Author: Richard Davis

Drought: Marin, Saudi crown prince eyeing same desalination plants

By Will Houston, Marin Independent Journal, September 20, 2021

“The Marin Municipal Water District, which might deplete its reservoirs by next summer if the drought continues, had considered renting two portable desalination plants for nearly $30 million from Osmoflo, an Australian company. Last week, the district staff said a third plant has become available and that purchasing them might be less expensive than renting.

“However, [Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman] wants the same plants for his controversial, futuristic megacity of Neom on the Red Sea, according to Paul Sellier, the water district’s operations director. […]

“Desalination is still the district’s secondary option to prevent it from running out of water as soon as July. The district has prioritized a proposed 8-mile water pipeline across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge that would pump in water purchased from agricultural producers in the Sacramento Valley.

“The proposed pipeline project would require the district’s board to make significant investment decisions in the coming weeks. One is a $20 million decision on Oct. 19 on whether to begin pre-purchasing pipe and other construction materials.

“The desalination option has raised concerns, especially about environmental impacts. Desalination uses four times as much power than the district’s potable water treatment system, according to the district’s previous environmental analysis. […]

“ ‘We have to look at the best of the not-great options and it does seem that the pipeline is really still by far the best option here,’ said Larry Minikes, a Marin Conservation League board member.”

Read the full article here. (~4 min.)

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SF piloting tiny cabins for homeless people as a cost-effective alternative to tents

By Kevin Fagan, San Francisco Chronicle, September 20, 2021

“[Two parking lots near City Hall] have been used since December as a city-sanctioned ‘safe sleeping village,’ holding 44 tents for unhoused people while they get counseling aimed at routing them into permanent homes. Those tents will be replaced by late fall with 70 tiny homes, dubbed cabins, similar to those already in use for years in Oakland, the Peninsula, and San Jose.

“The cabins are a pilot program, and this test is just the latest technique the city is trying in light of the spike in homelessness during the pandemic. […]

“In San Francisco, building housing units from the ground up costs hundreds of thousands of dollars per unit. Group shelters typically cost more than $40,000 per bed to build. LifeMoves’ tiny houses cost $10,000 per unit.

“San Francisco had always been resistant to installing tiny homes rather than group shelters because of the severe shortage of open, unused space in the city. But the pandemic forced officials to be more flexible, and sheltering people in outdoor tents was found to be safer than placing them in confined, indoor congregate shelters.

“Given that the city will be working this year with more money than it has ever devoted to homelessness, the pressure will be on to show results.

“Several people who work or live in the area seemed to embrace the cabin idea, citing the lack of trouble associated with the tent site.”

Read the full article here. (~5 min.)

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Gov. Newsom abolishes most single-family zoning in California

By Marisa Kendall, East Bay Times, September 17, 2021

“By signing Senate Bill 9 into law, Newsom opened the door for the development of up to four residential units on single-family lots across California. The move follows a growing push by local governments to allow multifamily dwellings in more residential neighborhoods. Berkeley voted to eliminate single-family zoning by Dec. 2022, and San Jose is set to consider the issue next month.

“The crisis has long been a major concern among Bay Area voters — 89 percent said homelessness was an extremely serious or very serious problem when polled in January 2020.

“A study by UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation found that the new law likely would add, at most, fewer than 700,000 housing units across California.

“Newsom on Thursday also signed SB 10, creating a process that lets local governments streamline new multifamily housing projects of up to 10 units built near transit or in urban areas. That new legislation also simplifies zoning requirements under the California Environmental Quality Act, which developers complain can bog down projects for years.

“Newsom also signed SB 8, which extends the Housing Crisis Act of 2019 [through 2030]. The act, which speeds up the approval process for housing projects, curtails local governments’ ability to reduce the number of units allowed on a site, and limits housing application fee hikes. […]”

Read the full article here. (~3 min.)

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San Mateo loses housing ruling with big statewide implications

By Curtis Driscoll, San Mateo Daily Journal, September 14, 2021

“The California Court of Appeals has ruled that the San Mateo City Council did not meet the Housing Accountability Act requirements when it denied a condominium development proposal in 2018, disappointing the city but emboldening housing proponents.

“The Housing Accountability Act limits a city’s ability to reject proposals for housing developments that satisfy general plan and zoning requirements.

“The city had argued its position was defensible legally because the proposed development objectively violated the city’s multifamily design guidelines aimed at smoothing height differences between properties with transitional features, such as setbacks.

CaRLA Executive Director Dylan Casey said the decision sets a precedent that cities and trial courts will follow, and strengthens the Housing Accountability Act. Casey believes the decision will help lead to housing element plans that ensure housing is allowed and approved by cities, even if … controversial.

“He said the decision could also lead to San Mateo revisiting its design review standards for developments to look at more uniform, objective design standards for applicants interested in housing development, a key distinction in the case. […]”

Read the full article here. (~3 min.) Also in this issue: Calif. court upholds limiting local governments’ ability to deny housing developments

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How can the pedestrian malls of the past inform today’s shared streets?

By Stephan Schmidt, Bloomberg CityLab, September 9, 2021

“In the 1960s and 70s, many U.S. cities began experimenting with closing off streets to traffic to stem the tide of urban decline and the fleeing of residents and businesses to the suburbs. In places as geographically diverse as Miami and Rochester and as different in size as New York City and St. Albans, West Virginia, the ‘pedestrian mall’ swept North America (and beyond).

“With colleagues at Cornell University, I analyzed 125 pedestrian malls from this earlier generation of vehicle-restricted street intervention to better understand why some are still with us. The average lifespan of a U.S. pedestrian mall was about two decades, we found in our study (paywall). Just 43 examples are still open.

“We established four key findings.

“Youth matters … The proximity to a university or college and a continuous supply of highly mobile residents paved the way for the long-term success of malls in places like Boulder (University of Colorado) and Burlington (University of Vermont) […]

“Foot traffic is important: Just as the presence of a college provides a very localized source of pedestrian traffic, a destination within walking distance had a similar effect. A pedestrian mall close to a beach — such as Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, which opened in 1965 — was 77 percent more likely to survive than one that was not. […]

“Sprawl kills: We found that there is a direct relationship between successful pedestrian malls and local population density. […]

“Bigger isn’t necessarily better: The length of a pedestrian mall is negatively correlated to lifespan […]

“Even if [city officials] can’t do much about factors like demographics, foot traffic, and density in the short term, they can utilize design interventions to create more desirable pedestrian environments [in permanent, pandemic-inspired shared streets]. These include creating a sense of enclosure and requiring the use of ground-floor windows to increase transparency. Protection from the elements, via awnings or tree cover, also helps, as does providing a variety of seating options. Planners can increase visual appeal by adding planters, vegetation, and unique paving materials like cobblestones. Programmed activities can create a more stimulating pedestrian experience. Coordinating and integrating adjacent land uses (retail in particular) can avoid physical isolation.”

Read the full article here. (~4 min.)

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Over 3,000 acres of East Bay open space to be preserved as state park in $31 million deal

By Joseph Gena, East Bay Times, September 8, 2021

The agreement, which still must be approved by the state Legislature [in the week of September 6], will prevent the property in southeastern Alameda County known by some as ‘Tesla Park’ from becoming an expansion of the Carnegie State Vehicular Recreation Area. The recreation area is a haven for 4-wheel drive and dirt bike riders, as well as backcountry campers.

“The deal could end two decades of debate that led to multiple lawsuits in the last five years as environmentalists fought to preserve the land’s sensitive habitat and off-road advocates pushed for the extra space to ride their vehicles.

“Off-road enthusiasts were dealt a setback in January when a judge ruled that the state’s environmental impact report for the off-road expansion plan was invalid, bolstering the position of groups such as Friends of Tesla Park as well as the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, who wanted the Tesla area preserved.

“[Sen. Steve Glazer’s] office said in a statement that scientists have described the Tesla land as a ‘biologically unique habitat’ and a place long considered a ‘sensitive historical site’ by local Native American groups.

“For now, the state will allocate $1 million to California State Parks to determine and map out the best use of the Tesla land.

“Henry Coe State Park in Santa Clara and Stanislaus counties could be a potential location for the off-road park, according to the bill that will go before legislators specifying the deal.”

Read the full article here. (~4 min.)

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Cupertino again at odds with the state over the SB 35 Vallco project

By Marisa Kendall, Mercury News, September 7, 2021

“At issue is whether a special approval used to green-light Vallco Town Center — which would bring 2,402 residential units, 400,000 square feet of retail, and 1.8 million square feet of office space to suburban Cupertino — will expire this month. The state says it won’t — an opinion the Cupertino officials have dismissed as ‘deeply flawed.’

“The state Department of Housing and Community Development attempted to correct the city’s interpretation of SB 35 earlier this month, stating that because the project had been tied up in litigation, the developer should be granted extra time before its approval expires. [Project developer Sand Hill Property Company] defeated a lawsuit in May 2020 that attempted to derail the project.

“Interim City Manager Greg Larson said the developer has yet to request an extension. In a report to City Council, Larson listed several concerns with the project, including greater soil contamination at the site than previously known, questions about the project’s planned rooftop park, and a disagreement between the city and the developer over $125 million in impact fees.

“Better Cupertino, a group that has been fighting the Vallco project for years, is using the Sept. 21 expiration date as a rallying cry to renew its efforts [to lobby the City Council].

“But [Sand Hill managing director Reed Moulds] expressed hope that with guidance from the state, Cupertino officials will ‘understand and come to terms with their obligations to advance this project.’ ”

Read the full article here. (~3 min.)

[Ed. note: On September 16, Newsom signed AB 1174 clarifying that projects delayed by litigation, such as Vallco Town Center, should receive extensions on approvals.]

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Berkeley seeks objective standards for thorniest aspects of new developments

By Nico Savidge, Berkeleyside, September 5, 2021

“The city already has some objective standards on the books. But, Mayor Jesse Arreguín said, ‘Issues that are often the crux of what is controversial around development in Berkeley, and many cities, are not really clearly defined in the zoning ordinance.’

“Along with City Councilmembers Sophie Hahn, Kate Harrison, and Susan Wengraf, Arreguín is drafting a referral to staff that will come before the City Council at its Sept. 14 meeting, which will recommend contracting with consultant Ben Noble to draft a set of standards — including rules for shadows, views, design, and privacy.

“Those standards will go before the Planning Commission before eventually coming back to the City Council for final approval, a process Arreguín said he wants to wrap up by the end of next year.

“ ‘If you’re a jurisdiction, and you’re trying to preserve your local control, objective design standards are now a really important way you still have control over development,’ [Daniel Saver, assistant director for housing and local planning at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission,] said.

“Although she is working to draft the referral, Hahn said she is skeptical of the need for objective standards. Berkeley’s current approval process appropriately mixes existing standards with the discretion of its zoning board, Hahn contends, and ‘has generally made good decisions that allow developments to go forward.’

“Pointing to regional requirements that Berkeley build 9,000 new housing units over the next decade, Arreguín said this is the city’s chance to accomplish that goal in a way that residents can support.”

Read the full article here. (~4 min.)

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Chinese ghost cities are finally stirring to life

By James Mayger, Lucille Liu, Yujing Liu, Lin Zhu, and Yinan Zhao, Bloomberg News, September 1, 2021

“China’s so-called ghost cities became the subject of Western media fascination a decade ago. Photos showed empty apartment towers in a sea of mud; broad boulevards devoid of cars or people; and over-the-top architectural showpieces.

Max Woodworth, an associate professor of geography at Ohio State University, said, ‘The result is a landscape that appears very city-like but without much action.’ China was under-urbanized for many years, Woodworth says, and raced to correct that. 

In 1978 just 18 percent of its population lived in cities; by last year the figure was 64 percent. More than one-tenth of the world’s population resides in Chinese cities.

“The power of the state gives Chinese cities an initial push toward vitality: government offices and state-owned enterprises are the first to move in. Conference centers, sports stadiums, and museums follow, sometimes with speculative residential development, schools, and a high-speed rail station. 

“The government wants the trend of urban migration to continue, and since Beijing and Shanghai strictly limit the number of fresh arrivals they’ll accept, new population centers have become all the more important.

“It’s hard to say how China’s reputed ghost cities are faring collectively: Government data aren’t publicly available, and independent research is spotty. 

Map of Northern China indicating the cities in the article
Credit: Bloomberg News.

Zhengzhou

“For an example of how well things can go for a ghost city, look to Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province.

“In 2013, 60 Minutes described the place as a ghost town: “new towers with no residents, and vacant subdivisions uninhabited for miles.”

“But today, Zhengdong New District is bustling with life. It started in 2002 and now has 945,000 residents.

“About half of the world’s iPhones are manufactured here at Foxconn. Favorable government policies attracted large pharmaceutical and auto plants. The population of the district grew 27.5 percent from 2019 to 2020, and property prices are up tenfold over the past decade.

“In other words, if you build it, the people will eventually come. When it comes to urbanization, China is playing a very long game.”

Read the full article here.

[Ed. note. A “deluge in the city of Zhengzhou … on July 20, 2021, killing at least 300, … revealed how China’s years of go-go construction had left its cities vulnerable to climate change.” How Record Rain and Officials’ Mistakes Led to Drownings on a Subway, The New York Times, September 25, 2021.]

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San Jose approves strategy to spread out multi-unit affordable housing citywide

By Lloyd Alaban, San Jose Spotlight, August 31, 2021

“The San Jose City Council voted unanimously [on August 31] in favor of a plan that distributes affordable housing development in places near public transit and with upward mobility. City officials promise to come back no later than June 2022 with an update on the results of the policy.

“Mayor Sam Liccardo supports the plan, but has concerns about unintended consequences, including driving up the cost of affordable housing.

“The plan divides San Jose into three categories to prioritize where to build affordable housing based on poverty and crime rates. The policy aims to fund housing in areas with low levels of poverty and crime, as well as affluent areas that currently host a small percentage of affordable homes.

“According to a report on the affordable housing plan, the first category includes neighborhoods ‘associated with upward mobility, educational attainment, physical and mental health and other positive outcomes, especially for children’ such as West and North San Jose. Only 9 percent of the city’s planned or already-built affordable homes are located in these affluent areas.

“Development will mainly focus on the first two categories — what the city calls ‘resource-rich’ areas.

“Though residents worry that increased development will impact their property rates, those claims are unfounded according to the report. A 10-year research study of 122 low-income developments in San Jose showed the value of homes within 2,000 feet of new housing increased at the same rate as homes farther away.”

Read the full article here. (~4 min.)

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