Saturday, November 4
Proposition 90: No
A sign protesting eminent domain abuse sits in front of an older, single-family house across the street from San Jose's Legacy Fountain Plaza apartments.
I've heard very little public dialogue about Proposition 90--and that's sad. Almost any discussion has focused on the part about its controls on eminent domain abuse, but it's dangerously so much more than that.
A conscious voter wouldn't support a measure with both good and destructive components with the intention of enjoying what little good may result. This is why Proposition 90 is such a bad deal.
The measure has two very notable components. One portion, restricting private property seizures through eminent domain, is a natural response to the great public disapproval over last year's related US Supreme Court decision; meanwhile, tacked onto the measure (which originated outside California--so much for California initiative's populist intentions) is what is effectively a moratorium on instituting simple, everyday land use regulation that allows communities to enjoy planned, orderly development while retaining local character.
If Californians approve Proposition 90, say goodbye not only to eminent domain abuse; watch your community's sense of harmony and quality design--or, alternatively, tax dollars--slip away.
In my work as a municipal planner (and I speak as an individual, not as a representative for my employer), I see how important goals, supported by the community and their elected officials, would be not possible to achieve under the restrictions of Proposition 90. Protection of local agricultural economy and its land supply would be severely hindered by this initiative. Neighborhoods finding a growing need to preserve their character could not appeal to their local officials to set rules on change. A community would have reduced ability to expect large developments to compensate for their impacts on the community, e.g., set aside land for schools and parks or pay fees for infrastructure improvements.
Under Proposition 90, these barriers would all appear unless the local government chooses to pay off a small group of private citizens. In order simply to legislate as it has for years, government would have to redirect its taxpayer funding away from benefits like well-maintained roads, libraries open at convenient hours, etc., and instead send it toward private landowners or developers who demand "compensation" for new, Proposition 90-blessed claims of "economic damage" resulting from beneficial, public-interest regulation American communities have practiced and enjoyed since the dawn of zoning in the 1920s. Whereas now cities and counties can simply tell builders of noisy factories and brightly-lit shopping centers not to locate next to residential neighborhoods, the same action after Proposition 90 would require payment of tax dollars to a few landowners--assuming government doesn't just give up and waive regulations.
And exactly how much compensation could these landowners or developers demand? That would be determined by lawyers--many lawyers--arguing over the true meaning of the Proposition 90's vaguely-written language on "just compensation." Local government has a choice--take part in this expensive game of lawsuits or forgo instituting and enforcing otherwise reasonable regulaton altogether.
Wish to regulate and prevent arising nuisances that threaten local welfare? Wish to see your town not develop into an ugly free-for-all of a mess? Wish to prevent the fragmentation and diminishing of America's most productive farmland?
Vote no on Proposition 90.
Tuesday, April 25
Thank You, Jane Jacobs
Thank you, Jane Jacobs, for teaching us that what makes a city is not "harmonious" homogeneousness, the brand new and very big, and narrowly futuristic thinking, but natural randomness, diverse surprises, small scale, and respect for context and real people.
Thursday, November 10
Never Saw It Coming? Part 2: Bus Rapid Transit
Light rail safety is held to a double standard. In a collision between a light-rail vehicle and an automobile, light rail takes the blame--even when the car driver is at fault.
Now, bus rapid transit gets the same treatment:
San Fernando Valley residents have offered a range of suggestions for improving Orange Line safety - from more flashing red lights to orange "Busway" signs instead of standard blue ones - after an elderly driver, who may have been on a cell phone, ran a red light and crashed into a bus last week. [Los Angeles Daily News, November 9]
Wednesday, November 9
Contra Costa Measures K and P: Acres Gained As Good As Lost
Antioch's Measure K [which passed] would expand the line south of the city to include about 1,000 acres and 1,100 houses, most of them expensive, "executive-style" homes.
. . . . . . . .
Pittsburg voters were favoring Albert Seeno III's proposal [Measure P] to expand the growth boundary around their city by about 1,400 acres, 551 of which could hold up to 1,400 new houses. [Contra Costa Times, November 9]
San Jose and Oakland comfortably fit 10 single-family houses on an acre. San Francisco can fit almost 20 shoulder-to-shoulder, single-family houses on a acre. But residential developers complain eastern Contra Costa County's growth boundaries as drawn are just too stifling--and then gain voters' permission to fill redrawn limits with densities of 2.5 houses per acre or less!
What constrains land supply in Contra Costa--the urban growth boundary or those who waste the land within it?
file under San Francisco Bay Area, Bay Area, Contra Costa County, Pittsburg, Antioch, election, growth management, urban growth boundaries, urban growth boundary, sprawl, housing, development, developers
Monday, November 7
Cupertino's Measure C: Overreactionary
Central San Jose homes with small, economical, and harmless setbacks. Imagine the houses not there, and you get Cupertino's Measure C if San Joseans approved an idential initiative.
Sorry to make a big deal about politics in a jurisdiction where I'm not a citizen--I'm not Senator John McCain--but something strange is happening in Cupertino. Measure C, if approved tomorrow, would forbid building within 35 feet of the street in most areas of the city. Why?
- The Cupertino City Council frequently approves amendments to the General Plan and permits developments which are turning our city into more of an urban center.
- The recent and rapid increase in building heights and densities is significantly changing our small town character and negatively impacting our quality of life.
- Continued rapid growth is also a concern to the people of the city because it would affect the city's ability to provide adequate public facilities to meet the requirements of that growth.
- Sensible growth management, such as is contained in this initiative amendment, will help ensure more responsible growth and help preserve the suburban character of Cupertino.
[from Measure C's full text]
Mandating a huge, permanently unbuilt space in front of new structures is "sensible growth management"? Growth prevention is a more accurate term--and perhaps many residents would like that.
But regional growth will happen, won't it? And where will it go if not to Cupertino (or to another similarly not-in-my-front-yard locale)? Oh, you know, just some other place--they can deal with it.
And how much growth could potentially not occur within Cupertino as a result of this? Looking at housing, a 35-foot setback on a relatively modest, 60-foot-wide lot makes for 2,100 square feet of front yard. Assume a subdivision has 15 such lots. If the 35-foot-setback rule were not in place, this subdivision could include six more parcels of 5,250 square feet each, for a total of 21 residences--40 percent more housing than what would be allowed under Cupertino's proposed rule.
Sure, that might be a selling point in Measure C's favor, given housing's cost to local public funding. But imagine the Bay Area housing market's level of affordability today if we had a full 40 percent more supply. Thus, Measure C is a statement in opposition to housing affordability in the region.
And does any actual significant nexus exist between front setback size and city residents' quality of life? What will a 35-foot setback do that a 15-foot setback won't? Don't forget the rule also applies to most commercial development. Front setbacks are screens between structures and streets; to say that businesses need a screen between their building and the street is to say they shouldn't have customers (who come in off the street).
Hey, other Bay Area cities, don't get any ideas.
At a time when companies all over the valley are looking at ways to redevelop outdated office and industrial space -- often replacing low buildings with taller ones to make better use of the land -- these measures would discourage reinvestment in Cupertino.
And while the region's CEO's are convinced that the No. 1 barrier to job growth here is the lack of affordable housing, these measures would shut it down in Cupertino.
The measures' supporters say worries about affordable housing are bogus because density is unrelated to affordability and because the measures can be overridden with a public vote. Both arguments are true in theory but false in practice.
If 10 single homes are built on an acre of land, each will be more expensive than if 20 condos are built. [Mercury News editorial, October 9]
Saturday, October 29
Do You Take Your Lawn Wasteful or Tacky?
The perfect [artificial lawns] lawns appear to be natural fits for water-short Silicon Valley and California.
``Lawns don't have much place being here in our arid environment,'' said Jerry de la Piedra, senior water conservation specialist for the Santa Clara Valley Water District.
He said the average size of residential turf in the county is about 1,500 square feet and requires about 56,000 gallons of water every year to stay alive. [Mercury News, October 29]
With all this in mind, could it be that the widespread practice of mandating deep setbacks (inevitably covered with lawn) is bad policy? In San Jose, the minimum front setback for the R-1 zoning district (single-family housing) is 25 feet. That's 1,500 square feet on a 60-foot-wide lot, and most of that will typically be lawn or other vegetation requiring regular watering. And, if it's left natural with whichever plants that will take root, it'll be "declared a public nuisance and may be abated, and the cost and expense of such abatement may be collected" (§ 9.12.040).
Why should this and other municipalities require such wasteful water usage of its citizens?
Okay, this water usage is technically not required, since homeowners also have the option of fake grass:
Somewhere she had heard about a new generation of synthetic grasses that looked like the perfect lawn. She and her husband, Steve, were sold at first sight. They've joined over 1,000 other homeowners willing to pay up to $15 a square foot -- $22,500 for the average-size 1,500-square-foot lawn in the county.
. . . . . . . .
``They can't tell the difference from real grass,'' Homan said about her children. ``I don't have to worry about dirt, fertilizers, pesticides and other stuff they could be getting on their skin.''
. . . . . . . .
Not everyone is sold on the plastic grass. Bill Thompson, editor of Architecture Landscape magazine, said the new stuff may work in arid regions but, ``It's a mixed bag because it seals off the soil.''
Without a steady supply of water or sunlight, you can't have worms, insects and moisture underneath -- living systems that hold soil firm, prevent flooding and nourish birds, bees and other animals and plants. Some researchers believe artificial turf belongs only in indoor stadiums already separated from the soil system.
Tuesday, October 18
Carpool-Lane Hybrids Are Still Single-Occupancy (Usually)
Hybrids have made it into the carpool lanes. Lots of additional cars, most of the same size and passenger capacity as conventional cars, and most carrying a single occupant. What do they enjoy that previously only bus riders, vanpoolers, and carpoolers--who per person consume less gas and emit less pollution and who, unlike hybrid drivers, help free space on the pavement--could enjoy?
Jim Gessling has shaved 30 minutes off his afternoon commute from Palo Alto to Walnut Creek. Tim Robertson's drive from downtown San Jose to the Peninsula is 20 minutes faster. And Tammi Hersrud has cut her Hollister-to-Santa Clara trip by at least 15 minutes.
Way to encourage long-distance, solo commuting, state and federal government!
Saturday, October 15
You can't get to the heart of America without the United States Census Bureau.
But Senator Richard Shelby (Alabama Republican) and his Senate Appropriations subcommittee have shrunken its funding. Why? It's just government bloat, I guess (aside from its 1787 mandate in Article I of the US Constitution). So now what?
Census Bureau Director C. Louis Kincannon said in an interview this week that he will have to kill a monthly household survey that is supposed to replace the long form, abandon plans to automate data collection for the 2010 count, scrap a test census in two counties next year, and lay off thousands of employees unless Congress approves the House budget figure.
(Thanks to matt at 1115.org.)
Wednesday, October 12
Taking "High Occupancy" Out of High-Occupancy/Toll Lanes
Initially I didn't like the idea of high-occupancy/toll lanes because I thought they encouraged single-occupancy driving and would crowd the carpoolers out of what had been lanes meant for them, though now I see that they can raise funds for additional express public transit service and would be priced for occasional use, not habitual use. But according to this commentary in the East Bay Business Times, the problem with HOT lanes is the part about high-occupancy vehicles--that is, continuing to allow them at no charge:
The weakness in the current plan is the proposal to exempt car pools from tolls. It is understandable that the authorities are reluctant to eliminate an existing privilege to carpoolers, but retention of this perk has two disadvantages:
* First, as no reliable method has been found to count the occupants of all moving vehicles, enforcement requires that vehicles be stopped if the number of their occupants is in doubt. This is bad for public relations and particularly disruptive on busy roads.
* Second, as more HOVs are allowed toll-free, possibly to be followed by electrically powered vehicles, hybrid vehicles, low polluters, ambulances, fire-engines, police cars and government-owned vehicles, the financial bases of the HOT lanes get weaker. The immediate effect is that tolls required to maintain congestion-free travel become higher on other vehicles than they would otherwise have been. In the long term, as the financial viability of HOT lanes weakens, fewer will be provided.
If exemptions are considered desirable, it would be better to confine them to readily identifiable vehicles such as buses or vanpools, irrespective of the number of occupants.