Tag: 2021-10-nn-feature

Meet a local planner: Ruth Cueto

Meet a local planner: Ruth Cueto

Ruth Cueto is a supervising planner with the City of San Jose. She previously served as land use and economic policy advisor in the Office of Mayor Sam Liccardo. Ms. Cueto holds a master’s in urban planning from San Jose State University and a bachelor of arts in political economy from UC Berkeley. She is a member of APA National’s Latinos and Planning Division.

What childhood experiences influenced your views and goals?

In the late 1970s, my parents arrived in Los Angeles from El Salvador and Mexico. I like to say I was born an urbanist. My mom took the bus to give birth in 1980, and I’ve been on transit ever since.

We lived in several downtown LA communities — South Central, Watts, Lynwood. The 1992 LA riots and the devastation in the neighborhood very much live in my memory. I could see it from the bus: liquor stores, burned out shells, and then a few miles away, the landscape is clean with trees and no liquor stores. I could see something was wrong — it was not natural. It always lived with me to figure out how we can improve our built environment.

What’s the hot topic in your professional world?

Housing. Housing. Housing. And within the last three to four years, it has been local control versus state mandates. We’ve never had to read so much legislation, most recently SB 8, SB 9, and SB 10. I was the first planner in San Jose to process a ministerial project (at 2350 Alum Rock Avenue for a 100 percent affordable housing development, approved in 2020) under the streamlined approvals mandated by SB 35 in 2017.

How do you view these new mandates?

My city has been open to developing affordable housing and we’re planning for it. San Jose entitled more than 1,400 affordable units in the last two-and-a-half years using a ministerial approval process — an example that local control is working. On the other hand, many communities have had decades to build in an equitable way and haven’t delivered affordable housing. We all need to understand that the problem is huge and we need results — there has to be another way.

What other priorities do you have currently?

I am overseeing the update of the Housing Element and the ideas embodied in AB 686 (2018). This law requires that public agencies administer their housing and community development programs so as to affirmatively further fair housing and not take any action inconsistent with that obligation. The timing pairs perfectly with rooting out racism in planning and promoting racial justice. Before 2018, we were having internal conversations about fair housing, but now there are real mandates that will make us look at past practices that enabled racist policies.

Tell us about your prior roles.

For 10 years, I worked for the current San Jose mayor when he was a council member. I was a policy advisor and liaison for 13 neighborhoods within the downtown district. That was a wonderful opportunity to build strong relationships. Going from the elected side to traditional planning was an easy transition because I could understand the different perspectives from both the public and private viewpoints.

What are you determined to accomplish in San Jose?

I hope to establish racial equity and an interracial work ethic and to embed equity training. I would like to see the department continue to stand up for progress in this area.

What has been the effect of your volunteer work with APA?

Most recently, I helped in putting together a conference on issues facing the LatinX community within APA National. The group was able to launch an inaugural conference and organize a panel of speakers. It was a great opportunity to connect with influential planners across the US.

Great influencers in your practice?

There is a mentor who helped me find my voice as a woman of color. Her influence built my confidence, reminding me that you are visible when you don’t think you are. People coming up are interested and are watching you — you are an example of the possibilities.

Challenges in your practice?

Starting a Housing Element update during Covid has been daunting. It is much harder to reach people, especially those who don’t normally engage but need to. I’m talking about protected classes, low-income people. Without extra effort, you can have the same Zoom meetings, the same people show up. True engagement will take a variety of methods, including pop-up events, check-ins, and outreach to nonprofits.

Working with the public takes a lot of energy. What are some of your stress management strategies?

Truthfully, I haven’t been great at managing stress, but I am learning. It took a health scare for me to stop and really assess my situation. I’ve been a caretaker all my life and I even felt more productive under stress. But over the years, and through the pandemic, I read about how women pour from an empty cup and never think to replenish it. That analogy for rest and self-care is so true. What I did was disconnect from the constant messages. If you don’t manage them, you will constantly check. So remove the icon, turn off the pings, and give yourself space. Now I am more intentional: Yoga, walks, trying to run my first 5k, doing things I like — reading, cooking, watching Netflix.

How can we influence future planning and the next generation of planners?

The community must see people like themselves at the table.

The challenge for me continues to be what it means to be a planner. I truly feel this next generation is positioned to make tremendous progress. We must encourage young people; their voices are needed.

So, planners of all ages, take advantage of your associations. Maybe it’s APA California or APA National, APA’s Women and Planning Division, or the Urban Land Institute — a good group to offer a different perspective.

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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Does your city allow buildings of 10 or fewer DUs in non-single family zones? Read SB 478.

Does your city allow buildings of 10 or fewer DUs in non-single family zones? Read SB 478.

By Naphtali H. Knox, FAICP, editor

In California planning circles, it seems everyone is focused on how the recently enacted SB 9 (Atkins) and SB 10 (Wiener) might change single-family neighborhoods by allowing lot splits and duplexes on single lots. But SB 9, which applies only to single-family areas, is likely to affect only about 5.4 percent of the state’s 7,500,000 single-family parcels, according to an analysis by The Terner Center. A one-hour webinar on SB 9 is available. See “SB 9: What it says and what it doesn’t” in this issue.

SB 478, authored by State Senator Scott Wiener, has gotten less attention but could have a greater and more immediate impact in some cities. Palo Alto, where I live — and where I served as director of planning and community environment for nine years — is one of those cities, as are neighboring Menlo Park in San Mateo County; Cupertino, Campbell, Monte Sereno, and Los Gatos in Santa Clara County; and Santa Rosa in Sonoma County.

Under SB 478, according to the Legislative Counsel’s Digest, cities and counties may not impose on a “project [to] be located in a multifamily residential zone or a mixed-use zone […] a floor area ratio standard that is less than 1.0 on a housing development project that consists of 3 to 7 units, or less than 1.25 on a housing development project that consists of 8 to 10 units.” Floor area ratio, or FAR, is the measure of a building’s floor area in relation to the square footage of its site.

By January 1, 2022, cities that use these standards must modify their FARs and scrap any minimum lot-size requirements that may have been applied to residential developments of two to 10 units in multifamily or mixed-use zones. Note that “two to 10 units” is a descriptor of “Missing Middle” housing.

An October 15 article in the Palo Alto Weekly states, “Because many of these zones in Palo Alto currently allow a floor area ratio of 0.4 or 0.6, SB 478 would effectively double the density on many lots. [SB 478] impacts most of Palo Alto’s existing mixed-use development standards in commercial districts, according to planning staff. [Principal Planner Sheldon Ah Sing] said that the law is one of several that will require the city to make changes to the local zoning code to ensure compliance. After the council [deals with an] urgency ordinance [making the needed] zoning changes in early December, it anticipates approving permanent ordinances in spring 2022.”

Other cities will also have to deal with SB 478. California YIMBY notes on its website that the “city of Del Mar restricts floor area ratio to 0.35, meaning the building’s total floor [area cannot now exceed] 35 percent of the total lot” area. So “a 2,000 square foot lot would only be allowed to have a duplex that is 700 square feet total — 350 square feet per home.” In Costa Mesa, in areas zoned for two or more units, the minimum lot size is 12,000 sq. ft., while in Loma Linda, a lot zoned for multifamily residential must be 3,600 sq. ft. per dwelling unit, meaning a fourplex would need a 14,400 sq. ft. lot.

On his website, Senator Wiener compares the lifting of FAR and lot size restrictions to allow Missing Middle housing as more permissive than the manner in which “current state law already preempts local FAR regulations from hindering the production of ADUs.” Namely, “when building an ADU, local FAR standards are void.” By contrast, “SB 478 would simply require an FAR of 1.0 on lots zoned for 3-7 units, and an FAR of 1.25 on 8-10 units, rather than completely nullify them, as is the case with ADUs.” Further, SB 478 only applies “in urbanized areas, in multi-family residential or mixed-use zones.”

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SB 9: What it says and what it doesn’t

SB 9: What it says and what it doesn’t

By Naphtali H. Knox, FAICP, editor

One- and two-family houses sit side-by-side in this pre-zoning, pre-1912 neighborhood where I was raised. Credit: Google Street View

Here’s a one-hour webinar recording you won’t want to miss. One of the great things about it is that it breaks neatly at 30 minutes (after the first presentation) so you can — as I did — break for coffee and come back for the second presenter and the Q and A.

This webinar from September 20, 2021, was developed by Joshua Abrams and Kristy Wang of Baird + Driskell Community Planning for the Association of Bay Area Governments, Regional Technical Assistance Program (RHTA). The webinar does not constitute legal advice.

The two presenters (20 minutes each) are Barbara Kautz, FAICP, attorney with Goldfarb & Lipman, followed by David Garcia, policy director at the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley. Kautz developed her presentation from an initial SB 9 analysis by Nazanin Salehi, also an attorney at Goldfarb.

Kautz is a well-known and highly regarded practitioner in the areas of land use (especially housing-related land use). Before becoming an attorney, she worked for 30 years as a planner and planning director, concluding her career as Community Development Director and Assistant City Manager for the City of San Mateo. Garcia leads the Terner Center’s engagement in local, state, and federal housing policy.

Ms. Kautz takes us through the content of SB 9, informing us where there are ambiguities in the legislation. The session explains ministerial two-unit developments and ministerial lot splits. It covers which projects qualify; the criteria that cannot, must be, or may be used by cities and counties; how SB 9 intersects with other laws — all addressed by Kautz. She cautions we can anticipate, “as with all new bills, some shakeout about what some of these provisions mean.” Mr. Garcia covers the projected impacts in jurisdictions across the state. As with the state’s ADU legislation, he notes, “We’re probably in for a couple more rounds of cleanup legislation.”

Be aware that the webinar is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice or opinions regarding specific facts. For more information about SB 9, please contact your own legal counsel.

Video recording. Note: You can save yourself two minutes as Mr. Abrams and Ms. Wang set up the slides: just skip from 3:45 on the recording to 5:45.

Legislative Presentation (23 graphics)

Terner Center Presentation (seven graphics)

Terner Center full analysis.

Wait, there’s more.

As a followup, ABAG’s RHTA is hosting three Question-and-Answer sessions with staff from Goldfarb & Lipman LLP to discuss SB 9 and other new housing legislation. Jurisdictions are welcome to join one or more of the sessions to get answers to your questions — or just to listen in to and learn from other jurisdictions:

Return to Northern News here.

City planning here — and there

City planning here — and there

By Elizabeth “Libby” Tyler, Ph.D., FAICP, October 15, 2021

When Northern News Editor, Naphtali Knox, FAICP, asked me to write an article about the differences between being Community Development Director for 17 years for the City of Urbana (pop. 38,000 and home of the University of Illinois) and my current experience as Community Development Director for the City of San Pablo in the East Bay (pop. 31,000), I thought it would be about the contrasts of working in downstate Illinois versus the planner’s heaven of the East Bay; but I have found more similarities than differences.

First, some background

In 2018, upon retiring from teaching urban planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, my husband, Rob Olshansky, and I decided to move back to the Bay Area. We had met almost 40 years earlier in the Brutalist environs of Wurster Hall where he was getting a master’s degree in city planning and I was down the hall in the Landscape Architecture Department studying environmental planning. We loved our time in Berkeley, which coincided almost exactly with the decade of the 1980s (think go-go times, big hair, big glasses). It was in Berkeley that we welcomed the first of our two sons at Alta Bates Hospital. Rob earned a Ph.D. in environmental planning and worked as an engineering geologist in Contra Costa County. I became an EIR jockey, working throughout northern California, and ended with a fascinating stint as City-University Planner for the City of Berkeley, from 1988 to 1990.

Unfortunately — and to my naïve surprise — when we moved to Urbana, it seemed I left my great career in the Bay Area behind and became instead the dreaded trailing spouse (at the time called “faculty wife”). There simply was not that much professional planning underway in Urbana-Champaign in 1990, and it took several years for me to re-establish myself as a planner there.

The differences

Not surprisingly, it was the community of planners — both at the university and through the Illinois Chapter of APA — that helped me through the transition.

Along West Main Street, Urbana, Illinois. Bottom credit: City of Urbana. Top credit: Google Street View

Looking back at my time in Urbana, it was thrilling to work for a progressive university town as it successfully morphed from a sleepy oasis in the middle of the cornfields into a “micro-urban” environment, and I felt I really had made a difference there. I was involved in all kinds of initiatives — helping to establish a public arts program, overseeing a top-rated farmers’ market, starting a rental registration program for improved tenant safety, initiating the city’s first sustainability efforts, leading the drafting of an award-winning Comprehensive Plan, preparing numerous neighborhood plans, and spearheading transformative affordable housing projects.

But like all good college towns, Urbana was rife with conflict and opinions. I got pretty good at quietly supporting the real community leaders — neighborhood groups, advocates, commissioners, and councilmembers — to help get things done while I shrank from feuding “electeds” and dodged bullets from the worst of the NIMBYs (the most vociferous of whom were from my own neighborhood near the university). Fortunately, such conflicts appear to be safely in my rearview mirror.

Here in the Bay Area, I have a much broader support group of planners and allied professionals to work with and to learn from. In particular, APA California – Northern Section comprises a fantastic group of talented and knowledgeable planners; and serving on the Northern Section Board as Ethics Director has given me a ready-made cohort. Illinois also had a terrific community of planners, but they were an insular bunch, the general public was not as familiar with planning concepts, and we lacked the support of the big statewide and regional planning initiatives that characterize the unique world of California planning. In Illinois, we were free of trying to comprehend and adapt to a patchwork quilt of pre-emptive “one size fits all” state legislation (SB9, here we come), but we were without the support of statewide planning grants and technical support from an HCD (Department of Housing and Community Development) or an OPR (Governor’s Office of Planning and Research).

The biggest difference in planning between where I was and where I am, however, is the economic disparity. The Bay Area is one of the country’s largest economic engines. And while that poses challenges in terms of the cost of living, housing availability, and inequities of all kinds, what we have here is a thriving investment environment with much greater access to markets.

Welcome to San Pablo. Photo LPS.1, Creative Commons CC0 1.0

So, despite the challenges of higher construction costs, CEQA, labor shortages, and loss of redevelopment, we are much more likely to see community plans implemented here in the Bay Area than was the case in lower-key Urbana. While it could take many years to see a housing development take shape in Urbana, in San Pablo I arrived at a moment when developers are looking at the few remaining infill lots for housing and commercial opportunities and homeowners are frantically adding ADUs.

It is a satisfying experience to see these new and mostly affordable housing opportunities being built and occupied by new residents, whereas it could take many years to attract new urban-scale development to Urbana given its tight market and conservative investment environment.

Mural, San Pablo City Hall.


My ap­proach to plan­ning in both com­munities was and is to make things “less bad” than they might other­wise be. In both places, my work ethic has been to en­gage the public, to under­stand and en­hance the genuine charac­ter of the com­munity, and to pro­mote the often-small elements that can add joy and satis­faction to living in a particular place. And in both places, plan­ners are way too busy, short-staffed, inevitably over-stretched, called in for all kinds of issues, and run­ning around like chickens with our heads cut off.

That said, after more than 40 years in the plan­ning pro­fes­sion in Illinois and in California, I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

Elizabeth “Libby” Tyler, Ph.D., FAICP, is Community Development Director at the City of San Pablo. She holds a Ph.D. in regional planning from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an MLA in environmental planning from the University of California, Berkeley, and a BA in environmental conservation from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Tyler serves as Ethics Director on the APA California – Northern Section board and is on the steering committee for PHEAL (Planning for Health, Equity, Advocacy and Leadership). She is Vice-Chair of APA national’s Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee. Tyler is a charter member of APA, having joined in 1978 as a student. She was the first woman in Illinois to be inducted as a Fellow of the American Institute of Certified Planners in 2008.

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