rough conditions in less developed parts of the world. My passion for travel and cross-cultural experience has taken me to some three dozen countries on six continents. Yet somehow none of my previous international travel, study, or work experience had quite prepared me for The Gambia. Known as the “Smiling Coast of Africa,” The Gambia is rustic, friendly, and rich in its culture and biodiversity. It is considered a low-income country, ranking number 172 out of 189 countries worldwide in terms of the UN Human Development Index. My brief time there was profoundly eye-opening in many respects.

I had already read the statistics as part of the preparatory work for the development plan: nearly 27 percent of households in the GBA do not have piped water and nearly 32 percent lack proper sanitation service. Yet during a day-long reconnaissance tour around the GBA with my UN colleagues, I was surprised and fascinated by what I observed. Outside of the old capital city of Banjul, most of the roads in this region of 1.4 million people (except for the major highways) are unpaved.

Image of Brikama Nyambai Road
Brikama Nyambai Road, July 2019. Photo: Kreuzberger, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikipedia

My visit coincided with the end of the rainy season, and in the city of Brikama (pop. 731,000 in 2013) and other parts of the southern end of the GBA, many city streets lack drainage infrastructure and were inundated with water. Bicycles, tuk-tuks, taxis, donkey carts, and pedestrians crisscrossed through the muddy water. Outside the Brikama branch office of the DPPH, a small herd of goats grazed the overgrown vegetation next to a heap of abandoned, rusted, old cars. At a small home-based childcare facility on the outskirts of Brikama where we made a brief stop, there was no running water.

In the heart of old Banjul, next to the massive seaport, warehousing and logistics facilities have encroached into residential areas, and freight trucks lined the city streets — there were no apparent rules or regulations for truck parking. Along the main north-south commercial thoroughfare that connects Banjul, Kanifing (pop. 323,000 in 2003), and Brikama, informal businesses encroach into the public right-of-way, competing for space with pedestrians and traffic. The main form of ‘public’ transportation is privately owned vans and minibuses that circulate through the city picking up and dropping off passengers. The “system” is highly efficient but completely unregulated, with no safety standards and no checks or authorizations required for vehicles or drivers. The region’s sole formal solid waste disposal facility, the Bakoteh landfill, is located in the heart of Kanifing, surrounded by residences, and bordering a large creek.

During my stay in The Gambia, I was told an amusing story by our UNOPS programme director, Agathe, about a discussion she had with a potential donor agency from the European Union. Agathe is a French urban planner with experience in several countries who aptly describes herself as a “planner for unplanned places.” The EU donor group had approached her about their interest in investing in a bus rapid transit system for the GBA — a flashy project featuring the newest, greenest, transportation technology. “I just had to turn my head aside slightly and laugh,” Agathe recalled. “I told them, ‘Perhaps you don’t realize that most of the roads aren’t even paved.’”

For me, that anecdote about the well-intentioned yet misguided EU donors came to embody what often happens when planners, engineers, economists, and other professionals from the Global North engage in urban sustainability work in the Global South. Once I humbly admitted to myself that I didn’t really understand anything about how to plan a city in The Gambia, I began relying heavily on the expertise and advice of my two Gambian counterparts, my planning team colleagues Felicia and Madiba. I asked them endless questions: What government entity is responsible for this? What is the procedure to accomplish such and such? What is the legal context in The Gambia for XYZ? They answered my questions and pointed me to relevant legislation, which I studied in exhaustive detail. And then I went back to Felicia and Madiba, puzzled: “So I read through the regulations for development control that are on the books. Why aren’t they enforced?”

That was the one question that no one could answer.

Image of IT training certificates for Mariama Jobe and Elizabeth Gomez-Talia
UNOPS’ Talía Rangil Escribano, right, with community members Mariama Jobe and Elizabeth Gomez, who completed IT training under UNOPS’ Greater Banjul 2040 project. Photo ©UNOPS

Back in the United States, I sought advice from an old friend who worked for many years with the US Agency for International Development, promoting democracy and governance initiatives in post-conflict places like Rwanda and Afghanistan. “Tye,” I said, “I want to write the policy chapter of this plan to be very simple — not to try to take on every challenge, but just to facilitate the government authorities really moving the needle on a few of the most critical issues. But how do I write a plan and an implementation strategy that they will follow and use, given the government’s inertia and the entrenched practice of weak enforcement?” Tye nodded with understanding, then offered, “What if you didn’t try to figure out how to change the public institutions and practices to be more effective, but rather used as your starting point the assumption that things aren’t going to work as intended? That the government systems won’t be strong and efficient?”

Tye’s suggestion set me into motion to fundamentally rethink my approach to the GBA development plan. Chaos, informality, and lawlessness were not likely going away anytime soon. My job was to figure out how to get those dynamics to work in favor of sustainable outcomes instead of against them. I realized the need to simplify the plan’s approach and build on things that are already working in the GBA (no matter how confusing and disorderly they might seem to my “first-world planner” mind).

In March 2022, my UNOPS colleagues and I delivered the final Greater Banjul Area 2040 Development Plan to the Gambian Ministry of Lands and Regional Government for formal adoption, along with a roadmap for implementation of the plan. As our team wrapped up the project and reported on its outcomes to our funder, the African Development Bank, I felt proud of what we had accomplished and cautiously hopeful about the future of the GBA region. Most of all, I was profoundly aware and appreciative of how the experience of planning for a West African city had shifted my professional perspective and opened my worldview.

Holly Pearson, AICP, is an independent planning consultant working on international initiatives and projects in northern California. From 2007 through 2015, she was a planner for the cities of Oakland and San Francisco, and from 2014 through 2021, she worked for Ecocity Builders and Michael Baker International.

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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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When the Valley of Heart’s Delight started to become Silicon Valley

When the Valley of Heart’s Delight started to become Silicon Valley

By Don Weden, June 8, 2022

I recently ran across a publication titled “Planning Progress 1956,” published by the Santa Clara County Planning Department, Karl J. Belser, Director. It provides a brief snapshot of the Santa Clara Valley in 1956, as the “Valley of Heart’s Delight” (as it was then widely known) was making way for what eventually became known as “Silicon Valley.”

“Planning Progress 1956” provides a contemporaneous view of some of the changes that were occurring in the county at that time, how the rural agricultural landscape was rapidly being transformed, and conflicting public attitudes about the changes that were occurring.

We are currently experiencing a similarly transformative change in the Santa Clara Valley’s physical landscape as it is rapidly evolving from a predominantly suburban place to an urban/suburban hybrid — with many taller and denser developments rising throughout the Valley, within the lower density suburban landscape that surrounds them.

I found the similarities between 1956 and today so striking that I extracted a portion of “Planning Progress 1956” below and added the section titles.

Change is all around

Santa Clara County carried on a brisk “business as usual” during extensive alterations of its landscape from 1954 to 1956. Hammer in hand, the county went noisily about the job of transforming itself from a rural to a metropolitan community.

Bulldozers leveled orchards for thousands of homesites. The steel webbing of new factories spread over former hay fields. Acres of asphalt marked the parking areas of new suburban shopping centers. Service stations sprang up like mushrooms along our major thoroughfares. Fleets of ready-mix trucks disgorged concrete into the foundation forms of every kind of building — in every part of the county.

New industries

New industry was the catalyst in this brew of rapid change. One hundred thirty-four new plants have located in Santa Clara County in the past five years, giving employment to 10,762 workers.

One of the largest of these, the new Ford Plant in Milpitas, opened its doors on May 17, 1955, and began turning out 540 new cars a day. Thirty-five other industries settled in the county in 1954, spending $14.5 million in capital outlay [$156.6 million today]. Eighty-nine established industries spent $5.5 million to expand their facilities [$59.4 million today]. Twenty-six of the nation’s 500 largest industrial firms had established plants in Santa Clara County by 1955.

Three new industries, with plans to employ from 3,000 to 5,000 workers, announced their intention to build plants in Santa Clara County in 1956. They were an International Business Machines research and development center [well south of San Jose], a Lockheed guided missiles plant near Moffett Field, and a General Motors automobile assembly plant near Sunnyvale.

Basic industries can engender a total population equal to seven times the number of factory workers. These three industries, therefore, could bring 63,000 to 105,000 new people into the county.

Rapid population growth

Combined with the attractions of a mild climate and pleasant living conditions, these new employment opportunities promise a dynamic rise in county population.

Population estimates by the California Taxpayers’ Association of 403,900 for January 1, 1955, and of 456,800 for 1956 indicate that the county gained 52,900 people in a single year — enough to populate a city of the size of Palo Alto, with over 10,000 people left over.

This rate of increase, averaging 4,400 people a month, was the highest of the nine-county bay area.

A year ago, we spoke of 2,000 people coming to the county each month. Now we must adjust our thinking to the consequences of an influx of over twice that many.

Whereas we had talked of a million people by 1990, it now seems probable that the million mark will be reached by 1970. [It was.]

Mixed Public Attitudes

Old residents view the county’s frenzied growth with mixed emotions.

Some see this growth as “progress,” a condition implying speculative opportunity or reflected economic benefits.

The farmer views with alarm the disappearance of the county’s farmlands under the onslaught of urbanization.

The suburbanite sees his “country living” threatened by the spread of the solid city.

Some people are inclined to welcome newcomers to the valley, remembering their own delight in its attractions.

Others fear the blighting effects of smog and traffic congestion, which come with concentrations of people.

Some are glad for the boom in the building industry.

Others look at our sprawling rubber stamp subdivisions and wonder if these are “the slums of tomorrow.”

Some hail the increase in assessed valuation brought by new investment.

Others are staggered by the prospects of increased taxes for new schools, larger capacity sewers, flood control works, parks and recreation, and other public services.

[End of excerpt from “Planning Progress 1956”]

Interestingly, analogues of the mixed public attitudes of 1956 about the transformations that were occurring can be found within today’s residents of the Valley. Without the transformation that began back then, most of us might not be living or working in Santa Clara County today — and our local and national economies might not have evolved as they did.

Don Weden retired as Principal Planner, Comprehensive Planning, in 2003 after 34 years with the Santa Clara County Planning Office. In 2013, he was inducted into the Planner Emeritus Network of the California Chapter of the American Planning Association. He holds a master’s in city and regional planning from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and a BA in political science from the University of Minnesota. You can reach him at

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What a Planning grad student learned at NPC22

What a Planning grad student learned at NPC22

By Snow Zhu, UC Berkeley, May 23, 2022

After two years of virtual conferences, planners from around the country descended on San Diego earlier this month for the national APA conference. I was one of the lucky attendees — and especially excited, as I had never been to an APA conference. With my first year of planning graduate school nearly completed, I was eager to learn and connect with others in the field. Below are a few standouts from the many interesting panels and events offered.

Image of UC Berkeley planning graduate students
UC Berkeley planning graduate students Whitney Francis, Joann Martinez, and Snow Zhu at the San Diego Convention Center. Photo: Snow Zhu

Policy and programs towards an inclusive economy

In this panel, representatives from the City of Brooklyn Park, a northern suburb of Minneapolis, described several case studies on equitable economic development. The presentation began with two goals: 1) to share strategies for economic inclusion and 2) to start conversations about racial equity and inclusion in economic development. Breanne B. Rothstein, AICP, the city’s economic development and housing director, described their efforts toward inclusive economic development.

The first portion of the presentation focused on workforce development programs aimed at increasing BIPOC employment in high-demand, high-wage employment in the fields of IT, nursing, and construction. The programs found success by engaging youth (BrookLynk) and leveraging American Rescue Plan Act funds.

The second portion covered the financing process for equitable development. The Economic Development Authority has made efforts to invest in mixed-income and affordable housing projects such as Autumn Ridge, Brook Gardens, and Brook Landings. These projects are funded through tax increment financing, an affordable housing trust fund, and state and federal tax credits. Rothstein noted that the city has a new program to support local aspiring developers and developers of color.

Rothstein also recognized that the city’s efforts would be incomplete without recognizing the need to evaluate their own hiring and procurement processes. She explained that “partnerships with community-based organizations achieve far more robust and impactful engagement results.” For example, a local firm, NEOO Partners, which was also represented on the panel, was selected to manage the second phase of a community engagement process for the 80-acre Brooklyn Center project.

National City “Market on 8th” tour

While deciding what panel to attend next, I saw that the newly formed APA Asian Pacific Islander Interest Group was hosting a tour of Market on 8th, a new public market and community space in National City, California. The 9,000 square-foot market is the first of its kind in the area and that Saturday afternoon, I was feeling curious (and hungry). I emailed the interest group email, and the group chair, Hing Wong, FAICP, kindly replied within minutes that I was more than welcome to join.

Pedro Garcia (left) and Joel Tubao (right) describe the development process for the Market on 8th project. Photo: Michael Tactay
Pedro Garcia (top left) and Joel Tubao (top right) describe the development process for the Market on 8th project. Photo: Michael Tactay

When I got there, people were chatting in a large indoor seating area and enjoying everything from mango sago (a popular Hong Kong dessert) to tacos. I sensed some planning magic in this place and wanted to learn more about how it came to be. First, Joel Tubao, the developer of Market on 8th, described his family’s roots in San Diego’s South Bay and his desire to work collaboratively with the community and the city to create projects like this. For projects that are innovative (and therefore riskier), he credited the city for its proactive planning and development process. For instance, National City had prepared an EIR for the area’s specific plan that expedited the process significantly.

Pedro Garcia, National City’s economic development manager, emphasized that creative solutions are important to making projects like Market on 8th a reality. For instance, the city improved pedestrian crosswalks in the area to make it less of a corridor, and created an environment where a project like Market on 8th would be more likely to succeed.

In my work as an urban economics consultant, a frequent topic is how to incentivize a desired type of development, whether my firm is working with a developer or a city. It was really valuable to hear directly from Tubao and Garcia about their strategies for successful projects.

Less can be more: Data for Affordable ADUs (California)

After attending another housing panel — where I discovered just how different the legal planning framework and policy tools available to planners can be state-to-state — I was relieved to be back in a California-centric landscape. I have heard a lot about ADUs over the years. As an undergraduate researcher at the Center for Community Innovation, I combed through the municipal codes of Bay Area cities for ADU guidelines. And recently at work, I learned that SB13 exempts ADUs smaller than 750 square feet from impact fees.

Now, at the conference, I wanted to learn more about effective codes and programs that have been adopted to support the construction of ADUs. This ADU panel was put together by Lauren Ashley Week, currently pursuing a dual Juris Doctor and Master of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Michigan. The panel featured:

  • David Garcia, Policy Director, UC Berkeley Terner Center for Housing Innovation
  • Darin Ranelletti, Policy Director for Housing Security, City of Oakland
  • Evita Chavez, Associate Initiative Officer, Partnership for the Bay’s Future, San Francisco Foundation
  • William Huang, Housing Director, City of Pasadena

Darin Ranelletti’s presentation on Oakland’s Keys to Equity pilot included a list of community partners that were essential to the creation of the project. Photo: Snow Zhu, Presentation Slide: Darin Ranelletti
Darin Ranelletti’s presentation on Oakland’s Keys to Equity pilot included a list of community partners that were essential to the creation of the project. Photo: Snow Zhu, Presentation Slide: Darin Ranelletti

Ranelletti described Keys to Equity in Oakland. The program “provides design, permitting, construction, and financing services to Oakland homeowners who would like to build an ADU on their property.” The city worked with community partners such as Richmond Neighborhood Housing Services to cater the program to communities of color. Ranelletti explained that cost was not the only barrier to building an ADU for homeowners of color; they also needed the skills of a project manager to navigate the planning, construction, and financing process. He credited the many organizations the city worked with to put together the program, which even in pilot mode, is already proving to be a promising model for other cities wishing to launch a similar program.

A variety of opportunities in Planning

The APA conference emphasized something I had begun realizing in graduate school: planning offers us so many opportunities to work on pressing issues in housing and economic development. I have already reached out to several people I met at the conference, and have come back to school and my workplace with a renewed sense of purpose.

Thank you, APA California Northern Section and Economic & Planning Systems (EPS) for funding my conference attendance. I hope to see everyone again next year!

Image of Snow ZhuSnow Zhu is a city planning graduate student at UC Berkeley and an Associate at Economic & Planning Systems. She has worked with public and private sector clients on a wide range of development, finance, and policy challenges. You can reach her at

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