Blogging Bayport Alameda

June 29, 2015

Break the suburban spell

Filed under: Alameda — Lauren Do @ 6:09 am

Yet another article about the housing crisis in the San Francisco Bay Area, but this one pointing out that the crisis in San Francisco itself has a lot to do with the reluctance of its suburbs to build housing. Featured as one of the quotes is director of legislative and public affairs at MTC (and Alameda resident), Randy Rentschler.  Highlights from the piece:

In the Bay Area, the cities that have shut their doors to housing are the suburban municipalities that contain most of the region’s population. “The smaller communities, in my opinion, need to step up, and I don’t see that happening,” San Francisco planning director John Rahaim says. “There’s such a huge demand in general and that can’t be met just by the big three cities.”

In this part of the country, though, this phenomenon played out with special intensity because of Proposition 13, the 1978 ballot referendum that froze California’s property tax rates. David Dowall, a professor of regional planning at the University of California–Berkeley, was one of the first to observe how the law skewed small-town zoning priorities. “Caught in a fiscal squeeze,” he wrote in 1982, “many towns have stepped up efforts to increase their tax base by attracting more commercial, office, and light industrial development. While attempting to attract economic development, most communities have not concomitantly adjusted their zoning to provide housing for additional employees. Consequently, new employees, particularly those migrating to the region, find it extremely difficult to acquire affordable housing.”

“The three main cities of the Bay Area, while there may be background noise, have made significant and sustained commitments to housing,” says Randy Rentschler, the director of legislation and public affairs at MTC. Elsewhere, progress has been spottier. “There is every incentive not to do it, economically,” he says.

Naturally, some conservatives see Plan Bay Area as part of the broader, Soviet-style plot to urbanize America. “The ultimate vision is to make all neighborhoods more or less alike,” wrote Stanley Kurtz in National Review, “turning traditional cities into ultra-dense Manhattans, while making suburbs look more like cities do now.” In response to this type of criticism, Plan Bay Area bothered to republish the American Planning Association’s factsheet on Agenda 21, a popular conspiracy theory that’s invoked in local land-use meetings to foil schemes for bus lanes and apartment buildings. (Meanwhile: What living environment in human history is more a product of central planning than American suburbia?)

Suburbanites, who always seem to value the freedom to drive more than the freedom to build, can relax. The Bay Area is not being Manhattanized—or even Brooklynized—at any scale. Plan Bay Area is neither radical nor combative. It directs housing and job growth primarily to jurisdictions that want it. Housing advocates have complained that, far from pushing for more balanced, regional urbanization, it concentrates 95 percent of 30-year housing growth in just 15 of the region’s hundred-plus cities.



  1. Good morning all. I was struck with the statement above: “…conservatives see Plan Bay Area as part of the broader, Soviet-style plot to urbanize America.” If this phenomena is a fact, it suggests that the cold war mentality is still in play. When did The Wall come down, 1989? There are real and present dangers that trump what strikes me as a paranoid Soviet-style urbanization plot. Wishing you all well. It was a tremendous week.

    Comment by Gabrielle Dolphin — June 29, 2015 @ 9:29 am

  2. The “plot” to urbanize America and “make all neighborhoods more or less alike” was hatched and implemented quite efficiently 60 years ago when the freeway systems were built and far-flung homogeneous auto-dependent housing developments became possible. Everything has been paved in a frenzy and now everything looks the same. Sorry Stanley Kurtz, just a few decades too late in that assessment.

    Comment by AJ — June 29, 2015 @ 10:36 am

  3. Yeah-that already happened starting in the 50’s with Levittowns in New York and New Jersey and, of course, right here when Utah Contruction Company somehow got permission to fill in a large part of the Bay and build the ticky- tacky South Shore. The real issue now is If any community can hold off more ticky- tacky stuff like In-In–Out “fake” bell tower and giant gas station signs surrounded by closely crowded identical housing.

    Comment by Breathless — June 29, 2015 @ 1:20 pm

  4. The trend towards architectural and structural uniformity (“houses…made of ticky-tacky”…and they all look just the same”), is an unfortunate result of the bean-counting MBAs who increasingly inhabit and control the corporate executive suites of both commercial and residential housing builders who construct urban skyscrapers, single-family suburban cookie-cutter homes, and every apartment, condo. townhouse, and multifamily housing type in between.

    San Francisco’s skyline is full of more-or-less identical glass-walled buildings of increasing similarity and darkness of color, as one trip westward on the Bay Bridge will attest. (Take the bus to better observe the construction.)

    Bayport, Marina Cove, California Heritage Bay, and the new residences at Alameda Landing are also boring, uniform, and unexciting “cookie-cutter” homes produced with more of an eye towards cost than the visual and community benefits of architectural diversity: housing density and zoning do not seem to matter to those trying to minimize cost and derive maximum profits. And the same can be said of many all-too-similar apartment buildings along Santa Clara, Central, and Lincoln Avenues that were built in the 1960s – 1970s. Boring and bland is always cheaper to build and replicate–ad nauseum.

    I can only hope that builders like Joe Ernst and Alameda Point Partners as well as others who have not yet produced final plans for the Planning Board can and will inject more visual and architectural diversity into their projects. Yes, this is a costly exercise, but it pays of by making Alameda Point and future Northern Waterfront housing “look like the rest of Alameda”–that is, include far more internal diversity of architectural styles in their projects when building Alameda’s future.

    Comment by Jon Spangler — June 30, 2015 @ 7:45 am

  5. I don’t expect too much revolutionary diversity w/ Site A, but I do remember hearing that each building, or at least each block, will be required to use a different architect, which should help minimize the oppressive sameness you can get with a project this large.

    Comment by BMac — June 30, 2015 @ 11:04 am

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