In a major recent decision, the California Court of Appeal rejected a city’s interpretation of what constitutes an “objective” standard under the Housing Accountability Act (HAA), Government Code section 65589.5, and upheld the constitutionality of the law and amendments that strengthened it. The opinion in California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund v. City of San Mateo reinforces and upholds significant limitations imposed by the HAA on local consideration of housing development applications.
The HAA tightly restricts a local government’s ability to disapprove a proposed housing development that “complies with applicable, objective general plan, zoning, and subdivision standards and criteria, including design review standards.” In 2017, the California Legislature passed the first of several packages of bills designed to increase housing supply by, among other approaches, strengthening the HAA. One of the 2017 bills bolstered the HAA’s objective standards restriction by adding subdivision (f)(4) to Government Code section 65589.5. This subdivision provides that a housing development project is deemed to comply with an applicable standard if “substantial evidence … would allow a reasonable person to conclude” that it does.
In California Renters, the City of San Mateo (City) denied an application to construct a four-story, ten-unit multifamily residential building. The court first concluded that the City’s denial of the project failed to comply with the HAA. The court then considered and rejected arguments that subdivision (f)(4) was unconstitutional and, in the process, held that the HAA, as a whole, did not impermissibly infringe on charter cities’ rights to control their own municipal affairs.
Compliance with “objective” standards
In denying the development application, the City made findings that the project failed to comply with adopted design guidelines. Yet the court determined that the relevant guidelines were not objective standards under the HAA due to their ambiguous language and lack of specificity, and, therefore, could not support disapproval of the housing project.
The guidelines provided that “a transition or step in height is necessary” if the height of adjacent buildings varies by more than one story. According to the City, a two-story differential between the proposed structure and adjacent single-family dwellings required a “stepback” in building height to comply with the guidelines.
The court determined that objective standards under the HAA do not include those that require “personal interpretation” or “subjective judgment,” and the court held that these design guidelines failed this test. The guidelines were unclear, the court determined, as to whether a stepback in height was required or, alternatively, if a “transition” in height provided by the project’s large trees and trellises could be sufficient. Further, to the extent the guidelines required a stepback in height, they failed to specify how extensive that stepback must be.
Constitutionality of the HAA
The court next upheld the constitutionality of the HAA against three arguments raised by the City. In its most significant ruling, the court disagreed with the City that the HAA and its amendments infringed on the City’s right to “home rule,” or control of its own municipal affairs as a charter city. Citing legislative findings and the HAA’s express purpose of ameliorating the housing crisis, the court concluded that the HAA “patently addresses a matter of statewide concern”—increasing the state’s housing supply. Further, the court held, the HAA is “narrowly tailored” to avoid unnecessary interference in local governance. While the HAA limits local agencies’ ability to reject new housing based on subjective criteria, the law leaves them free to establish compliant objective policies and development standards to meet local needs.
The court also rejected the City’s contentions that subdivision (f)(4) of the HAA unconstitutionally delegates municipal functions and violates the due process rights of neighboring landowners. The court reasoned that the new statutory provision does not cede municipal authority to private persons, nor does it prevent neighbors from having a meaningful opportunity to be heard.
For the second time this year, the Court of Appeal both has rejected a charter city’s interpretation of a key state housing law and has upheld the law’s constitutionality against a “home rule” challenge. The California Renters court echoed the reasoning the court adopted in April when it upheld Senate Bill 35 streamlining against similar challenges. Together, the decisions demonstrate a continued recognition by the courts that all local governments must comply with state housing law.
 California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund v. City of San Mateo, Nos. A159320, A159658 (1st Dist. Sept. 10, 2021).
Alan Murphy is a partner with Perkins Coie LLP, San Francisco. His practice focuses on land use and development, including environmental review. Murphy secures and defends land use entitlements and counsels clients in preparing development applications. He has significant experience with general plan and zoning interpretation and amendments, use permits, variances, development agreements, the Density Bonus Law, the Housing Accountability Act, SB 35 streamlining, other state housing legislation, and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Murphy holds a JD from Yale Law School and a BA in political science from Stanford University. You can reach him at AMurphy@perkinscoie.com.
Angela Luh focuses on environmental and energy law, with experience drafting legal memoranda on energy regulations and permitting requirements. She holds a JD from UC Berkeley School of Law and a BA in international studies/political science from UC San Diego. Luh is not yet admitted to practice law. You can reach her at ALuh@perkinscoie.com.
ReX — the proposal for a Bay Area Regional Express Transit Network — was introduced in a previous article here. Many have asked what design principles guided ReX in its initial development. This article focuses on 10 of those principles.
1. Re-purpose existing infrastructure where feasible
ReX was designed to use the region’s existing and proposed Express Lanes — a smart use of existing freeway lanes, particularly in high transit-flow corridors. In other cases, arterial right of way would be repurposed to support express services and feeders. The right express network can increase freeway person capacity.
2. Create or integrate with community hubs
In an area as large as the Bay Area, it’s difficult to create an express network that gives everyone a single-seat ride to most major destinations. But “hubs” can facilitate transfers to surrounding destinations of regional importance: just choose the hub closest to your destination.
Transfers at ReX hubs would be super-easy, as express and many feeder services will use the same passenger platforms. But these should be more than transportation hubs. They will also be community hubs, featuring significant public space, eateries, gardens, water features, passenger and intermodal facilities, and a range of parking for cars, bicycles, scooters, and microvehicles. Food courts especially would serve even people not arriving by transit. The more central the hub to the life of the community, the more successful it will be as a transportation center.
ReX anticipates approximately 30 hubs (and 62 smaller express stations) serving 17 ReX Express routes. An additional 62 “ReXlink” feeders will connect the Hubs with surrounding destinations.
3. Strengthen the Bay Area’s transit agencies
ReX was designed to channel resources toward local and regional agencies to support operations, maximize ridership, reduce operating costs, and improve transit safety and usefulness. It was not designed to compete with the region’s many transit providers or detract from their financing. Rather, ReX strengthens partner agencies by providing transitways and station facilities that speed up access, alighting, and boarding while increasing ridership and lowering operating costs.
ReX will also serve its partners by co-branding local transit routes that meet ReX operating standards irrespective of who is the operator.
4. Improve equity on the transportation network
Express transit in particular is increasingly being asked to improve system equity. ReX was designed to radically improve access from Communities of Concern to the broadest range of regional employment, commercial, and recreational opportunities, doubling the number of such communities served by effective transit. Several hubs are proposed in or near such communities to create additional opportunities to bring services, shopping, and gathering and green spaces closer.
5. Systematically cover the region’s destinations
ReX was designed to systematically cover the region’s many destinations, particularly those with the greatest concentrations of jobs and/or residents. ReX does this through a smart network rather than a corridor-by-corridor approach.
6. Make transit as seamless as possible
ReX was developed in consultation with Seamless Bay Area, a Bay Area local advocacy group. To simplify travel by transit toward seamlessness —
Both express and “ReXlink” feeders stop at the same platforms within ReX hubs; passengers don’t need to exit the station.
ReX directly serves most of the region’s most important transit centers, facilitating connections.
Co-branding and a smart map help potential users navigate the system.
7. Build the right infrastructure
While ReX takes advantage of existing and proposed freeway express lanes, it also proposes its own connective infrastructure designed to get transit vehicles from the freeway to stations without getting bogged down in traffic, having to wait at traffic signals, or make sharp turns. Market research is clear that potential users value being out of traffic.
The faster and more direct a route, the cheaper it is to operate. With many bus operating costs exceeding $180/hour, every minute in delay at a traffic signal costs the taxpayer $3. With hundreds of buses and hours of delay, the cost is considerable.
Infrastructure must also be provided in locations with the greatest demand, so ReX infrastructure is proposed for locations that already have a BART tunnel, for example, as there is still considerable opportunity to increase transit ridership to/from downtown Oakland, San Francisco, Berkeley, and San Jose.
Depending on the cost model used, ReX proposes $18 or so billion in infrastructure, including hubs, stations, and transitways.
8. Expand hub catchment areas
ReX express routes are supported by a large network of specially designed feeders — “ReXlink” routes. These follow a different route design philosophy from traditional bus routes.
“City bus” routes typically are planned to optimize coverage, giving transit access to more areas. They feature closely spaced bus stops, and riders are expected to wait by the side of the road for their vehicle.
ReXlink routes instead use —
Direct Connectors that link a hub with a nearby destination (like a college or medical center/hospital) with non-stop (or very limited stop) service.
Loops that are one-way, very short routes. These high-frequency services offer minimal wait time and significantly lower operating costs.
Hybrid BRT routes that may behave like BRT on one corridor, but then access a freeway, serve a hub, and continue down another corridor.
Hybrid Loops that are also Direct Connectors with a short loop at the end.
9. Design for civic importance
ReX cannot be implemented with duct tape. As the region’s express transit network, it needs to reflect its civic importance through quality design and materials so that any resident of the Bay Are should feel proud of the system and happy to use it.
10. Build-in the “Three Protections”
ReX is designed to provide riders with the Three Protections they seek: protection from the elements, from moving vehicles, and from other people.
Protection from the elements means stations must be designed to minimize exposure to sun, wind, and rain. Protection from moving vehicles means passengers wait behind sliding glass doors. And protection from other people is a function of space, lighting, sightlines, and activity, all of which are specified for stations and hubs.
ReX is an ambitious plan for the Bay Area, but the principles that guided its development apply to any region seeking to raise transit’s profile and utility. It creates a win-win for transit providers as it moves toward a seamless, integrated system for getting around the region easily and quickly.
Alan Hoffmanheads the Center for Advanced Urban Visioning. He consulted to the SFCTA on transit planning for the Bayshore community and developed TransForm’s Bay Area Regional Express Transit Proposal (ReX) for MTC. Hoffman holds an MS in planning from MIT, a master’s in administration, planning, and social policy from Harvard, and a BA in social relations from Cornell. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Oscar Perry Abello, Next City, August 24, 2021.
Every Tuesday and Thursday, from 4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., Nakia Woods has a meeting to help plan for the future of Oakland.
Woods is the program director at HOPE Collaborative — the acronym stands for “Health for Oakland’s People and Environment.” Those are the regular meeting times for the group’s Youth Action Board, which for the past 10 years has brought together Oaklanders aged 14 to 24 from disinvested and marginalized neighborhoods across the Bay Area city.
“Houseless folks, queer folks, folks of color, young people, folks that are differently abled, there’s this misconception that these folks don’t really care about the general plan or city planning process,” says Woods.
Woods recently witnessed Youth Action Board members and other marginalized groups coming together around planning for the future of their neighborhoods. HOPE Collaborative was one of 12 community-based organizations that partnered with the city to lead the East Oakland Neighborhoods Initiative.
From November 2018 to June 2019, the East Oakland Neighborhoods Initiative organized a series of 20 meetings in six neighborhoods across what’s known as “Deep East Oakland” — all historically working-class, predominantly Black and brown neighborhoods that have born the brunt of earlier city planning decisions that have kept them in the path of toxic fumes, water contamination, and other pollution. The results were a laundry list of 89 projects and policies residents would like to see funded and implemented, as well as closer connections between all 12 participating organizations.
Oakland now has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to call upon networks and conversations like those, all across the city and not just in Deep East Oakland, as the Oakland planning bureau begins the process of updating the city’s General Plan. It’s a document that guides city zoning and land-use decisions and capital investments for the next few decades. The general plan determines what can be built where, shaping almost every aspect of a city’s built environment. Oakland’s current general plan was adopted back in 1998, though parts of it were updated in 2013.
HOPE Collaborative and more than 30 other Oakland community-based groups joined forces to submit “The Oakland People’s Plan,” a joint proposal in response to the city’s RFP in search of an outside consulting group to lead the General Plan update process. The collective, cobbled together in just a few weeks, was one of three finalists to deliver a detailed presentation to city planning staff in July. It’s almost certainly the only one with cartoons.
“Honestly it was a little bit overwhelming, learning about what the general plan is, learning about the possibilities of what could happen, learning about the implications of a general plan that is not equitable,” says Woods. “But business as usual has not worked for us. Business as usual really to me means non-authentic engagement or engagement only with people who are already at the table and involved with city processes and don’t understand the complexities that Oakland residents face, don’t understand racial equity, don’t understand gentrification, and having to move out of a city some have called home for generations.”
The Oakland People’s Plan promises to be different. In a typical arrangement, the city would hire a consulting firm with planning experience to lead the process, and then that firm might subcontract community groups to facilitate community engagement. Instead, under the Oakland People’s Plan, 30 groups propose to lead the process as a collective, with private sector planning firms subcontracted to serve as technical advisors for the collective of community groups.
Each community group would establish their own processes to surface ideas from residents, in partnership with others as needed, while also working with technical advisors to translate those ideas into planning and policy language. And community groups would get fair compensation for all that work, which often goes unpaid or underpaid as subcontractors. In fact, under the current Oakland People’s Plan, every person or organization would get paid the same amount — $60.76 per hour, an amount that covers the hourly living wage for 1 adult supporting 1 child in Alameda County, plus 25 percent for overhead.
And rather than coming up with a plan that states exactly what the city will do over the next few decades (which the city of Oakland asked for in its request for proposals), as a final product the Oakland People’s Plan proposes to produce a “minimum viable plan” that satisfies the legal requirements of a general plan in California while establishing and leaving open stronger avenues for residents to surface ideas that the city can implement over time.
“We’re trying to hold our ground by not defining the entire process upfront or acting like it’s our job to do that,” says Janelle Orsi, staff attorney and co-founder at the Sustainable Economies Law Center, which helped convene the collective starting in May. “What we’re defining instead is a participatory process we’re going to facilitate, giving a lot of examples on how it might play out. We’re treating the budget more like a menu that we could all order off of, as opposed to a budget of exactly what we’re going to do.”
If the city of Oakland chooses the Oakland People’s Plan, it’ll be a stark departure from how comprehensive plans often get made.
Even urban planning schools don’t always teach the history of how and why general plans or comprehensive plans became a common practice among cities. An article in the February 1996 issue of the “Land Use Law & Zoning Digest” tells the story of how future President Herbert Hoover, as Secretary of Commerce in the early 1920s, used the department’s resources to encourage local governments to take up the power of zoning and land-use policy.
Hoover believed that cities needed to take charge of regulating land use to protect home values from the threats of pollution and overcrowding (never mind that cities also once tried to segregate Black people using some of the earliest zoning laws). His department drafted model legislation for states to adopt that would delegate and protect local governments’ powers over zoning and planning.
Released in 1922, the committee’s third draft of the “standard state zoning enabling act” first contains the phrase, “such zoning regulations shall be made in accordance with a comprehensive plan.” The draft did not define what a comprehensive plan was, though it did explain in a footnote that its purpose was to “prevent haphazard or piecemeal zoning.” What the model legislation drafts did was to encourage a very technocrat-oriented process, keeping it out of the hands of politicians who were seen as less trustworthy at the time.
By 1935, according to the article, more than 35 states had adopted legislation for zoning or planning based on standard drafts from Hoover’s advisory committee on zoning. Not every state passed the same exact legislation. Some passed legislation requiring cities to create a comprehensive plan or master plan that would underlie zoning ordinances, others didn’t. New York City, famously (or infamously), has a 3,300-page zoning resolution [PDF, 131 MB] but does not have a comprehensive plan.
California’s Government Code Section 65300 requires counties and cities in the state to create a general plan and to update it every so often. Failure to do so can result in cities losing out on state funding for housing, economic development, transportation, and other infrastructure needs. Section 65302 outlines required general plan elements for chartered cities in California, of which there are currently 86 — including Oakland.
The last time Oakland updated its general plan was in 1998, but it took a four-year process to get to that point. At the time, Iris Starr was the Oakland planning bureau’s strategic planning manager overseeing the process.
“Now when I look back, at the time I was really naive,” says Starr, who is now retired but still living in Oakland. “I’d been fully indoctrinated in the ways of city planning and zoning. I had no understanding of who was really being left out, or why, and how critical that was.”
At the start of the process, the city contracted the services of a private firm to do the bulk of the drafting work. “It was a big firm and well-regarded in planning circles at the time, but the firm was all white,” Starr says, a big contrast from Oakland’s population at the time, only 23.5 percent white non-Hispanic.
The city also established a 33-member “General Plan Congress,” mostly political insiders appointed by the mayor and city council members. According to Starr, for the next four years, the General Plan Congress and the consulting firm would often spend daytime hours hashing out bits and pieces of the plan. Meanwhile, it was left to city planning staff to go out and gather input from community members, often on evenings and weekends.
“And the communities I went to were largely middle class, largely white, and very interested in this idea of the general plan either because it was going to support growth and development or restrict growth and development,” says Starr. “When I think back, the intention really was to push every potentially bad outcome down to what we called the Flatlands.”
The Flatlands encompasses both West Oakland and Deep East Oakland, so named for their lower-lying, flatter landscape next to the waterfront with its heavy industrial and port infrastructure. During World War II, these areas became home to a huge influx of Black migrants from the South, who left as part of the Great Migration in search of job opportunities tied to the war mobilization.
As Black families moved in, white families were encouraged to take government-supported mortgages and buy homes elsewhere in exclusively-white neighborhoods, including up in “The Hills” — the part of Oakland that is further inland, higher up and away from pollution and port congestion, and today both wealthier and predominantly white. The General Plan came to limit development in the Hills while encouraging development elsewhere in Oakland.
“The  General Plan really became a plan about where we were going to let developers go wild,” says Starr.
Oakland released its RFP for a lead or “prime” consultant for its general plan update in May of this year. During a May 11 virtual meeting to kick things off, attendees representing various community groups raised concerns about whether there was sufficient time and space for genuine community engagement or even community leadership. The initial deadline to submit a response to the city’s RFP for a lead consultant was only two weeks after that meeting.
City planners encouraged community groups represented in the kickoff meeting to reach out to potential lead consultants — the large firms with strong reputations and extensive track records in urban planning — to establish relationships as potential subcontractors that could take the lead on community engagement in certain neighborhoods or to certain communities. It was even suggested that community groups establish such relationships with more than one consulting firm.
But multiple community group representatives argued during the kickoff meeting that two weeks was not nearly enough time to meet with firms they’d never met before and build the level of trust required for them to sign dotted lines on MOUs or subcontracting agreements with private sector planning firms.
But the Oakland People’s Plan collective doesn’t want the community engagement lead. It wants the prime consulting contract for the general plan update.
“What it felt like to us is they were on a path to that point to hire a for-profit planning firm, and then at some point after the city and the planning firm had defined the whole process, get some nonprofit to organize some other nonprofits to get input or feedback,” Orsi says.
Challenges with general plan processes in California are well known, from exorbitant costs to challenges finding and accessing relevant data. In 2017, the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research updated its general plan guidelines [PDF, 7.3 MB], a sort of user-manual for how to go through the process in a more streamlined and hopefully less costly fashion, while also incorporating state priorities like environmental justice and climate change mitigation. The release was coupled with a new data-mapping tool designed specifically to help California cities update general plans. As of 2015, more than half of California cities had a general plan that was more than 15 years, according to the guidelines.
The Oakland People’s Plan collective knew they still needed planning chops on their proposal. And they wanted consultants and experts who would be willing to be a subcontractor to them instead of the other way around. Turns out, those experts were not that hard to find. Some of the experts signing on with the collective as potential subcontractors are Marquita Price, known as the “Hood Planner,” who helped lead the East Oakland Neighborhoods Initiative as the director of urban and regional planning for the East Oakland Collective; Rincon Consultants, offering experience in California’s environmental review process; and also Farallon Strategies, whose founder and president Michael McCormick, AICP, was one of the principal co-authors of California’s 2017 general plan guidelines.
“I feel kind of hopeful and scared, skeptical that the city will accept something new,” says Starr. “Why would the city want to give up power? The department heads, city administrators, I don’t know what would compel them to do the right thing. The weight of white supremacy is just so much and so deep, people talk about equity but they don’t have a deep understanding of what that means.”
“It would be a lot of work, years of work, then years of work with the zoning to implement the plan,” Starr says. “It doesn’t end for anybody, but it never starts for people on the margins.”
[Ed. note. As of September 27, a month since this article was written, the process has moved along. Toward “a comprehensive, collaborative, accessible, inclusive, and equity-driven public engagement approach,” the City will be engaging two consulting teams. One team, comprising nine firms, will provide general plan technical services. A second team, comprising 11 Oakland-based community organizations, will provide community consulting engagement services. This approach, together with the recommendations of two selection committees, will be considered at the Oakland City Council on October 5. See the Oakland Legistar calendar and stay tuned.]
This article was originally published on August 24 in Next City’s The Bottom Line, a series exploring scalable solutions for problems related to affordability, inclusive economic growth, and access to capital. Republished with permission. Iris Starr, who is quoted liberally in the article, was an AICP member of APA California Northern until 2011. She worked for the City of Oakland for eight years in strategic planning (1991-1999) and 10 years in transportation planning (2008-2018). Starr holds an MCRP and an M.Arch from UC Berkeley.
Oscar Perry Abello, who has been with Next City for six years, is their senior economics correspondent. He was Next City’s editor from 2018-2019. Since 2011, Abello has covered community development finance, community banking, impact investing, economic development, housing, and more for various media outlets, including Fast Company.
Jennifer Fierman, AICP, is Principal Planning Strategist at Swiftly, Inc., a transit data platform to improve transit system performance, service reliability, and real-time passenger information. Her prior roles include senior planner and office manager at Alta Planning + Design, senior transportation planner as a contractor at Facebook, transportation project manager for the Miami Downtown Development Authority, and transportation planning manager at Marlin Engineering. She began her career at the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), where she worked in several planning roles for over nine years. A 2016 award from the Broward Metropolitan Planning Organization (Fort Lauderdale) recognized her excellence and leadership as the first FDOT Complete Streets Coordinator in the state.
What has been the focus of your professional practice?
Equitable access to transportation has been at the core of my entire career. My expertise is in planning for safe, connected, multi-modal networks that enhance mobility.
You’ve been in the Bay Area three years. What are your observations about planning here?
While working on a study for a rail corridor project, I learned a lot about Bay Area politics and how challenging it can be to implement transportation plans when there are so many agencies with limited geographic reach. It can be a little overwhelming to try to get all the right people to the table.
What can be done to answer this challenge?
I’ve been in many conversations with stakeholders at the community level. I heard, over and over, that transportation does not end at political boundaries, and solutions must be regional, yet we still need to answer the persistent question of how to deal with the “first mile and last mile” of the transit puzzle. A number of projects are trying to answer those questions by focusing on destinations and working toward a more efficient and integrated system.
How does your current role build on your prior experiences?
My first job was roadway data technician at FDOT. That grew over the years into leadership roles committed to creating safer spaces for all transportation choices, not just cars. Now, 15 years later, my role is to make timely and accurate transit data available to everyone, but particularly transit agencies.
How can we reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT)?
The way people get around can’t be neatly compartmentalized into two generic categories of either public transit or driving. Strategies to remove VMT must consider the continuing emergence of micro-mobility — ride shares, scooters, bike share, etc. Transit agencies are shifting to include flexible, on-demand vehicles and networks. New modes are cropping up faster than government can deal with them. All of this complicates the rollout of any new evaluations of transportation impacts.
Regarding micro-mobility, what do you say about “don’t regulate it”?
One can argue that, if it’s working, it doesn’t need to be regulated. Many public entities are trying to formulate policies that support these new modes. But to keep policy development from getting stymied by data privacy issues, communities and agencies need to understand and act on data and privacy in ways that weren’t considered before we had micro-mobility. The flip side is how do we manage the public spaces and the physical infrastructure needed to support these new modes? There is only a finite amount of public right-of-way. How can we prioritize what goes into that limited space in a way that makes sense and is equitable?
How are you feeling about stepping away from public sector employment?
I’m still actively linked to public agency planning. It is essential for private sector tech to understand how public projects are identified, funded, and prioritized. I bring that experience and perspective. I have the privilege of working alongside software and data experts, advising them on what features a planner would like and need to make sound decisions.
How would you advise planners looking to move to the tech or private sector?
Planning skills are transferrable everywhere. Start networking, plain and simple. Look for a mentor who is doing work that interests you. I found my positions at Facebook and Swiftly through resources such as LinkedIn and the Women’s Transportation Seminar (WTS), a national organization with chapters all over the country.
As a planner looking to transfer your skills, you have to take risks. It may seem counterintuitive, but if you want to find unique job opportunities, step out of your comfort zone and out of your usual way of doing things.
What do you see for planning in the post-pandemic world?
Throughout 2020, I worked as a consultant, and the mindset was one of pushing forward and looking ahead to long-term outcomes. In my new role, I help agencies think incrementally, equipping them with information so they can make timely decisions to continually adapt in this uncertain time. Transit ridership patterns are changing, and public agencies are under pressure to deliver effective service. The challenge is that the pace is quicker and there’s less time for problem-solving. Planners must be proactive and come up with solutions that are useful now.
All this may be uncomfortable, but if you are going to influence positive change, this is the time to step up.
Interviewer Catarina Kidd, AICP, is senior development manager at FivePoint and a guest writer for Northern News. All interviews are edited.
The City of Cresent City, California, recently adopted an economic development strategic action plan, more commonly known as the Economic Cookbook. Unlike other documents of its kind, this plan is designed to be used as a cookbook, with the projects as “recipes.” The projects can be “prepared” independently of one another as the desire or opportunity arises. If the City finds that it has the right “ingredients” to tackle one of these projects and if the City Council determines that the project is a priority, then City staff can follow the step-by-step instructions to prepare the project for the community to enjoy.
Cresent City, located almost at the very northern edge of California in Del Norte County, started out like many towns in the State with the discovery of gold — in this case, along the nearby Trinity River. A great migration of miners and entrepreneurs soon followed and Crescent City was born. Gold fever did not last long, though, and soon miners were pulling out of the area. As the gold rush declined, the lumber industry grew and became the economic backbone of the northern coast for close to a century. As successful as it was, lumber production in the region peaked in the 1950s and has been declining ever since.
Disaster hit in 1964 when the Good Friday earthquake in Anchorage, Alaska, triggered a tsunami that inundated a large portion of the city, destroying 29 city blocks and hundreds of buildings. The community attempted to quickly rebuild downtown but did not enforce a standard downtown urban grid development pattern.
Before the tsunami, most of downtown Crescent City was developed in late Victorian style with two and three-story buildings abutting the sidewalk, with ground floor storefronts and upper floor residential units. In the years following the tsunami, many downtown blocks were rebuilt to resemble suburban highway strip malls, with large parking lots separating the sidewalks from one-story buildings at the back of lots. No major developments have occurred in the downtown area since, and the city remains much the same as it was in the late 1960s, with a car-centric design and an abundance of strip malls.
Over the years, the fishing industry, supported by Crescent City’s harbor, government institutions, and tourism, has provided the economic base to get by and survive. But according to City Manager Eric Wier, “the potential for economic development has always been here … but we haven’t lived up to the full potential yet.”
In an effort to jump-start economic activity in the area and revitalize downtown, the City applied for and was awarded funding through the US Department of Housing and Urban Development Community Development Block Grant program to create an economic development strategic action plan; the Cookbook.
Economic development plans are a common way for cities to identify a vision and develop strategies to achieve that vision. These plans are great tools to help guide staff in drafting policies and programs to promote growth and prosperity for the city. Yet the plans often are left untouched because they lack instructions for implementation. The Cookbook was designed to solve the dilemma by providing clear, step-by-step instructions on how to implement projects.
Each economic strategy in the Cookbook is designed like a recipe that can be printed on both sides of a single sheet of paper and given to a staff member, business owner, or other interested persons to help guide economic development in the city. On that paper are the necessary ingredients (such as people, marketing materials, or permits), the time required to complete the recipe, the estimated budget, and the directions.
The most important recipe in the Cookbook is the first: “Give Away This Plan!” It is also the simplest and one of the least expensive as it only requires three ingredients: an email, a photocopier, and a local copy shop. The idea is to spread these recipes far and wide to attract as much attention as possible to pique the interest of potential partners and entrepreneurs. City staff, council members, business owners, and the public are encouraged to make copies of any recipes they want and share them with anyone who is interested.
Using this format, the City and its consultants prepared over 80 recipes to promote economic development in the city and the surrounding region. The recipes cover tourism, marketing, implementing the Beachfront Park Master Plan, recruiting niche manufacturing, developing partnerships, and so much more.
To come up with so many ideas for the Cookbook, a meaningful and wide-reaching public input process was conducted involving representatives from many sectors and the general public. Three separate technical advisory committee meetings were held with representatives from Crescent City, Del Norte County, Crescent City Harbor District, Elk Valley Rancheria, and more. A public survey, made available online to gather community input on what is wanted and needed for a thriving city, was vital in developing the ideas that inspired each recipe in the Cookbook.
While there is no certainty that the Cookbook will help Crescent City achieve its full potential, it provides a springboard for long-term economic development that can help the city prosper and thrive long into the future.
Krystle Heaney, AICP, is as an Associate Planner with Planwest Partners in Arcata, the prime consultant on the plan. Before joining the firm in spring 2019, she was a natural resources analyst with EN2 Resources in Placerville. Heaney is a Certified California Naturalist and holds a BA in geography from Cal State University–Sacramento. You can read her recent Northern News article, “Small Towns take planning big,” in the February 2021 issue of Northern News.